Roberta “Birdie” Dunkley is passionate about teaching Native American youth in Pine County about their heritage. Dunkley is the new Pine County Cultural Community Coach. She visits each of the schools in the county every week and wears several hats, including acting as motivator, communicating with parents, attending court hearings when necessary and, of course, providing culturally-based activities for the students.
There are currently 214 Native American students in the Hinckley School District, 60 at East Central, 51 at Pine City and 15 at Willow River School District.
“I want Native American kids to understand the importance of their culture,” Dunkley said. She said her goal is to earn the students’ trust and build positive relationships with them.
Dunkley grew up in a fairly strict family that valued education. She was taught how to cook, about her culture and about the traditional Ojibwe religion. She knows that not all youth have the same upbringing, and she wants to help the students understand their culture to help keep the traditions alive.
Dunkley is involved in the Native American Student Association, a group specifically for Native American students to share their experiences and ask questions in a safe environment as they strive to learn more about their culture. She said many of the students do not belong to other groups or activities besides NASA.
“Kids just want to tell their stories,” said Dunkley. “They don’t want you to solve their problem.” She said she not only talks to the students, many times she just listens to them.
“Birdie is non-judgmental,” said Sandy Korf, the Indian Education Coordinator at Hinckley High School. She said Dunkley figures out the barriers some of the students face and how to help them overcome the issues.
Her previous job as a 911 operator for 28 years in Minneapolis taught her how to stay calm, how talk to people in crisis and how to get information from them while building trust. She brings all of her years of knowledge to help her successfully work with the students of all ages.
Dunkley plans to add storytelling for the younger students and fun activities such as bead work, leather work and Cultural Camp for the older students.
“If you don’t hear about it you lose it,” Dunkley said. “I enjoy coming to work every day because it’s always different and the kids are fun.”
She measures success by earning the trust of the kids as well as the students who graduate and receive their diplomas. If a student seems to be losing interest, she will gently nudge them to help keep them on track to graduation.
In her spare time, Dunkley attends a womens domestic violence group to teach them crafts, and to visit and support the women. She also attends community meetings, and she stays active in the powwow community.