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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
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Lessons & Units

A database of lessons and units searchable by content and cultural standards, cultural region and grade level. More units will be available soon. You can use Acrobat Reader to look at the PDF version of the Cover Sheet for the Units and Self-Assessment for Cultural Standards in Practice.




A cultural mini-unit

prepared by

Iditarod Area School District

January, 1999



Iditarod Area School District Sarah Hanuske-Hamilton

Elders and Local Experts

Edna Deacon, Lina Demoski, Helen Dick, Katherine Hamilton, Grace Holmberg, Mary Ellen Esai-Kimball, Hannah Maillelle, Betty Petruska

Grade Level:



Winter activity, 10 lessons

AKRSI Region:

Interior Alaska - Athabascan


Students will learn the location of traditional blackfish sites, the local blackfish habitat, and the life cycle of the blackfish.

Students will apply the local traditional and current subsistence skills to safely catch and prepare blackfish.

Students will interact with Elders / local experts to gain an understanding of the interconnectiveness of subsistence, science, and traditional beliefs and values.

Students will learn Native language words and phrases that accompany blackfish activities.

Students will learn blackfish appearance and behavior, and conduct experiments on how the blackfish functions in its environment.




The goals, knowledge and skills, and activities of this unit address the Alaska Science and Math Content Standards and the Cultural Standards for Students as follows:



A student who meets the math content standards should:

A4 represent, analyze, and use mathematical patterns, relations, and functions using methods such as tables, equations, and graphs;

A6 collect, organize, analyze, interpret, represent, and formulate questions about data and make reasonable and useful predictions about the certainty, uncertainty, or impossibility of an event.


Skills and knowledge

A student will be able to:

1. record and display data in table and graph form from experiments on ice formation and blackfish functions.

2. analyze and predict the outcome of ice formation.

3. interpret the relationship between the rate of respiration and the temperature of the blackfishs environment.



A student who meets the science content standards should:

A14A understand the interdependence between living things and their environments;

A15 use science to understand and describe the local environment (Local Knowledge);

B1 use the processes of science; these processes include observing, classifying, measuring, interpreting data, inferring, communicating, controlling variables, developing models and theories, hypothesizing, predicting, and experimenting: and

B2 design and conduct scientific investigations using appropriate instruments.


Skills and knowledge

A student will be able to:

1. identify local traditional blackfish sites and the clues to find new sites.

2. describe the life cycle of the blackfish in relation to its habitats.

3. observe blackfish behavior and structures.

4. design experiments to answer questions about ice formation and blackfish characteristics and functions.



Students who meet these cultural standards are able to:

A4 practice their traditional responsibilities to the surrounding environment.

C1 perform subsistence activities in ways that are appropriate to local cultural traditions

Dl acquire in-depth cultural knowledge through active participation and meaningful interaction with Elders.


Skills and knowledge

Students will be able to:

1. practice respectful behavior toward the environment and dipping for blackfish.

2. describe traditional blackfish uses and beliefs and retell blackfish stories.

3. dip for, preserve and prepare blackfish.

4. show appreciation to the Elders and local experts.




Elders workshops were held in McGrath and Nikolai where the lessons to be taught were chosen and traditional information was shared. The Elders told us that formerly blackfish was a very important survival food, before moose and store-bought food became plentiful. By spring if food supplies had run out and people were starving, the blackfish provided the sustenance desperately needed by the people. And that day could come again.

Students will work with Elders, local experts, and their teacher to develop traditional subsistence and Native language skills through activities which will reveal scientific concepts and principles.

Ten lessons have been developed with a variety of activities to choose from. Some resource information has been included in many of the lessons. The teacher's resources will determine the lesson order and which activities are possible or appropriate. It is suggested that students develop books containing the results of the activities. These books could be presented to the Elders and guests at the Feast/Presentation.

Sample assessments have been included in some of the lessons. When using traditional subsistence activities, the assessment should be on the students' ability to do something and inferring what is known from active student participation or demonstrations by Elders.

Many opportunities for the use of the Native language will occur which are not mentioned in the lessons. Language arts and social studies activities can be integrated into the lessons also. No unit is ever completed. Additions and suggestions are welcomed.



1. Blackfish Survey for Interviewing Elders/Local Experts

6. Traditional Blackfish Uses and Beliefs

2. Fishing and Use Comparisons/ Contact with Other Schools

7. Blackfish Dipping Field Trip Preparation

3. Blackfish Site Map/Lifecycle

8. Dipping for Blackfish

4. Ice Safety

9. Blackfish Identification/ Experiments

5. Dipper Construction

10. Blackfish Tea/Feast/ Presentation



Some useful printed resources are listed below. As with all of the locally based cultural mini-units, the most important resource for the teacher and students is the local elders and cultural experts. They have a combination of scientific and cultural knowledge which cannot be found in any book

A Field Guide to Animal Tracks Olas J. Murie, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1954

Alaska Wildlife Curricula -4 volumes, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Robin Dubin, Education Coordinator, 333 Raspberry Lane, Anchorage, AK 99518 907-267-2168

Alaska Wildlife Week 1983 / Alaska Department of Fish and Game, now part of the Alaska Wildlife Curricula.

