Students absorb Alaska Native traditions during Culture Week
Danielle Riha, a teacher at Alaska Native Cultural Charter School, felt her students needed something a little more original when it came to hands-on traditions.
"It originally started with just each teacher would come up with something and it wasn't very authentic," Riha said. "And so we thought, 'We're an Alaska Native charter school; we need to make this more authentic.'"
Riha's plan was to bring in Native artists and specialists. The idea sprouted almost a decade ago and this year, the school held its seventh annual Culture Week.
"We spend about $20,000 a year," Riha said. "We do that with grants, fundraising and because we pay our artists really well because their skill is amazing."
The school hires over 20 indigenous artists and specialists from all over the state of Alaska to work with kids using authentic materials to create traditional clothing, regalia, jewelry, wooden kayaks, and prepare traditional foods like seal, fish, whale, walrus, caribou and birds.
"It's life-changing," Riha said. "I've had kids that have come to ANCCS, not knowing their culture or ashamed or embarrassed of their culture, because they've been teased or bullied at their other neighborhood schools."
Although Riha came up with the idea for Culture Week, she has plenty of help staging it from colleagues, including fellow teacher Seralee Kairaiuak.
Last year, Riha and Kairaiuak were both too busy to make Culture Week happen. This year's event was again in danger of being passed over as Riha, the reigning 2019 Alaska Teacher of the Year, was in Washington D.C. for the National Teacher of the Year festivities.
"They asked us at the last minute to get everything together this year," Riha said.
The dynamic duo of Riha and Kairaiuak found themselves with only two weeks to book artists, fly them in, set them up with lodging, make phone calls, announcements and raise any extra funds needed.
"We were still communicating with a four-hour time difference," Kairaiuak said. "She got off the flight at four in the morning and still met me at 10 in the morning next day to plan."
Despite the short notice, this year's Culture Week has been a major success.
"There's never behavior problems during Culture Week," Riha said "They're so engaged and participating all day long."
Every student in the school from pre-K through eighth grade participates. Older students get to choose what project they'd like to work on.
Students start on Monday and finish up on Thursday. The culminating event takes place on Friday night to showcase student work and celebrate with a dinner of traditional foods.
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