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Students from Juneau and Haines showed how to trap fish the old way, questioned whether berries were better preserved in a refrigerator than a bentwood box, and figured out why Tlingits would paddle all the way to California to get yellow cedar.
Those topics and about 25 others, submitted by about 55 students, were presented Saturday at the Southeast Alaska Native Science Fair at the Tlingit and Haida Vocational Training Center.
The event, sponsored by the Juneau School District, attracted sixth-graders from Haines and seventh- and eighth-graders from Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School in Juneau.
"I think it's one more way to say science isn't a new, modern thing with a bunch of dudes in glasses and lab coats," said Patty Brown, a middle school science teacher from Haines. "It's a way of thinking, and it's been in existence as long as there have been thinking human beings, and this is a way to celebrate this."
The students' work was reviewed by Native cultural judges, who looked for relevancy and the use of Natives as resources, and by "western" judges, who considered the students' use of the modern scientific method. In some cases, the students learned from the judges.
Juneau students Jeremiah Crockroft, Zach Owens and Alex Holloway tested whether blueberries were better preserved in a refrigerator or a traditional Native bentwood box.
With the advice of a Native student at the University of Alaska Southeast, Liana Young, they made their own box, which split and had to be shorn up with nails.
They packed the berries in beef fat and measured the acidity and weight of the berries over time in the box and a refrigerator and in a control group that was untreated. As berries decompose, the nutrients disappear, and bacteria renders what's left acidic, the students said they learned from an Internet site.
"Overall, the box did slightly worse than those in the refrigerator, but both compared fairly well to the untampered berries," Holloway told two judges.
Judge Matt Kookesh, who works in the Subsistence Division at the Department of Fish and Game, pointed out that Tlingits would preserve berries in seal oil, which has a high level of antibodies that kill bacteria.
"If they wanted to do a deer or seal, they would dry it, smoke it, and make sure the moisture was out of the meat, and they would put it in seal oil," Kookesh told the students. "The Tlingits a long time ago knew that seal oil was the best thing to preserve food in because it killed the bacteria."
Haines sixth-graders Caity-Ann Stigen and Kelsey Hannon built a wooden and rock model of a fish trap in a plastic tub. Fish, swept by the stream, would be funneled into the trap by piles of rocks and confined in two nested semi-circular enclosures of wooden pilings.
The girls explained its workings to judges Marie Olson, a Juneau elder, and Benjamin Schleifman, the Indian Studies teacher at Harborview Elementary.
"We looked at some traps back in the olden days and today, and we thought this caught more fish," Hannon told the judges.
Olson, who was impressed with the model, pressed the students about what other types they had looked at. Stigen described a method in which fish were trapped behind a line of rocks on a beach as the tide went out.
Jean Paul Roulet, a Juneau eighth-grader, carved paddles with an eagle design for his grandmother in Ketchikan from red cedar and yellow cedar to see which was better suited for carving.
Roulet became interested in the topic when his uncle, the artist Brian Chilton, was teaching him how to carve. "I was wondering why there was more yellow cedar," the student said.
Roulet found that red cedar is cross-grained and "when you cut against the grain, the wood tears away," he said.
He called his topic "The Better Trading Wood" because he was told that in the old days carvings were traded to Europeans for guns, ammunition and metal for carving blades.
Students came up with topics they wouldn't have in the usual science fair that doesn't have a cultural framework, said Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School teacher Topaz Shryock.
Rachel Searls and Katie Boyce of Juneau, who won the Best of Show Award, compared the insulating value of rabbit fur, sphagnum moss and grass, both dry and wet.
"We're comparing three different cultures," Searls said. "The fur is representing the Yupiks, the moss is representing the Tlingits, and the grass is representing the Athabascans."
Tip of the day: Wear rabbit for warmth.
The Best of Science Award went to Juneau students Cordova Lewis, Sarah Christian and Lia Heifetz for a project on starfish movement. And the Best of Culture Award went to Steven Price of Haines for a demonstration of Tlingit carving techniques and tools.