Basic Emergency Aid Rescue Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, Bethel, Alaska, 1987

Complete Outdoors Encyclopedia Vin T. Sparam, St. Martins Press, New York, 1998

Fish And Fisheries Alaska Sea Week Curriculum Series Grade 5, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, 1996.

Iditarod Curriculum: The Last Great Race to Nome Shelley Gill, Paws 1V Publishing, Homer, Alaska, 1993.

Ingalik Material Culture Cornelius Osgood, Yale University Publications in Anthropology #22, Human Relations Area Files Press, New Haven, 1970.

Make Prayers to the Raven A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest. Richard K. Nelson, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983.

Outdoor Survival Training for Alaska's Youth Alaska Sea Grant College Program, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, 1993

The Freshwater Fishes of Alaska James E. Morrow, Alaska Northwest Publishing, Anchorage, 1980.

Tracks: C'ek'e Copper River School District, 1981

Wetlands And Wildlife Alaska Wildlife Curriculum Alaska Department of Fish and Game/United States Fish and Wildlife Services, 1990.

USGS and aerial maps can be ordered from the Earth Science Information Center, Geographical Survey, USD1, 4230 University Drive, (Alaska Pacific University, Grace Hall, Room 101), Anchorage, AK 99508-4664 (907-786-7011) or the Remote Sensing Data Center, Geophysical Institute, UAF, Fairbanks, AK 99775-0800 (474-7558) The aerial maps are 9" x 9" with choices of black/white or color infrared. You will need to know the geographic coordinates of the area. They will advise the best selection available for viewing specific features, for time of year, and for high or low altitude photography. Some ariel photos cover a 9 mile by 9 mile area. Some of the older photos cover a smaller 6 mile by 6 mile area. The prices range from $10.00 to $16.00. When in Anchorage or Fairbanks you can preview the photos at their offices.




Students will be able to

develop a survey to interview Elders/local experts.
acquire knowledge from Elders/local experts.


Brainstorm Survey

Students will brainstorm with the teacher what they know about blackfish and where to find them. Draw a generic fish on the board, write blackfish inside, and then concept map the students' responses.


This information can be placed on a table. The table will help students develop a survey to interview the Elders / local experts about additional information that they want to know or confirm about blackfish. The following is a sample table. Students may find a different way of categorizing their information. A class chart could be displayed with each student keeping an individual table and adding to it throughout all the activities.








Where to catch

Name of location

English & Native

Clues to new site

Describe habitat

Life cycle


Safety precautions

Fishing equipment

Other cultures






Using the table have the students develop a survey to interview the Elders/local experts. The interviewing may be done as homework and/or by inviting the Elders/local experts to class.


Blackfish Drawing

Have students draw a picture of what they think a blackfish looks like. This activity needs to be done at the beginning of the unit, before students start doing any type of research.

Save these pictures. Each student's picture will be used later as a comparison with his / her observations of an actual blackfish in Lesson 9.




The sample assessment addresses the cultural standard regarding the interaction between Elders/local experts and the students. It can be used throughout the unit. This could be preceded by the Elder telling how s/he learned from grandparents and parents; how children were to behave in the kashim, at other gatherings, etc.



Uses appropriate name for

Elder/local expert

Is respectful to Elder/local expert

Pays attention, listens to what is being said and watches what is being done

Makes careful observations

Asks appropriate questions

Performs new skill

Shows appreciation for knowledge and help from Elder/local expert

Almost Always






Students will be able to

compare traditional cultural subsistence, and scientific information from other sources.


Regional Comparison

This activity should be set up relatively early so that students can have ongoing contact with other schools that may be doing the same activity.

Look at the small map from The Freshwater Fishes of Alaska which shows the range of the blackfish to determine which communities to contact.

Have students use the internet to contact other schools and arrange for exchange of information. Compare observations, traditional customs, Native language, and the results of experiments.

This blackfish is also found in Siberia. Research how indigenous and Russian people use blackfish.

Students should be recording new information on their tables and the class chart. Another category on the table could be the source of information whether it is from local experts, written material, or from students at other school sites.



from The Freshwater Fishes of Alaska page 161:
The Alaska blackfish is found in lowland areas in eastern Siberia, Saint Matthew, Saint Lawrence and Nunivak islands in the Bering Sea, and in Alaska. On the mainland of Alaska its natural range is from the Colville River Delta on the arctic coast west and south to the central Alaska Peninsula near Chignik. It is present in the Yukon-Tanana drainage as far upstream as Big Eldorado Creek, near Fairbanks. Wherever it is present, it is usually quite abundant. The Alaska blackfish was introduced successfully to Saint Paul Island in the Pribilofs.




Student will be able to

identify local traditional blackfish sites on a map using Native and English place names.

describe the life cycle of the blackfish in relation to its habitats.

describe the blackfish food chain.

identify the environmental clues for finding a new blackfish site.


Making a Local Map

Trace a map of the local area from a USGS map by using an opaque projector.

Using the information from the questionnaire and/or an Elder, students will locate the blackfish sites on the map and label both in English and the Native language. Display the map.

When new sites are discovered, add them to the map. If it is not a traditional site, have the students create a new Native name for it. Students could make individual maps for their books.



Life Cycle/Habitat Recognition

From the survey or from listening to an Elder in class, discuss the different habitats where the blackfish are found locally. How do these habitats relate to the life cycle of the blackfish? To the seasons? Where and what time of year blackfish are caught?



from Alaska Wildlife Week:
Blackfish need both quiet shallow water with aquatic plants (for laying eggs and feeding), and deep water for overwinter feeding. Blackfish cannot live in ponds or streams that freeze solid. Thus the size pond they live in during winter depends on the climate.

from Elders/local experts:
Blackfish are found on the deeper side of the lake, not the grassy side.

From Fish And Fisheries page 39:
The Alaska blackfish is a small mud minnow that grows to eight inches. It is a rather sluggish, bottom-dwelling fish, which in winter tends to live in deeper portions of lakes where the oxygen is more abundant. In summer it moves to heavily vegetated tundra, ponds, streams, rivers, and lake edges.

From The Freshwater Fishes of Alaska page 163:
The blackfish does not undertake extensive movements, as far as is known. Its migrations appear to be limited to inshore or upstream movements to spawning grounds in the spring and (presumably) reverse migrations to deeper water in the fall.

Spawning occurs in spring and summer, beginning soon after breakup m May and continuing into July in the interior of Alaska, but apparently taking place only in late July in the Bristol Bay area. Upstream movement appears to coincide with a rise in water temperature 10 to 15 degrees Celsius. Spawning has not been observed, but the eggs are probably deposited in vegetation at the bottom of shallow ponds and quiet streams.

Development to hatching requires about 10 days at 12 to 13 degrees Celsius under experimental conditions. The young are about .57 cm long at hatching and have a large yolk sac. By the 10th day after hatching, the young are about .9 cm long and the yolk sac has virtually disappeared. By the 22nd day, the little fish are about 1.2 cm long and are beginning to take on the characteristics of the adults. Metamorphosis is virtually complete in about 44 days.



Food Chain/Web

Have students work in pairs/small groups to develop the links in the blackfish food chain. Alaska Fish and Game has a set of over 100 Wetland Cards which are illustrated with plants, invertebrates, fish, birds, and mammals. Each illustration has text which describes the organism's traits, habitat, food habits, and what eats it. These cards can be copied and cut apart to form flow charts or games.

After arranging the cards in a chain/web, remove a card. Ask what natural or man-made occurance could cause this and what would be the result. List natural and man-made causes which would cause a disturbance in a food chain/ web. What effects would logging, oil spills, other pollution sources have on the various links?



from Alaska Wildlife Week page 33:
All living things must have energy and minerals in order to move around, grow, and reproduce. The pathway of energy and minerals from the non-living environment through living things and back, is called a FOOD CHAIN. Food chains begin with PRODUCERS, living things that can use energy and minerals directly from the non-living environment. Algae is a producer in a water habitat.

From Wetlands and Wildlife page 20:
The transfer of energy from its source to one or more organisms is called a food chain. The sun's energy is the primary source of energy for all life on earth. Sun energy flows through many links in the plant and animal world. The plants and animals that depend on each other for food each form a link in the food chain. Food chains are really food webs, since many species are related to more than one food source and more than one predator.

Food of the blackfish includes copepods, wateffleas, larvae of stoneflies, mayflies, midges, and dragonflies. Also mollusks, segmented worms, and algae. The blackfish is eaten by river otters, mink, loons, grebes, terns, and people.



Discuss how students would "read" the environment to find a new fishing site for blackfish. What clues around an open hole in the ice would indicate that blackfish might be found there?

Have students draw without looking the tracks of marten, mink, raven, otter, owl, and fox. Have them compare their drawings with photos/drawings of actual tracks.

A concentration game could be made of animals and tracks. Place the cards of each face down and mix. Each player in turn picks up two cards. If there is no match, the cards are placed in their original position. If the two are a pair (animal and track), the student has another turn; otherwise, it's the next student's turn. Using the Native names of the animals on the cards is another variation.



from Make Prayers to the Raven page 74:
Blackfish live in lakes throughout Koyukon country, and in certain ones they must be incredibly prolific. By late winter the frozen lakes sometimes become critically short of oxygen, and blackfish begin swarming at natural openings--muskrat pushups, beaver runways, and current holes. The sluggish little fish constantly swirl to the surface gasping air, and over the days and weeks they gradually enlarge the hole.

Thousands of fish school around some openings, where they become prey for ravens, otters, and other predators that happen along. I have seen holes like this, strewn with half-eaten fish, the snow tramped hard all around by animals that return time and again to feed. People can fish in these places too, and in the old days blackfish swarms saved many from hardship, even from starvation. Using traps or dip nets, they might catch bushels of fish if they found a good swarm. This is still done occasionally, but people do not put much effort into catching blackfish nowadays.

From Elders/local experts:
To find a new blackfish site in the ice, look for lots of animal tracks, fish parts, and a little blood. You will know that the animals are catching and eating them. Marten, fox, mink, and raven are looking for them around open holes. Blackfish swimming near the surface will keep the hole open. Another time to catch blackfish is right around spring breakup.


Web of Interdependence Drawing

Have students create a drawing/flow chart/concept map which includes the information learned from the previous activities. This can be graphic, words, or a combination of both. Students may work in pairs or small groups.

The following should be included to show the interdependence of blackfish with: the yearly cycle of migration from lake to tundra pond, the life cycle, food chain, and subsistence activities.



The following is an assessment of the activity, Web of Interdependence. It addresses two science standards, using local knowledge to understand and describe the local environment and to understand the interdependence between living things and their environments.




No Evidence

Some Evidence


Knows the blackfish life cycle

Understands the influence of the seasons

Can identify blackfish habitat

Can describe the blackfish food chain

Can identify local blackfish sites

using both English and Native names

Understands the interdependence of the seasons, environment, blackfish life cycle, animals, people, etc.







A student will be able to

describe appropriate clothing for winter safety.
identify unsafe/safe ice.
describe how to rescue another person and oneself.
use the scientific process to design own experiment on ice formation.
record and analyze data on tables and graphs.

Depending on your curriculum and/or the knowledge and skills of your students, this lesson could be expanded on outdoor winter safety. Only ice safety is covered in this lesson. You may want to review how to treat hyperthermia which is not covered here. B.E.A.R.S. Basic Emergency Aid Rescue Students Workbook has winter safety information.

At the workshops Elders indicated that ice safety was a very important topic. Local elders will have many valuable stories on testing ice for thickness and for safety as well as stories of rescue.


Brainstorm Ice Rescue: Saving A Friend - Saving Yourself

This activity will prepare students for science experiments about ice, warm clothing, and practicing ice rescue. This could be a class or pair/small group activity. If students are working in pairs / small group, have them write the steps they would take to rescue someone who has fallen through the ice. The class will share this information. Record their information.

As a class have them brainstorm how they would save themselves if they fell through the ice and record this information.

Have they taken into consideration the thickness of the ice as related to the time of year, amount of snow cover on ice, and the location in the river or lake of the victim? Have they described the correct approach on ice of the rescuer? Have students make some predictions about ice thickness.

What effect does snow cover have on ice formation?
How does a change in the temperature affect ice?
How does the time of year affect ice thickness?
Is river ice the same thickness from the bank to the middle?
Do river and lake ice have the same strength?
How do currents and springs affect ice thickness?
What does an overflow tell us about the ice?

These questions and others can be the basis for some scientific investigations. The following activity is an example.


Effect of Snow Cover on Ice Formation

Have students work in pairs/small groups. Use two similar containers, add the same amount of water at the same temperature to the pair of containers. Cover the containers with lids or plastic bags. Place the two containers outside in freezing weather next to one another. Cover one container with a mound of snow. Periodically check each container, record the temperature of each, and measure the ice formation. A sample table on which the student can record data follows:








Data Collection


Temperature of water/ice

Thickness of ice

Container #1

Container #2




Discussion of Observations





Use the data from the above table to make a line graph. Actually two lines will appear on the graph. Metric or the English measurements may be used. The following sample graph uses ice depth and temperature as the coordinates. Another graph could be made with ice depth and time as the coordinates. Use two colored pencils; have students mark the coordinates of container #1 and connect the dots with a line in one color. Use the other color for container #2.


Ice Thickness, Temperature, and Snow Cover


Compare the line graphs of the exposed container and the one mounded with snow. At what temperatures had both 1/16 inch of ice?

