United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) recently named UAA construction management and architectural & engineering technology student Michele Kawahine Danner, 19, an Iñupiaq woman, to its 2016 Top 25 Under 25 list. The program celebrates the achievements of Native youth leaders under the age of 25 who embody UNITY’s core mission and live a life of spiritual, mental, physical and social well-being. Her aunt nominated her, partially because Danner created an independent video, Mamit: To Heal, which grappled with the issue of substance abuse on the North Slope. Danner now plans to create a video addressing bullying and suicide. Diane Payne, director of the Justice for Native Children project, said she invited Danner to share Mamit at a training event for about 20 tribal child advocates, “to demonstrate the importance of including youth voices and talents in village-based child abuse prevention and healing work. [Danner] did an awesome job. Michele speaks from her heart and is an inspiring young Alaska Native woman.”
Where are you originally from?
I was born and raised in Barrow and later finished high school on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. I consider myself from both Alaska and Hawaii, considering that I have connected with both places.
What did your parents do?
My parents spent their lives working for Native corporations on the North Slope. The Native village of Barrow has been the home of my mother’s family for thousands of years. My father moved to Alaska as a young boy because my grandparents were educators who were dedicated to Native youth. My seven other siblings and I grew up in what I thought was the best place on earth. Coming from a family that is heavily invested in a subsistence lifestyle, my life as a child involved playing with other village kids in my community, and cultural activities such as Eskimo dancing and hunting trips.
Where did you attend school?
Up until high school, I schooled in Barrow and Anchorage. Our family moved to Hawaii just before I entered high school because aside from being Iñupiaq, my family is also of Native Hawaiian descent. I danced hula and learned a little bit of the language during my five years in Hawaii. I graduated from Kapaa High School, on the island of Kaua’i.
How did you initially get interested in filmmaking?
One of my older brothers, Chris, is a successful cinematographer on the North Slope, and I grew up watching him create films. Naturally, I became interested with filming, and spent my high school career in my digital media class improving my skills. Creating independent films gives me joy, and I have learned to become very efficient in telling stories through this kind of art.
What films did you make before Mamit: A Healing?
I have a lot of films saved on my laptop, ranging from things like short comedy pieces and short documentaries. The only time that I’ll post a film online is if it will serve a specific purpose, otherwise I just create them because doing it makes me happy. Mamit was put online so it could help address an issue and serve a greater purpose.
What initially sparked the idea for Mamit?
When I returned home to Barrow, I saw a problem, which is substance abuse, and of course I wanted to be a part of the solution. When you see trouble and you do nothing, you are voluntarily allowing the problem to continue, making you responsible for the outcomes. When I see a problem, I try to be a part of the solution, and this new philosophy makes my life easy, and is extremely easy to do; you just do it. It makes you feel good, it makes others feel good, and it is the right thing to do.
How did you go about getting the people, information and equipment you needed in order to make Mamit?
The NSB Health Department, which is where I worked at the time, gave me full support in this project and allowed me to go out on a daily basis to talk with ex-users, health clinicians and the youth. By communicating with my own community, I became more familiar with the issue at hand, and this allowed me to start planning the project. I used my own camera, and borrowed mics and editing software from my older brother, Chris. It is hard for any cinematographer to trust others with his/her equipment, but my brother knew how important this project was to me.
How did you publicize the film?
The NSB health department posted the video online, and I simply asked local Native corporations to share the video, which made it accessible to more viewers. In October of last year, the health department invited me to speak at the Healthy Living Summit in Barrow, where I met with the high-schoolers of Barrow to raise awareness about the issue. I enjoyed talking with Native youth about substance abuse, and encouraged them to be community contributors within our village.
What kind of responses have you received about Mamit?
So far, I have only received positive reactions to the film, which is definitely humbling. The success of this project has encouraged me to create more films and continue to serve my community by focusing on local issues in my motion pictures.
What kinds of films do you hope to make in the future, and why?
I know I will continue to create films that are heavily based on Native communal issues, because I am passionate about the success of Native people. Native people are resilient in the economic and spiritual hardships we face, and this is the driving force behind my work. I am a public speaker, filmmaker and a Native intern, but I know I am first and foremost a member of my Iñupiaq community. Nothing is more rewarding than serving those who have raised me on the North Slope.
Why did you decide to attend UAA?
I have decided to attend UAA because being a student here allows me to stay away from financial burden, remain close to the Native corporations where I continue to work, and the overall quality of the university met my standards.
Describe what your college experience has been like, so far. What aspects of it do you like and what could be improved.
While attending UAA, I was able to find my specific talents and utilize them. Although this college is quiet and somewhat isolated, I feel like I needed this environment to truly reflect on my life choices, so that I can be prepared for the near future. There is a university out there for everyone, and it just happened that UAA is right for me.
How did you initially become interested in construction management and architectural engineering?
Sooner or later we all have to figure out what we are going to do in our lives. I entered college like most of my peers do, not knowing what the heck I wanted to do. But after a short period of time I figured it out and it was easy for me. I thought to myself, ‘I am an artist, yet I am also useful in technical and problem-solving settings. How can I use these skills to serve? Where will I go?’ Coming from a family that is heavily involved in construction and hands-on work, I knew where I needed to go. After my first class in architectural engineering tech, I fell in love with the design aspect of this career, and I am on my journey to becoming a construction manager.
How did you, in high school, prepare yourself academically in order to be ready to delve into those fields of study?
During my senior year in high school, I was one of the only girls in my construction class, and my volleyball coach was the instructor. The skills I learned in high school evidently paid off, and turned out to be extremely useful now.
What do you hope to do with your degrees in those subjects?
Currently, the North Slope is experiencing severe housing shortages, and it has become a huge topic for our Native community. With the influx of new people arriving on the North Slope, the demand for housing and construction is getting higher. I know I will continue to work in Alaska, and I am hoping to be a part of the process in putting up more housing units on the North Slope.
You took on an internship with a Native corporation. What was that like?
I worked as an executive intern for about seven months learning the way things were done on the business side of things. Recently I decided to pursue a construction management internship with another Native corporation. I am excited and happy to dive into the content, and learn what it means to be a successful construction manager. The opportunities provided by both of these corporations are inspiring, and are helping me grow as a student and an employee.
What are your short-term and long-term goals, both personally and for your career?
I know I will continue to create films, and my goal is to encourage positive change within our community. As far as my short-term goals, I intend on finishing my bachelor’s degree at UAA, and go on to another university to receive a master’s degree in my field of study. I also plan on continuing my internships, so I will be prepared to best serve my people in the near and far future. With such a supportive family, I know I will always be OK with whatever decisions I make as a scholar, so right now I am just doing the best I can in school and in the office.
Click here to see the names of the others who made the “Top 25 Under 25” list (including Anchorage’s Tatiana Ticknor, who is Dena’ina and Tlingit, and Birk Albert, an Athabaskan who grew up in Ruby and now lives in Lake Placid, N.Y.), as well as learn more about UNITY and see details about its July 22-26 national conference, scheduled to take place in Oklahoma City.
Compiled by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement