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Podcast: On Embracing Native Culture in Alaska with Danielle Riha

30 Min Read
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Photos: Danielle Riha and a few snapshots of her life in Alaska. In 2008, Danielle moved to Anchorage to help found a charter school.

Join us on the podcast for the season 2 finale of our Teachers in America series. Our guest today is Danielle Riha, a middle school teacher at the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School in Anchorage and one of four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year Award in 2019.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Lish Mitchell: Welcome to the season 2 finale of HMH Learning Moments, a production of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I'm Lish Mitchell, and I work at HMH. Today's episode is a new installment of our Teachers in America series hosted by HMH’s Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris.

Our guest Danielle Riha teaches middle school at the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School in Anchorage. Before moving to the city, she worked on the slime line and taught Indigenous populations in rural Alaska. When she was asked to help start a charter school, she and her colleagues worked with parents and elders in the community in order to design a curriculum that would best suit the students’ needs. Danielle is passionate about equity, Indigenous languages, and culturally relevant lessons that help students engage with their learning. She was the Alaska Teacher of the Year and one of four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year Award in 2019.

This episode was recorded before initial school closures took place in March 2020. Now, here are Noelle and Danielle.

Noelle Morris: So Danielle, I want to talk a little bit about how you got to Alaska. Are you Native Alaskan?

Danielle Riha: No, I'm not Native Alaskan. I was born in Detroit, Michigan and raised mostly in San Antonio, Texas. I got to Alaska in 1995. I decided that I wanted to save some money for graduate school. I knew that you could make a lot of money working in the fishing industry and Alaska, and my best friend and I did a lot of research and found that you could get hired out of Seattle to go work in Alaska.

So, we made our plans, sold everything we owned, packed up, took a road trip, site-seeing all the way there. And then we got to Seattle and were hired to work in the fishing industry in Alaska. And while I was living in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, I was working the slime line.

Noelle: Can you explain slime line?

Danielle: Yeah, absolutely. A slime line the fishing industry, every position that you work is very repetitive and then you work on a line. You might be the head-chopper of the fish, or you might be the person who rips off the crab legs, or you might be the person who pulls out the guts.

So that's the slime line. They call it the slime line because it's very slimy and fishy. So I was working the slime line and EMTing, and I was on the women's basketball team for the city of Alaska Dutch Harbor. And I was playing ball with some kids, and the superintendent came up to me and said, "Hey, aren't you that girl that's looking to save money for school?"

And I said, "Yep, that's me." And he said, "Well, how about you come and substitute teach for me?" And I said, "Uh, no, thank you." It wasn't anything I had ever, ever considered doing.

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Noelle: Real quickly before you finish this story what's the size of the town for a superintendent to see you playing basketball and say, "Are you that girl?"

Danielle: Oh, wow. Probably about 1,000 people year-round lived there. And then depending on the seasons, people would come in and it would go to 3 to 5,000 people because all the processors would come in.

And that was something that was pretty unique too. When I first moved to Alaska, I actually lived in St. Paul, Alaska, which is—there's maybe, maybe a hundred people living there. It's a little bitty 5-mile by 12-mile Island in the middle of the Bering Sea. And I lived on a catcher processor. So the crab fishermen offloaded their crab to our boat. So I was in a floating vessel, and people from all over the world lived there—lived on this boat.

And then the town was just a little Aleutian Island. And the only people that lived there were Aleut people. There was a store that was probably smaller than my classroom, and it had dry goods and just the bare essentials. I couldn't even get Vaseline because my skin was cracking. I had to have my parents send me things.

Noelle: So I'm amazed by that. The fact that you were like, "Nope, I'm not going to substitute teach." But because you were the 2019 Teacher of the Year in Alaska, I feel like your "no," wasn't a no for very long. So let's go back and continue that conversation.

Danielle: So then he told me he would pay me a $100 a day, and I thought, well, I could do that.

And the first day that I was substituting, he kept coming in and checking on me and saying, "Are you okay? Are you doing all right? If you need anything, just call this button. I'll be here in a second." And I thought, well, that's kind of, you know—I feel a little nervous now. Come to find out there were two boys in there that had beaten up substitute teachers.

They had caught the chemistry lab on fire. They had done some pretty crazy things, but we got along really well, and I started subbing more and then I was there every day, so they made me a full-time aid and I got to work with these kids. Because I was studying physical therapy, I also got to do physical therapy with the kids that needed it because the physical therapist was itinerant.

And in rural Alaska, everything's so far apart that services like that—the physical therapist has to fly from village to village to village. And so, he may or she may stay there two or three days and then be gone for a month or two months. So I got to train and do all the physical therapy with one girl in particular who had cerebral palsy.

And she's just an inspirational person. And I loved working with her, and I loved working with the kids. And, of course, I fell in love with Alaska because it's unbelievably beautiful. And everybody just kind of has a great perspective on life. There's not a lot of animosity or racial bias. There is, but not like I've seen in other cities.

Noelle: Once you picked up and you made this decision, you embraced everything about it, to join the basketball team and really embrace the culture and embrace where you were living. Did your friend stay?

Danielle: She did. We've both been here 24 years. She lives in West Villa, Alaska, just outside of Anchorage.

Noelle: Wow, I find all these conversations just kind of serendipitous because right before I was graduating college, I thought, what am I going to do? It's 1992 and what am I going to do? I had just decided to switch my major to English literature. And I remember looking up going to Alaska to work in the canneries and the fishing. And I did not embrace it as much as you did.

So you mentioned that you first started in rural Alaska. And now you're in Anchorage. I'd like to just know a little bit about the specifics. And I know our listeners would like to know, when you talk about rural Alaska, what does that mean? I mean, is it what we hear and think about that you can't really get somewhere that easy?

Danielle: Rural Alaska is unlike rural in the lower 48 states because you can only get to these tiny communities by small aircraft, like six-seater airplane. Or if the river is frozen, it becomes a highway, and you can drive a four wheeler or snow machine there. The life experiences are so different because when I was working with kids, I, I was teaching kids who had never been on an elevator or an escalator—had never ordered food at a restaurant or seen a fast-food joint. I mean, some of the things that we just take for granted or are just a part of what we would think everybody's lifestyle is like, these kids had no idea what that was like. When I first moved to rural Alaska, internet was even just kind of hit or miss. And there were definitely no cell phones.

So, you're out there and you're pretty far away. It's about 24 hours to get to the lower 48 by the different planes, and a lot of the places are in areas where the weather is touch-and-go. You might not get mail for over a month because the planes can't fly in or out. So, it's pretty rural.

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Noelle: Having grown up in Detroit and then raised in Texas, and as you know, a white American, what were some of the first things that you had to learn about some of your Indigenous students and, and how did you embrace that?

Danielle: I have a mix of cultures in my family. I'm Sicilian. I am a little bit African. I have a little bit of everything in me, but if you just look at me, I am just a white looking female.

And one of the things that—or the thing that actually connected me to the Indigenous people were the universal values that cross cultures, cross religion, cross gender and geographic location. And some of those are: show respect to others, each person has a special gift, share what you have, giving makes you richer, know who you are, you're a reflection of your family, accept what life brings to you, you can't control many things. Patience, live carefully, respect and honor your elders, value your education, pray for guidance, and notice the connections—how everything is related. These are all values that were really taught to me as a young person. Don't waste anything.

I can remember growing up and going to my grandparents' house and if we were having chicken soup, that meant anything from the chicken could pop up in that soup. It could be an eyeball, it could be anything, but you ate it because you don't waste anything. And right away, those are the values that I saw and heard elders and family members in these communities teaching these kids. And I thought, those are the same values that I was taught. And I grew up in big cities. And so, even though it was my very first teaching job, I wasn't welcomed and people weren't friendly.

Noelle: So you weren't welcomed. You weren't welcomed because you looked different or there was bias, even on coming from the 48 states and moving in?