Do the lines of the two containers cross? What is the difference between the rate of ice formation in the two containers? What function does the snow mounded on the container perform? How does this apply to what happens to the formation of river or lake ice?



from Complete Outdoors Encyclopedia page 320:
Winter is the time of year when icefishermen venture out onto frozen waters. Most will have fun, but a few will get into trouble because they don't know how to make sure that the ice is safe. The first rule is never take chances. There are two periods when accidents are likely to happen: early in the season when slush ice doesn't freeze uniformly and late in the season when ice melts at an uneven rate. It takes prolonged periods of freezing to make ice safe. Here are some rules to remember:

* Be cautious of heavy snowfalls while ice is forming. Snow acts as an insulator. The result is a layer of slush and snow on top of treacherous ice.
* Clear solid river ice is 15 percent weaker than clear lake ice.
* River ice is thinner in midstream than near the banks.
* River mouths are dangerous because currents create pockets of unsafe ice.
* When walking with friend, stay 10 yards apart.
* Lakes that have a lot of springs have weak spots of ice.


Local Ice Safety Chart

Look at the ice safety chart. What additional rules for ice safety can be added to the list which reflect local knowledge? (eg. Don't walk in front of a beaver house.) Have students illustrate an ice safety chart.


(in inches)

Maximum Safe Load


One person on foot


Group in single file




Car (two tons gross weight),


Light truck (2.5 tons)


Medium truck (3.5 tons)


Heavy truck (8 tons)



Clothing Insulation Experiment


This is a good class activity. Use a class chart to record class predictions, and observations. Have students predict which type of clothing will keep them warmer. Show them three examples of clothing made from wool, polypropylene, and cotton. For the experiment:

Use three pieces of clothing made of wool, polypropylene, and cotton.
Soak them in water, wring out, and pass around.
Hang to dry.
Have students check periodically on drying progress.
Record observations on class chart.
Compare how long each type of material takes to dry.
Discuss how the clothing would feel on if the students
were out in the cold.
From Outdoor Survival Training for Alaska's Youth



from Outdoor Survival Training for Alaska's Youth:
Clothing is our primary shelter. Our head loses the most heat. Fifty percent of our body heat is lost from our head at 400F and up to 75% at 50F. A hat is a crucial survival garment. Always be prepared for an emergency by dressing in layers or taking warm gear along. Although cotton jeans are popular, wool and polypropylene are warmer than cotton. Also they insulate even when they are wet.


Ice Rescue Practice

This is a good outdoor activity. In the classroom review the rescue plans made by the students. Discuss why rescuers must lie on their stomachs and slide on the ice toward the victim. How does this relate to using snowshoes to walk on snow? Why do rescuers use an extension such as a stick or a coat rather than their hand to pull the victim out of the water?

If alone on the ice when the accident happens, how would students aid their own rescue? What pocket items could help students pull themselves out of the water onto the ice? Any other item on the student's person?

Outside in the snow, mark the perimeter of the lake or the river banks. Shovel several holes in the snow large enough for the victim to lie in. One should be near a bank, one in the middle of the river or lake, and any other local situation such as near a cut bank, beaver house, etc. Simulate situations where students can practice rescuing others and saving themselves.



from Complete Outdoors Encyclopedia page 320:
If a friend falls through the ice, never approach him upright. Toss him a rope, branch or jacket to pull him from the water. Lie flat on your stomach and slide toward your friend. When he has taken hold, slide backward. He can assist with a flutter kick to propel himself out of the hole. A second rescuer can hold the feet of the first rescuer and help pull the victim out of the water and off the ice.

If you're alone, carry "ice claws" that can help you crawl onto safe ice. They can be made from two awls or stove bolts filed to points. The sharp points can be shielded by corks, and holes drilled in the ends so they can be carried on lanyards. If you don't have ice claws, carry 10-penny nails or even car keys that you can dig into the ice and pull yourself out.

From Iditarod Curriculum page 87:
Rescue: You can save yourself. If you fall through the ice, stay calm and do the following things: 1. Float on your stomach. Bend your knees. 2. Reach forward onto broken ice. DO NOT push down on the ice. 3. Use a strong flutter kick to push yourself out of the water. 4. When you are on the ice, spread out your arms and legs. Crawl or roll to safety.

From Elders:
Always take a stick; use it to poke holes and test the ice. If you fall, the stick can help to catch you, or if you fall in, use it to dig into the ice to help pull yourself out.





The student will be able to

observe and then make dippers and/ or traps and fences.
recognize and speak Native language words and phrases for making the equipment and for catching fish.
practice respectful behavior and dipping techniques learned from blackfish stories told by Elders/local experts.
describe traditional fishing practices learned from Elders and research.



