By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service
NEW TOWN, N.D. — On a recent day in Camarilla Hunter’s sixth-grade class, rainbow-colored candy made math a whole lot sweeter and fun for her students.
“When can we eat the Skittles?” a boy interjected, as Hunter, 35, explained the goal of their
assignment was to find the fraction, decimal and percent for each color in their small bag of candy.
It was all in a day’s teaching for the third-year educator at New Town Middle School on the
Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in western North Dakota.
Earlier in the school day the students learned about the U.S. presidents playing bingo and practiced their English skills by writing pen pal postcards.
“She makes it fun. I’ve learned more than last year. I get things a lot more,” said Alli Brunelle, 11, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes — the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa.
Hunter, a member of the MHA Nation, worked for the New Town Public School District as the assistant business manager for five years and one as a teacher’s aide.
But the wife and mother to four boys wanted to set a new course, one that would challenge her and utilize her people skills. In 2012, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Fort Berthold Community College.
“It’s not boring,” she said. “I like meeting the kids, getting to know them. … It’s a challenge, every year is something new.”
With the region’s energy boom, the school district is experiencing challenges as well — an influx of people, a lack of housing and a transient workforce — issues facing many communities across the Oil Patch.
Principal Andrew DeCoteau said the 2013-14 school year saw 170 students. At the start of school this year the number had increased to 202, which he anticipates rising even more as additional housing becomes available.
Citing the “revolving door” effect, DeCoteau said four new students, one from Montana, two from Texas and one from Nebraska, had just enrolled. Hunter recalls last year having one student for only a week and another for just one day.
DeCoteau, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa, said many students and their families are living in campers, a harsh reality Hunter said is emotionally challenging.
“One student lived in a tiny trailer, and she said they didn’t have hot water and (had to) boil water. That’s how she would wash up,” Hunter said.
DeCoteau said at least 80 percent of the students are Native American. Because the teachers do a good job of welcoming students, he said racism and prejudice are issues that don’t penetrate the school’s walls.
“The good thing is they (the students) could care less. Even though we’re a public school, we don’t have those issues, which is a good thing. Everybody fits in,” he said.
Of her 22 students, Hunter has two of Spanish heritage. She said she’s learned some Spanish words to help her communicate with their parents.
Noting the value of connection to one’s culture, Hunter said she encourages her students to speak in their native language.
To help them prepare for dismissal after the fun-filled afternoon of Skittles math and science,
Hunter said words or phrases in Hidatsa.
“Huka (come here). Nishab (hurry),” she said, as the students scurried to their seats.
“I do want the kids to have a connection,” Hunter said. “I try to incorporate a positive role model: Yes, I am Native American. I am proud versus embarrassed.”