Danielle: I knew right away, I wasn't welcome. I was told, “Go home Gussuk.” Gussek is a slang for a white person. It was tough. I mean, people bumped into me and told me, “Go home, Gussuk.” And it was pretty rough. And I thought, this has to come from somewhere. And slowly but surely, I would visit with elders, or there were a couple people who were friendly to me, and I'd ask, “Why are people so negative, and downright rude and harsh?” And I found out that they're used to people not sticking around and not investing in their children, and maybe using that teaching job as a stepping stone to get some experience under their belt and then head out. And I thought about that, and I would be probably distant towards people and not want to make connections with them right away if I knew they were going to invest in me or invest in my town or my kids.

But then it also goes back to—and I found this out a little bit later, but I did my research—and it also goes back to the boarding schools and the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools and the Christian schools where the Indigenous people of Alaska were forced to not speak their language.

They were beaten for speaking their language. They had to dress and change everything about themselves to go to school in their own communities. Or they were taken from their communities as, as young as four and five and sent to boarding schools where they were abused and belittled. And it was a traumatic experience, and people lost their culture, and they lost their ability to become nurturing parents because they didn't grow up in their homes.

And once I learned that history, that became a part of what I did as an educator—I taught kids their history, and I taught them where some of the biases in their own community come from. Then, I would bring it back around to the cultural values and focus on the positives and how to not necessarily move past it, because that history is really important, but how to value that history and use it to thrive.

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Noelle: So, Danielle, I know that that had to require some stamina, some will. Because you're now in Anchorage, and you're one of the initial teachers or founding teachers at your school, tell me a little bit about that journey.

Danielle: So when I was in Dutch Harbor, I decided I wanted to become a teacher after working with Steve Cathers.

So I came to Anchorage, went to UAA [University of Alaska Anchorage], and while I was at UAA, I learned about the rural schools and how you could be immersed in a completely different ethnic group and culture than you've ever experienced. And that was so exciting to me. And so that's why I went out and taught in rural Alaska. And I went with a friend because housing is tight.

They usually have teacher housing, which consists of little portables. And I was in a place where there was running water. And we taught together, and I was so glad I was with somebody because, like I said it was challenging. I mean, I was spat on, people threw rocks at me. It was tough.

But after the first year of living there, people started to accept me. And my dad had always told me if you're going to live someplace, be a community member. That's how I was taught, was to become a part of the community. And so if anybody asks me to do anything, my dad told me, “Never, ever turned down an invitation.”

If somebody invites you, you go because you might not get that invitation again. And I did everything. I steam bathed, they call it Maqi, M-A-Q-I, where you steam bath in the hot room. There's a hot room in a cold room, and it's all a wooden dwelling. And women go in together, you undress in the cool room, and you bring a basin into the hot room, and there's a stove and hot rocks. And you put a bucket of water on top of the hot stove, and it gets the water boiling. And then there's a bucket of cold water, and you take a scooper and you scoop some of both waters to get your temperature. You bring your shampoo and everything in there. You sit on the floor. Naked with all these other women, kids, grandparents, moms.

I bathed with my students, naked. Which I would've never in a million years thought I would do, but I had to be a part of the community. And I feel like that's what really connected me, is I got to hear those values being talked about in the Maqi. And you bathe. You wash and you bathe. Then there's this really rich discussion in there where everybody's talking about personal things and funny things.

And it's just a bunch of women in a bath house, bathing and talking, and that's where I really got connected to the community. And it made me realize that there was a lot more to the village life than there is on the surface and that everybody there's not just mean-spirited human beings.

And in the school, I noticed that the kids didn't connect to the curriculum—the kids couldn't connect to the stories. They couldn't do math problems, word problems that were based on angles from kids skating off of a curb and creating an angle with their skateboard because they'd never seen a curb. You know what I mean?

And so, I started changing those word problems into things happening in their own village—like from the water tank to the ground, we would make angles with that. And we would do science outside. Like when one time, a kid asked me why this fishing game is regulated by how many fish I can catch. I have to subsist for my family.

We don't have stores here. This is how we live. And so with him, we went out and discovered what makes the streams healthy and what makes them decide that the fishing quota can go up based on what animals are living in the riverbeds under the rocks. And we turned up rocks and we pulled out bugs and we did categorization and identification.

My kids were having a real hard time with literature and the elements of literature. So I brought in elders to tell traditional oral stories. Because kids were getting hung up on vocabulary, like a screen door and a curb and just things that they didn't have any life experiences with. And then I also worked with Jerry Lipka and Yup'ik elders on designing math and the cultural curriculum, which is subsistence—things like fishing or building kayaks, different types of boats; what you need to subsist and live off the land.

There's so much math and science in it. And we turned the practices into math and science lessons that were relevant to the students. And so, when they were starting the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School, they had heard of some of my work that I had done.

And I didn't even know that anybody was talking about some of the work. And it wasn't just me. It was Susan Zeek and I. We really did reach out to the community, and we became learners. I think that that was the biggest thing, is that we were learners. I felt like I was learning every single day there. I was learning how to live off the land. I was learning how we are connected as human beings, and they reached out to me—the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School—and asked if I would be willing to move into Anchorage to start the school. And I did. So I got to help write curriculum. We worked with elders in the community. We worked with parents in the community, and we built a really rich curriculum right here in Anchorage.

And it's great because there's a lot of kids that move into Anchorage from the villages, because it's hard to just subsist off the land anymore, and there's jobs here and, and to make that transition from rural to city life is tough. And I'm glad that we can be a school for kids in that situation.

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Noelle: Definitely. And I can tell—I mean, it's one of the conversations in the threads that I'm always looking to have with teachers is the importance of us being authentic. Right? And showing in a genuine way, our curiosity and our connection and the joy that we get from the community where we're teaching.

Now for students in Alaska—and you just said, going from a village to the city where there's work—do you find and do most of the students see themselves as always staying in Alaska?

Danielle: Definitely in rural Alaska, I think that most kids do see themselves as staying there. It's really hard for someone who hasn't lived in rural Alaska to understand where a kid is coming from.

If you think about, you've always lived in a place where you're surrounded by your family, and no other outsiders, really. And like I said, you've never been on an elevator or an escalator; you've never been where there's cars on a road, even. In one village I was in, there were three cars in the whole village.

Everybody just drove four wheelers or snow machines. And I would take kids regularly to Anchorage for the academic pentathlon, and they would get dizzy just from the movement in the city, just from how fast people walked, and Anchorage is a small town, but it would be really tough for them. So imagine doing that on your own, like you're a smart kid and you get all these scholarships to go to college and you leave your little village and you go to Montana for college, or you go to Anchorage for college. And you're just overwhelmed.

And the Alaska Humanities Forum—which I'm on their education board—they're making a lot of programs where students get to come in and out of Anchorage and experience life in the city. There's a sister school exchange program that I participate in every year where they match up five kids from the city with five kids from a rural site, and the kids go and live with the other kids in their hometown.

They live in their house. And then the teacher lives with the teacher for a week. And there's all this cultural training you do beforehand and after, and the kids get to experience how each other live. And then the kids have a connection in the city when they do decide to come here—if they decide to come here—and they ended up being lifelong friends as well. But they also learn about biases, and they learn that how we're raised and what we're taught and our life experiences and our family, the messages we receive, the perspectives that we were, or weren't exposed to, all make up who we are.

And to be open, to share who we are with other human beings is really important. It helps cut through the media and social media that we've consumed and the stereotypes, and let's let students know how to be seen and how to express themselves, and how our communities function and have functioned over years in regards to diversity.

Noelle: That's interesting that you just brought that up, like helping teach students to be seen, whereas educators—I know that we spend a lot of time talking about ensuring that we see each student. So I can tell one of the passions that you bring is culturally responsive practices, which began early in your career before all the conversation and professional learning and books and stronger curriculum that we have today.

So when you talk about biases and you talk about understanding and incorporating the Indigenous knowledge and language, Danielle, besides the life experiences, what studies, what work, what partnerships did you need to add into your own practice to drive this passion?

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Danielle: Well, the University of Alaska Anchorage, in their teaching program—which, it's really sad right now, because funding's being cut and [the] education program’s going to be cut from the University of Alaska—but their program really prepared me because it taught me about village life before I got there and really opened my eyes to biases.

And it's strange that in this state, where people moved in and took over the state—I mean, you know, racism is a social system that was created by colonists, of course—they had already had it ingrained in their own mind that there are humans of lesser value and that they could control who had the power or the rights. And those biases exist 100%. And then in this state, I did not realize that when I lived out in the village, everybody respected each other, took care of each other.

Nobody was homeless; nobody was hungry. Elders were never alone. Everybody really made sure that everybody else was surviving and successful and nurtured. And then I moved to Anchorage, and I saw so much in your face, blatant disrespect for Indigenous people, more so than any other race. And there's a huge homeless population here, and they are mostly Native people who have come into town for medical or whatever—for whatever reason, have gotten stuck here.

And when we opened the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School, we were in school for, I'd say, maybe three weeks. I was teaching fifth grade. And everybody's working and it's quiet, and this one little girl just made this big sigh. And I was like, "Oh, are you all right?" And she said, "I feel so good." And I said, "Explain."

And she started to cry. And she said, "I have never been in a classroom or school where I felt this safe; I felt this loved. At my other school, I got teased so badly just for being Native that I didn't even want to be Native." And one by one, the kids in my classroom just started crying and telling their own personal stories.

Like one girl was half black, half Yup'ik, and she said she gets teased from both ethnic groups for being the other race. And I thought, you know, how can we bring more of this to Anchorage? More of this love and this compassion and helping kids feel safe and loved and nurtured at school, to where they feel confident in being who they are and sharing who they are outside of the school, because then they become the teachers and they become the peacemakers in their communities.

And I would say, where I got that from is from the people that I worked with in the village; the people who taught me their culture and, and my parents who taught me how to be a part of a community. And from UAA, where I learned the history. I'm always seeking more knowledge about that, and now I teach it and it's part of my seventh and eighth grade curriculum.

I teach historical trauma. That's not in the history books, of any history book in Alaska. I love how Montana has a mandate of Indian education for all where every student, whether they're Indigenous or not in Montana, has to learn the history and the culture of the first people there.

I would love for that to be a practice in Alaska.

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Noelle: You can tell that passion comes through, which is why that student had to feel so safe to take that sigh of joy. I'm kind of taken back by her saying, I didn't want to be Native. I didn't want to be Indigenous. I just think anytime a child is attributing ethnicity and physical traits to not wanting to be that because of the just meanness and hatefulness from others and society—thank goodness there are teachers like yourself, and you know, you can hear the emotion in my voice cause I can only imagine.

I know one of the things that you've gotten to experience being a Teacher of the Year is that you too have gotten to meet Rodney Robinson. I have not gotten to meet Rodney. I've been talking to a lot of teachers who have, so it is my goal to get to meet him. But tell me, Danielle, a little bit about your connection with other teachers you've met through this experience and how you stay connected.

Danielle: Our cohort has been dubbed “the advocate group.” We all have a passion for advocating for our students, but not just advocating for them, but teaching them to advocate for themselves and teaching them to be true to themselves and true to their own people. I've gotten to speak with Rodney on racial bias for the Brookings Institute and in a lot of interviews.

And he is amazing, and he does not hold back, and he does not sugarcoat things. He won't, and I love that about him because a lot of people, they really think that there is not a problem with racism in our country when there is—it is harsh, and it is real. And students of color face this every single day, wherever they go, whether it's to the store, whether it's driving in their car, it is real. And people absolutely discriminate.

Noelle: And the assumptions we make about each other too. I think, teacher to teacher, we need to listen and understand and not just see each other from a surface level but have these conversations. This conversation is not easy. I mean, the last couple of times having conversations, I do tear up, and I know that the tears moved me to action and thinking and processing, but how do you stay so calm and driven in your intent?

Danielle: I think just by continuing to learn and be open. So, Kareem Neal is the Arizona 2019 Teacher of the Year. And he did this little test where you list the five people who you’re most close to, or you would tell your deepest secrets to that you're not related to. Not a husband, not a parent, not a brother, not a sister, but just friends.

Then give a tally mark to each one who is the same—has the same ethnic background as you, the same religion as you, the same gender. There's a whole list of things. And you mark off, you mark off, you mark off, and then you total all your tallies. And most people found that they hang around with people who are just like them—that they don't go beyond their comfort zone or beyond—they don't interact and engage and trust people of different race, people of different genders.

And I've used this in my speaking engagements as well, because you'll be in a room of mostly white female teachers. And they don't understand other people because they only are surrounded by other white teachers and we have to engage and interact with everybody.

We have to learn to trust. And I learned a lot from him. And then I realized that I kind of have biases too, but my dad always raised me to be really tough and not real emotional. And sometimes when I see a female, let's say a coworker crying about a student that she can't handle, I used to judge her, and I would think, "Oh my gosh, this chick again. Here she goes being overly dramatic." And I didn't take her ideas and opinions as seriously as I would [with] somebody who wasn't emotional, and Kareem taught me that. You know what I mean?

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Noelle: I'm glad you're telling me this now. Not in the moment that I was having an emotion. Because I do think we do that, right?

I mean, I remember being a first-year teacher where they're like, there's no way this girl is going to make it. And I was like, well, do you want me to make it? I mean, like, stop talking about me and start working with me and finding those connections and asking, “Danielle I know you're in Alaska and, and I'm not, but what kindred spirits we are.”

So I'm so grateful that your dad taught you to always accept an invitation, because I think that he gave you a gift and a lesson that led you into being a teacher. Because as teachers, we have to always accept the invitations, and we also have to give invitations. And I think that you embody that, and you've given me a lot to think about and how I can continue to do better.

What an amazing story you have.

Danielle: Thank you. I really do love what I do, and I can't imagine doing anything else. And every time I meet another teacher, I am in awe—like, I don't know how to explain, but when you're honored with this award, there's a lot of self-doubt. Like why me?

You get that whole imposter syndrome, like you wonder why you're in the mix with all of these people. And then as you really build relationships with everybody, we're all so connected. And what an opportunity like this really does is it teaches us how to work together, learn from each other, and then take that back to the people that helped create us—the teachers that I work with now, the teachers and the elders and the community members that I worked with in the villages. And just grow and thank them and let them know that what they've done to get me where I am is working, because I know I'm not the only person that has grown and learned to be the teacher I am from these people. So they're doing something right, too.

Noelle: Exactly. And that defines being a teacher in America. Thank you so much for your time. I have really enjoyed meeting you and having this conversation, and I look forward to us seeing each other, finding each other somewhere on this educational circuit space.

Danielle: I would love that. Come to Alaska. You'll love it.

Noelle: Thanks so much.

Hey listeners! I love Danielle's spirit. How she specifically, through her career, is very focused. Not on herself as a teacher, but on the life and the culture of her students. And really helping them understand and embrace and maintain that culture, that language, and the importance of it.

So y'all, I can't wait for season 3. You might be a guest! So if you're listening and you want to talk with me and talk with us, please reach out. But until then, I wish y'all the best of holidays. So as we wrap up season 2 and we move into an exciting opportunity to get ready for season 3, take the time, enjoy your reflections. And remember that in 2020, we got it done. Might not have been easy, but we're Teachers in America.

Your friend, Noelle.

Lish: If you’d like to be a guest on the Learning Moments: Teachers in America podcast, please email us at Be the first to hear new episodes of Learning Moments by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

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