Making Dippers

Have an elder/local expert show students how to make dippers from cans and/ or a blackfish trap. The dippers can be made from coffee cans or the large number 10 cans. Punch holes in the sides and bottom. The attached stick handle needs to be a dry one. Why would a fresh willow stick make dipping difficult? An alternative to making dipping cans is to use gunny sacks or a fine mesh dip net.

Making a traditional blackfish trap takes three to four days. There are a number of possibilities: individual student science project, watch an elder make it in class while students make their dippers, elder show finished trap and explain how it is used, or read the information from Osgood and have a student make a presentation. The construction and use of the blackfish fence could be presented in a similar way.

While making the dippers students should be learning about traditional, respectful dipping preparation, the actual dipping procedure, and any related stories from the Elders.



Practice Dipping

When the dippers are finished, have students in pairs or small groups simulate dipping for blackfish. Have them practice what they have learned including: describing clues for finding the site and details about its location, giving reasons why blackfish are there, describing safe ice procedures, rehearsing respectful behavior and careful dipping techniques, and using new Native words and phrases.



from Elders:
Blackfish traps used to be made and placed under the ice. Sometimes a drowned muskrat would also be in the trap. Today people will use a dipnet with very fine mesh, a gunny sack or a coffee can that has holes punched in it. The fish can be spilled into a tub. If spilled onto shoveled ice, the next day there will be a block of frozen blackfish.

From Ingalik Material Culture page 232:
The most important type of fish trap used in winter is set in small lakes for blackfish. This kind of trap, singly or in pairs, may be set under the ice either at the end of a fence extending a short distance out from the shore or be inserted into a "pothole" where blackfish come up to breathe. In the latter case, the trap - which is only about six feet long - is held in vertical position with its mouth upward a few inches below the bottom surface of the ice. When the blackfish rise to breathe, they turn and start down again frequently going into the basket from which they cannot escape because of its funnel-like mouth. The fisherman will try to help the blackfish keep their breathing hole open by putting snow into it or, better yet, some grass with snow on top and then willow rods as a cover. Such traps are visited almost every day, the basket being drawn to the surface of the ice and the sticks forming the small end being simply untied so that the fish can be dumped out. Fish traps - and there may be more than one - set at the extremity of a fence stretching out form the shore are visited in much the same manner as the winter trap previously described. Unlike the "pothole" settings, however, one cannot be so confident of having the right location, and blackfish traps are frequently moved to a place that it is thought may bring a greater reward.

Although the blackfish trap is the main source of fresh fish in winter, it is most successful in the month of May after the ice has melted, when it is put down into the channel of the outlet of a lake, a rivulet not much larger than the trap itself. Resting in this runnel it may be almost completely filled by blackfish during a single night. In the morning the fisherman simply rolls it out and slides his catch up on the shore. Blackfish caught in the spring taste different from - and are preferred to - those taken in winter. In winter when a man goes to a lake in order to fish, he may take a grandchild or two for company if he is old, or a friend if he is young, but usually he does his fishing alone.




Students will be able to

describe the importance of blackfish to peoples' survival in the past.
describe uses they learn from Elders/local experts including:
as food for people and animals, and as bait.
describe preservation and preparation recipes
retell traditional beliefs and stories about blackfish.


Traditional Value System

This information could be obtained by the students either as a homework assignment or during Elder/local expert class visits. The "Value System" and "Uses" do not need to be treated as separate activities. They are presented in this way to help with teacher preparation.

Students will want to have questions written regarding surviving in the past, sharing of resources, working together, respecting the environment, and maintaining a relationship to the land. This is more than good resource and land management, it includes honoring the cycle and spirit of the fish to sustain the people's lives.

Let the Elder/local expert tell about times past. The students' questions are more to prepare and aid them for active listening, remembering, and recording in their books. There may be some traditional blackfish stories and elders should be encouraged to tell any they know.


Traditional Uses and Preparation of Blackfish

Students will develop questions about subsistence gathering, preservation, preparing, and use of blackfish. This does not need to be separate from the "Value System." The Elder/local expert will weave it all together.



At the Nikolai Elders'/local experts' workshop, this information was shared:
Blackfish are used as bait to catch pike and lush (burbot). The fish can be caught in the fall, kept in a bucket or jar of water, and used later in the winter on a fish line as bait. It can also be used singly with the hook piercing the flesh just under the dorsal fin, so the blackfish can continue to swim around as live bait. They are also used as bait in trapping.

Long ago people could run out of food and be near starvation in the springtime. The blackfish was an important survival food.

One way to preserve blackfish is to dry it on poles. The pole is inserted through the mouth and out the gills of a number of fish. Half-dried is another way to prepare blackfish. The fish are laid on a flat surface out of the sun and away from animals. They can later be cooked. Some people freeze them and eat them raw. They can also be smoked.

Blackfish broth was used to nurse babies whose mothers had died or for babies who had been adopted. Blackfish was considered very nutritious.

When the blackfish are caught, there are often lots of beetles in the water with them and inside them. People used to eat the beetles too. They would scoop out the white part which tasted a lot like nuts.

The blackfish does not have a powerful spirit like bigger animals so no specific ways to treat it were discussed; however, its value in the past was great so it was respected. And today all food should be treated with respect.

From Fish And Fisheries:
The blackfish also is prized as a dog food with a high oil content. Many a musher has poured a gunny sack full of frozen blackfish into a dog pot only to be amazed as the creatures thaw and begin swimming.



Students will be able to

list resources needed for a field trip.
be responsible for some aspect of the field trip.



Preparation List

Students can brainstorm with the teacher, devise a check list, and decide who is responsible for which item/ activity. An item might be designated traditional such as a big stick to test the ice or current such as the first aid kit. Native names, where appropriate, could be listed in an additional column, if made into a poster/ chart, students could add illustrations. The following are suggestions:


Item (Traditional/Current)


Fishing equipment, tubs/sacks

Tools, shovels

Transportation, gas, oil


First aid kit

Survival equipment

Proper clothing

Weather forecast

Route/how long it takes


Video equipment



Elders/local experts

Observation skills


Permission slips





Students will be able to

follow safe procedures for fishing on ice. observe Elders/ local experts dipping for blackfish. catch and save blackfish.


Dipping for Blackfish Fieldtrip

At the blackfish site or sites, have students review ice safety procedures. If the class is large, several fishing sites will be safer. Students will watch and follow the instructions of the Elders/local experts. Students will catch and save their blackfish in containers or by making blackfish ice blocks.



from Make Prayers to the Raven page 75:
The greatest curiosity about blackfish is their ability to forestall death. When people make a big catch they sometimes pile the fish beside the hole and cover them with a mound of snow. Those on the outside of the pile will freeze and die, but if the inside ones do not freeze solid they can live out of water for about two weeks.



The student will be able to

record the behavior of live fish. define what a fish is.
identify external and internal features and explain their functions.

Note to teachers: Check in your community what is proper or respectful in experimenting with fish. Students may want to freeze blackfish and see if they revive. This might be a sensitive issue.



Label External Fish Structures

Each group of students will have a fish to observe. Pass out the original blackfish pictures. Have students draw a new picture and label the external structures: dorsal fin, caudal fin, anal fin, pelvic fin, pectoral fin, mouth, nostril, eye, gill cover, anus, Have students record the length and weight of their fish. Use Native words to label the fish structures. Have students compare their original drawing with the one drawn from observation.



Swimming Behavior

Observe fish behavior. Place live fish in jars of water; one fish for each group of students. Have the students answer the following questions about fins; they do not need to know the proper fin names, yet:

Which fin moves the fish forward in the water?


Which fin helps the fish turn left or right?


Which fin allows the fish to steer?


Which fin helps the fish brake?


Which fin moves the fish up and down?


Which fin keeps the fish balanced in the water?
(keeps it from rolling over as it swims)?


Discuss any differences of opinion. Students may need to observe again.



Gill Action

To observe gill action fill an eyedropper with red food coloring. Drop a few drops in front of the blackfish's mouth.

Observe what happens and describe.

The fish took in water through its mouth. When it closed its mouth the water was forced out through the gills. The oxygen was removed as the water passed over the gills.

There are three parts to the gills: the cover, the gill filaments and gill rakers. What do these structures do?

The gill cover (operculum) protects the gills. The gill rakers are shorter than the filaments; they strain the food out of the water for the fish to use. The gill filaments remove oxygen from the water.

Discussion questions.

How is this form of breathing by a fish different from our own?
What are some other animals that breathe with gills?



Gill Action and Water Temperature

Another experiment to observe gill action involves changing the temperature of the blackfishs water. The fish should be in a small beaker or jar which can be placed inside a larger bowl. Tape a thermometer inside the jar with the blackfish. Record the water temperature, and count the number of movements the gill cover (operculum) makes in one minute. Then add warm water to the outside bowl; record the warmer stabilized temperature, count the operculum movements and record. Add warmer water, not hot; record a new stabilized temperature, count the operculum movements, etc. Add crushed ice to the outside bowl, observe movements at lower temperatures and record.

Blackfish Respiration


Gill cover movements/minute

________________________ |


________________________ |


________________________ |


________________________ |


________________________ |


________________________ |



Make a graph using the data. Connect the coordinates with a line. Discuss the following with the class: When did the gill cover move the fastest? What was the temperature? When were the movements the slowest? How does this relate to the season of the year? How does this relate to the oxygen available to the fish in the water?



