Teacher’s passion leads to Native education job

By Mary Beth Smetzer
Fairbanks, Alaska (AP) October 2011

Yatibaey Evans, the new coordinator of the Alaska Native Education program, was in her last semester of pre-med classes at the University of Washington when a thesis project for her major, Comparative History of Ideas, prompted her to change her career path from medicine to education.

An Ahtna Athabascan, originally from Mentasta, Evans’ thesis plan was to look into stereotypes that elementary students in grades 5 to 8 held of Native Americans.

“I was interested in preconceptions,” she explained.

To obtain data, Evans visited fifth through eighth grade classrooms in the Seattle area dressed in Native regalia – a summer moosehide dress and beaded moccasins made by her grandmother for her West Valley High School graduation.

She would talk about her culture and Native Americans in the Lower 48, before asking students to answer a list of questions.

While the students were filling out the questionnaire, Evans would leave the classroom, change into street clothes, return to the classroom and resume the conversation.

The students were surprised to see Evans in everyday clothes and not Native regalia.

“They thought I dressed like that every day.

“We talked about that, and why they were thinking Native Americans had to look like that, and why they were not looking at Native Americans (without regalia) as a living, breathing, part of an unique, amazing culture,” Evans said.

Evans’ research confirmed much of what she thought non-Native children were assuming about Native Americans and that most of their impressions came from textbooks, the media, etc. – that Native Americans were part of the past, not part of present day society.

“It was very thought provoking and showed me there was a lot of work to be done,” Evans said.

“It made me realize that I really wanted to be a voice for Native Americans. We are here and we are a big part of society,” Evans said.

“I wanted to help Native American youth to realize their dreams and potential and carry on their vision wherever they are at,” Evans said.

Instead of applying to medical school as previously planned, Evans enrolled at John Hopkins University and earned a master of arts degree in education.

Her classroom experience includes interning in a third grade classroom and being hired as a kindergarten teacher in the same Maryland school for the next school year.

In July, Evans was hired as coordinator of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District’s Alaska Native Education program, after she, her African-American husband, Lewis Evans, and their three sons, Eli, 10, Robert, 8, and Michael, 3, returned to Alaska.

Lewis was in the Army when the couple married in 2000, and they left the state shortly afterwards when he was transferred to his next post. Evans was a stay-at-home mom raising three sons, while continuing her education.

But Alaska was always on the couple’s mind.

“It was always our dream to return home,” Evans said.

When Lewis was honorably discharged in 2005, he began applying for positions in the state. He now works with the Wounded Warriors program at Fort Wainwright.

And Evans’ desire to work with Native youth also has been fulfilled as coordinator of the Alaska Native Education program.

Funded primarily by federal grants, the ANE program started in the school district in 1974, to meet the academic needs of Alaska Native and American Indian students.

The program supports a coordinator, a secretary, a graduation success coach/attendance liaison, a family advocate, and tutors in eight elementary and four middle schools. The school district funds tutors at three high schools and the Alaska Room, a cultural arts program for grades three through six.

“Each part of the program has the same goals,” Evans said, “To have students succeed and have the best outcome in their lives.

“We want to support students and see that they don’t fall through the cracks and they graduate from high school.”

Evans is setting up a mentoring program at Randy Smith Middle School, to support Native students. It’s similar to a mentoring program Big Brothers Big Sisters operates in the school district where students meet one-on-one with a mentor on a weekly basis.

Evans is a new volunteer in the BBBS program. She also will be a volunteer mentor at Randy Smith once the new ANE program gets under way, and she is recruiting volunteers for both programs.

“It’s critical to develop self confidence in our children and prepare them for challenges in high school and beyond,” Evans said. “It will help them to stand up to life and peer pressure.”

Another of Evans’ aims is to introduce “Western ways of knowing, and Native ways of knowing,” into the ANE program.

“Both are different streams of knowledge and both are of equal value,” she said. “When we come together, we see the value of each culture. We all have great attributes and should combine them.”

After living out of state for more than a decade, Evans is reconnecting with relatives and friends.

Her cousin, Suraiya John of North Pole, is happy to be seeing Evans face-to-face again rather than on Facebook.

The two women bonded as teens when both attended Culture Camp in Nabesna, John said.

“We both have been taught our traditional values by our grandparents and we are carrying them on,” she said.

Evans’ educational interests reflect her parents’ career paths.

Her mother, Donna Galbraith, is the first Athabascan to earn a medical degree and is a medical director at Southcentral Foundation in Anchorage.

Galbraith is happy that her daughter followed her heart when changing her career paths, and understands her reasons for doing so.

“She’s always been outgoing, never afraid to speak up, and very people-oriented. She is very focused, but also very dedicated to her family, her marriage and her children,” Galbraith said.

“I’m really proud of her for taking this job. She’ll bring a lot to the table.”

Evans’ father, Jeff Mann, principal at Hunter Elementary School, describes his daughter as “passionate and determined, who always does things in a heartfelt way.”

He recalled his daughter receiving the “Hammer Award” for her “persistence and determination, when she was a freshman member of the West Valley High School Swim Team.

“She’s always been someone who has set a goal for herself and stuck to it and persevered to get to it.”

Despite his teaching and administrative experience, Mann doesn’t attempt to serve as his daughter’s education mentor.

“I try not to give too much advice, and mostly listen,” he said.

The best part, he said is having Evans and her family back in Fairbanks.

“To go out on a weekend walk with her husband and boys is fantastic,” he said.