Blending Native lore, Western science

Posted: Sunday, June 29, 2003

On a recent rainy morning, Kymberly Hoyle sands a miniature Tlingit paddle as Alisa St. Clair draws a traditional design of a beaver on tracing paper.

Inside the Methodist camp lodge near Eagle River, other students in Camp W.A.T.E.R. carve Native designs in cedar shingles, weigh hemlock bark for an experiment, and brew Labrador tea leaves for a taste test, among other activities.

The free camp, run with a $100,000 federal grant by the Juneau School District and the Tlingit-Haida Community Council with the help of other organizations, attracted 40 students who have completed the sixth, seventh or eighth grades.

The camp leads youths on five-day canoe trips in Southeast waters and presents them with a week of Native-oriented artistic and scientific activities in Juneau.

"The overall goal is to blend cultural knowledge and Western science, and have kids gain an appreciation for the community and the area they live in," said Nancy Douglas, an Indian studies teacher in Juneau who ran the culture camp portion of Camp W.A.T.E.R.

The camp's name stands for wilderness, adventure, traditions, exploration and research.

"You cut out a shape like a paddle," said Hoyle, 13, explaining her model of a Tlingit paddle Wednesday as she as St. Clair sat on a bench on the lodge's porch. Rain pattered down. "You take a sander and you sand it down around the edge."

"Then you draw a design on it and then you paint it," St. Clair, 13, added.

St. Clair said the camp, her second, is fun and educational. On the canoe trip to Mitchell Bay, which began with a state ferry ride to Angoon, students sang songs when it was scary, Hoyle said.

They saw porpoises, loons, eagles, and, at the Angoon dump, three bears, she said, "and there was a lot of jellyfish." It was her first time in the wilderness.

In the Methodist camp kitchen, Ari McDonough and Rachel Searles, both 14, were preparing a test to see if dye made from hemlock bark, a Native technique, was as color-fast as Rit brand dye on four types of fabric.

Jennifer Griffin, a high school science teacher, advised them to weigh the bark first, although it would be hard to say how much bark was equivalent in strength to Rit.

It's McDonough's third year at Camp W.A.T.E.R.

"I think it helps with my math and science, because those are the two hardest classes for me. I like doing projects," she said.

"It's just fun to meet new people. I like to learn about Tlingit history. I'm not Tlingit, so I don't know as much as some people might, so I think it's really interesting how they used to live," McDonough said.

Meanwhile, Morgan Ware, 11, Christian Aycock, 12, and Amanda Bullman, 12, were offering samples of tea made from Labrador tea leaves they had picked, to be compared with a commercial brand of orange pekoe black tea.

Science teacher Laura Scholes walked by and asked them if they remembered the Tlingit name for the Labrador tea plant, and she went off to find it on a poster.

They had taste-tested the teas with 17 students the day before.

"Now we're going into deeper studies," Ware said.

"This one is without sugar," Bullman explained.

Students varied in their opinions of the canoe trips. For some, the rain and wet tents and the hard work of paddling and portaging overshadowed the experience.

"You ate, you paddled, and you went to bed," Bullman said.

"And you do a lot of packing," Aycock added.

For others it was fun anyway.

"We saw lots of giant worms that were really long," McDonough said. "There was a whole bunch of starfish and sea anemones. Wherever you walked, it was flooded with snails. And we found little crabs underneath rocks."

In the lodge's main room, teacher Liz Miyasato was guiding a tableful of students in how to make basic carving cuts in red cedar shingles. They were carving a salmon/trout motif in an ovoid shape. After tracing the design and transferring it to the board, they painted part of it black and began carving.

The outer shape of the ovoid was carved with a tool that created a rounded ditch-like cut.

"It's hard when you're going around the edges because the grain moves this way," said, Zakariah Bodine, 13, his finger tracing the pattern of the wood. "It's easier with the grain, but I'm getting better."

The nose needed to be carved into a slanted plane, so the eyes would stand out.

"We want the eye to jump out at us," Miyasato told Bodine. "To make that, you have to cut the nose at an angle."

For their science project, Bodine and Thomas Mills, 13, hand-cut ulu blades out of steel and copper, respectively, to see which is more durable.

Bodine cut his ulu blade with a chisel, but Mills found that a hacksaw worked better for him. He smoothed the blade edge with a grinder and filed it.

They were to test them in cutting deer hide and fish.

"We would have a few people try it out so we could get a mean of how it worked," Mills said.

The projects tie science to the students' interests, said Alan Dick of Lime Village in the Interior, a science educator with the Alaska Federation of Natives-affiliated Rural Systemic Initiative.

Students learn the "entry-level" concept of doing a fair test in which all the variables are held constant except the one being tested, Dick said.

"We're promoting curiosity," he said. "Science isn't Madame Curie. What Madame Curie did is history. Science is exploration today. My definition of science is organized curiosity."

Eric Fry can be reached at

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