Fish Classification

Fish Classification. Brainstorm with students to define a fish including the special adaptations fish have made to live successfully in the water. Depending on where the students are in your science curriculum, this activity can be expanded to identify and compare vertebrates and invertebrates structures, and/or human systems.


characterized by a dorsal, hollow nerve cord and gill slits


characterized by a backbone, closed circulatory system, a brain encased in a bony framework and most have two pairs of limbs


characterized by having bony skeletons.
Gills-oxygen Fins-movement Cold-blooded-active when warm, sluggish when cold
Skin with scales-protection
Swim bladder-buoyancy, regulates depth in water; otherwise tend to sink

For further comparisons have the students:

name 3 cold blooded animals.
name 3 warm-blooded animals.
name 3 vertebrates.

If the class is also using the Yukon eel (lamprey) unit, it would be helpful to learn the other two classes of fish.


characterized by no bones, cartilage
no jaws
no paired fins
lampreys such as the "eels" found on the Yukon


no bones, cartilage
movable jaws
paired fins
sharks and rays



Special Adaptation

The blackfish has a special adaptation which allows it to breath oxygen from the air. It has a modified esophagus. There is only one other fish in the world that has this same adaptation. Have students research this. How has this adaptation helped the blackfish survive? How has it affected its range?



Average Size Blackfish

Have students measure and weigh individual blackfish to find the average size for your area. Blackfish are rarely over 20 cm (8 in) in length and weigh 200-240 gm (7-8.5 oz). In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta fish up to 25.5 cm have been found. Around Anchorage a fish was measured at 30.4 cm and weighed 366.0 grams. The measuring can be done by groups and their results compared. Information can be recorded on a table.



Oil Content of Blackfish

Have students measure and weigh a dead blackfish. Cut it up and boil in water. Wait 10 minutes; what is floating on the water? Have students skim it off and weigh the oil. What percentage of the of the blackfish is oil? What purpose does it serve the blackfish?



Blackfish Dissection

Blackfish are cooked whole without cleaning. Some people eat the whole fish; others leave the guts. Have the teacher dissect the blackfish so the students can see the intestinal tract.




Students will be able to

preserve and prepare blackfish in the traditional way.
present a program about what they have learned about traditional ways, Native language, blackfish behavior and characteristics.
show appreciation to the Elders/local experts for their help.


Preserving Blackfish

Depending on the size of the blackfish catch, facilities and time available, blackfish can be frozen in blocks, smoked, dried, and/ or half-dried.



Cooking Blackfish

Use local recipes to prepare blackfish meal for Elders/local experts.



Preparations and Presentation

The following are suggestions: invitations (could be made from a drawing of a blackfish, fish print, dipper, etc.), menu, gifts (blocks of frozen blackfish, dried, and / or half-dried), and program (speeches of appreciation, sharing, and thanks, presentations of what was learned either as reports from student books, video, skits, and / or a song made up about blackfish using the Native language).



from Elders:
To prepare blackfish they can be baked, fried, or boiled. They do not need to be cleaned. The water is boiled, and the fish dropped in. Sometimes blackfish is cooked fresh -still alive- one could jump out of the pot! Reminder, blackfish cooks fast.

Some people eat them frozen. Yupiks eat them with seal oil. Some eat guts and all. Some eat only the top meat off. Some people like to eat the whole fish which has the little eggs. When blackfish are boiled, the water is very nutritious and is drunk.

Blackfish were frozen in large blocks. At potlatches the blocks were sawed into smaller blocks and passed out to the guests.

Whouy Sze Kuinalth
"Teaching Our Many Grandchildren"
Tauhna Cauyalitahtug
(To Make a Drum)
Math Story Problems
St. Lawrence Island Rain Parka Winds and Weather Willow
Driftwood Snowshoes Moose
Plants of the Tundra Animal Classification for Yup'ik Region Rabbit Snaring
The Right Tool for the Job
Fishing Tools and Technology
Blackfish Family Tree
Medicinal Plants of the Kodiak Alutiiq Archipelago Beaver in Interior Alaska Digging and Preparing Spruce Roots
Moose in Interior Alaska Birds Around the Village Dog Salmon


Handbook for Culturally Responsive Science Curriculum by Sidney Stephens
Excerpt: "The information and insights contained in this document will be of interest to anyone involved in bringing local knowledge to bear in school curriculum. Drawing upon the efforts of many people over a period of several years, Sidney Stephens has managed to distill and synthesize the critical ingredients for making the teaching of science relevant and meaningful in culturally adaptable ways."



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Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
Questions or comments?
Last modified August 18, 2006