Apanakhi Jeri Buckley first came to Toppenish in the late 1990s through a partnership between Heritage University and the University of Washington, where she was a candidate for a Ph.D. in Native American studies and education.

It was meant to be temporary. But she put down roots, both in the native plant garden at her Toppenish home and with the people around her.

She was known for the meals she prepared to share with students and staff at Heritage University, where she joined College of Education faculty; for creating campus policies that eliminated cultural barriers; for distributing vases of lilacs to colleagues in the spring; and for building friendships with Yakama people and neighborhood children alike.

“Loving kindness was my mom’s principle,” her son, Nick McDowell said. “She tried to emulate that in every interaction that she had with every person she encountered in her journey.”

In late 2015, the beloved friend, neighbor and mentor was diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. Given roughly six months to live, Buckley was determined to meet her grandson, Ian. She lived to spend about four years with him before dying on July 4. She was 70.

Buckley was born the first of five children and raised in Kettle Falls, a small community on the Columbia River in northeast Washington. A Choctaw Nation descendant and the daughter of a judge who served both the county and the Colville Reservation during his career, Native issues and culture were close to her heart. She was married to a Blackfeet tribal member for a time and was given a new name by elders: Apanakhi, or Butterfly Woman. The name signified that she was both a guide and a keeper of dreams — her own and those of others she would touch in her life. Most remember her by this name.

Buckley left Kettle Falls to attend college and eventually lived in Australia for several years. There, the first of her two children was born — Nick McDowell.

But while he and his brother Joules were her only biological children, “I think she would probably tell you that she had a few other daughters that came into her life,” McDowell said. She also mothered Hannah Fretz and Kirsten Rowd as if they were her own, among others, he said.

Upon returning from Australia, she began her doctorate program at the University of Washington, which, through a grant-funded exchange program, brought her to Toppenish to teach on exchange at Heritage.

Career and impact at Heritage

Buckley was hired in 2000 by Ed Rousculp, a Heritage faculty and then-chair of the teacher-prep program. Her focus was methods of teaching elementary science and math.

She helped those working to become teachers overcome fear of mathematics by creating an understanding of core concepts. In one instance, she used the structure of a tipi to explore mathematics and engineering with students.

She helped students realize that subjects like science — at the time often seen as a subject for elementary teachers to get to on Friday if time allowed — could be better incorporated into the class, said Pam Root, a former colleague of Buckley’s who considered her a best friend. While developing reading skills, students could explore kids books about science, Root said, pointing to a class the two professors developed together over years.

She taught students to make their own observations and create knowledge that way, rather than telling them to learn something because it’s considered valuable, said friend and colleague Elese Washines. Washines remembered one assignment in which students observed phases of the moon and used this to inform how they would teach the same concept to children.

“That kind of epitomizes who she was as a teacher,” she said. “Student teachers could not only have these high caliber lessons, but to come to that understanding on their own terms.”

Buckley collaborated with other teachers and taught an array of other courses, from diversity in schools and culturally responsive teaching to Heritage’s first dance class, which explored dance across countries and cultures.

“Students remember her for the way she cared for them. She showed them in so many ways,” Rousculp said.

Buckley advocated for funding for students who otherwise couldn’t attend college or could be forced to drop out by small, unexpected expenses, Root said.

She had a blender in her office, which she would use to make smoothies for students or staff who stopped by her office or worked near her. She would bring home-cooked meals to her classes, making sure evening and weekend students had nutritious meals. She took the time to listen to students’ struggles, both academic and personal. She encouraged them and made it clear that she believed in them.

Buckley championed efforts on campus and through education policy nationally that opened up doors for students who would otherwise be marginalized in the school system because of their culture.

On campus at Heritage, she spearheaded the Compassionate Leave policy, which enabled faculty to make arrangements for students to complete coursework in other time frames or ways in the event they needed to take leave from school, said Rousculp. In Yakama culture, for example, there’s an extended period of mourning when a family member passes away. The policy allowed students to meet their cultural obligations without falling behind in their studies.

At one point, Heritage piloted a national teacher prep qualification process in which teacher candidates prepare lesson plans with rationales and data analysis about strategies, student needs and outcomes. Buckley wrote a report detailing bias against Native teaching candidates after initial statistics came out showing they failed while most other students passed, and it was brought to state and national attention. Rousculp credits this report with reshaping the assessment to be more equitable, rather than another barrier to potential teachers.

Dedicated to the end

Buckley had several convictions in life.

“Diversity was of utmost priority for her, and social justice also was deeply important to her,” said McDowell, her son. “She really wanted to see those who are disenfranchised — specifically people of color and even more specifically Native American people and Mexican American people — succeed in life and experience joy. So she really immersed herself in those cultures to the point she would essentially be adopted by those people into their culture and perceived as a mother and grandmother to children and people in that community.”

Off campus, she was deeply involved in Yakama traditions and ceremonies.

Science was another conviction, which led both her career and her interpretation of the world around her. She was also a staunch Democrat.

She remained active and aware politically until the end of her life.

“I saw her a week before she went into a coma,” said Root. “She was still … talking about politics and who she thought the vice presidential choice would be for Biden. I mean, she was still keeping up with what was happening. She couldn’t read anymore, but she was listening to it and still talking avidly about it.”

After Buckley’s diagnosis in 2015, she relocated to Seattle to live with her son and grandson, and to be closer to the medical care she needed. She had opened her home in Toppenish to Washines and her children, and Washines eventually purchased it. The funds helped cover the cost of medical treatment.

Even after the move, Buckley was writing a book, attending conferences and teaching informally, Root said. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she used old science and math curricula to teach her caregiver’s children while they were out of school so they wouldn’t fall behind, Root said.

“She was doing that up until a couple weeks before she passed away,” she said.

After a fight of more than four years against brain cancer, Buckley died with family gathered around her for a prayer ceremony. It was a year to the day after she participated in her last sun dance, a traditional healing ritual.

Her family created a Facebook page in her name for loved ones, colleagues and mentees to share memories of her. More than 350 people have joined it.

“She’s going to be a very hard person to ever replace,” Root said.

Apanakhi Jeri Buckley’s memory lives on in the people whose lives she touched and the culturally diverse teaching population she helped grow.

And back in Toppenish, Washines and her children are continuing to nurture one of her legacies at the home she left to them.

“There are native plants all over,” Washines said. “So I really try. She set the bar high, and we’re going to keep growing her chokecherries — which is one of our traditional foods — mulberries, walnuts, sage.

“She’s just a beautiful person,” she added. “She made a huge impact on all of us.”

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka