Learning the Native ways of knowledge

Scientists learn old tricks at first Native science fair in SE

Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2000

Stephan Eubank discovered that copper ulus wear out quicker than steel ulus, but they don't tear the hide as much. The Sitka eighth-grader knows because he made the ulus and tried them out on a seal skin.

Now he has more respect for the ancient peoples of Southeast.

``They had a real hard time making them at first, with the tools they had,'' Eubank said.

Jeff Horton, a Juneau eighth-grader, decided the traditional Native way of carving dugout canoes has some advantages over modern boats. He and fellow student Kenneth Kirkman figured that out after making some model boats.

``For one thing, they're made out of one chunk of wood and can be made with simple tools,'' Horton said of the canoes. With modern boats, ``it was a lot of wood. They would have to cut down the forest.''

They were among 18 students of all races who participated in the first Southeast Native Science Fair, held Friday and Saturday at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall. The fair was sponsored by the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative and the Juneau School District.

Native knowledge has been going on for hundreds of years, but it wasn't recognized, said Paul Jackson, a traditional-language teacher in Sitka who helped judge the projects.

``Over the last two months, the students have taken over and tried these things out,'' he said.

Cassandra Pook, a sixth-grader from Sitka, tested the effect of heat on the infusion of devil's club in olive and seal oil.

``I use it for rashes like this,'' the girl said, pointing to her arm.

Pook learned heating the mixture of oil and plant at low temperatures leaves a fragrant concoction, probably because the oil molecules expand and can absorb the devil's club better.

Pook also learned to ask the plant's permission before picking it ``because it has a very strong spirit,'' said teacher Patty Dick.

Amanda Ashley and Erika Mooney, two Juneau seventh-graders, tested the properties of devil's club on themselves.

``It can cure acne, moisturize your skin and cure cuts,'' Ashley said.

Mooney said they shaved the prickles and bark off the branches to get to the green layer underneath. They simmered that for two days in a crock pot and then mixed it with beeswax, a tip they got from a Tlingit elder.

``I think it shows how smart they were, though they didn't have books or manuals or things like that to tell them how to cure medical problems,'' Ashley said.

Juneau seventh-graders Raineka Ackley and Brianna Pringle compared the absorbency of sphagnum moss with modern products such as paper towels and disposable diapers.

``Sphagnum moss is very absorbent and the Natives used it for many different things, like diapers and dressing wounds,'' Ackley said.

``And also for bedding and insulation,'' Pringle added.

The students weighed the various materials before and after immersing them in water. The diaper was the most absorbent, followed by the moss, they said.

The students, like several other participants from Angie Lunda's science class at Floyd Dryden Middle School, created a Website on Southeast plants that included the Tlingit names and a recording of elder Florence Sheakley speaking the words.

``I am very interested in trying to infuse the Tlingit language into any lesson I can,'' Lunda said. Since few people can read Tlingit, it's important to hear the word if people are to learn it, she said.

``It's a small step, but a very important step,'' Lunda said.

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