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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.

Digging and Preparing Spruce Roots



Iditarod Area School District

Alan & Helen Dick, Donna Miller MacAlpine

Grade Level:



Two weeks in spring or tall when ground is not frozen,


Interior Athabascan



1) Students will acquire the knowledge and skill necessary to dig and prepare spruce roots for use in various artifacts.

2) Students will know the traditional uses of spruce roots.

3) Students will use scientific methods in conducting experiments with spruce roots.

4) By working with elders students will develop a traditional skill, acquire some knowledge of the Native language and learn about the cultural tradition of their responsibility to the environment.

Alaska Content Standards for Science and the Cultural Standards for Students addressed by this unit are identified and the skills and knowledge which are expected as learning outcomes are listed under the standards.



This unit should be done in the fall before the ground freezes, or in the spring after it thaws. It would be wise to do this in the fall and get enough roots for all winter.

There are many uses I or spruce roots in the traditional lifestyle, but digging roots is not fun in any stretch of imagination There are few natural instincts that are satisfied in digging under moss and tangled roots. Point: this is a necessary step in the making of many Native crafts, but students will need encouragement and positive reinforcement.

A junior high student who will follow directions should be able to accomplish all parts of this unit and work independently except perhaps, for the ride upriver or down river in a boat). However, having an elder around when splitting the roots would be helpful.

Boys will need to be reminded that men have always dug roots for fish traps. Recent history has seen only women digging roots for baskets, and boys might shy away from doing it unless they realize that it is a job for men as well as women

This unit cannot be divided into five equal and easy to administer lessons, but rather follows the natural division of the topics/activities which need to be done. It is suggested that the teacher plan the unit to best suit the class and local schedule. The lesson topics are as follows:

1) Getting ready - learning about spruce roots and where to find them.

2) Gathering spruce roots - a field trip to one or more locations

3) Cleaning the roots

4) Splitting the roots

5) Using spruce roots


Text: Digging and Preparing Spruce Roots by Alan & Helen Dick, published by Iditarod Area School District, 1997


Other references:

This is The Way We Make Our Baskets by D. & M. Titus 

Birch Bark Basket Making

Village Science by Alan Dick

[formerly Alaska Alive, it is now Alaska Science Camps, Fairs & Experiments] by Alan Dick

From Skins, Trees, Quills and Beads, IANA: "The Roots," pg. 11



SCIENCE: A student who meets the content standard should

B-1 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.


Skills and Knowledge to be acquired by the students:

1. Students will use the processes of science to determine how to find and prepare the best spruce roots.

2. Students will use the processes of science to test the qualities of spruce roots and to compare them to other materials for similar uses.

3. Students will be able to use spruce roots for many different purposes, replacing other types of materials when necessary.



CULTURAL STANDARDS: Students who meet these cultural standards are able to:

A-4 practice their traditional responsibilities to the surrounding environment;

C-1 perform subsistence activities in ways that are appropriate to local cultural traditions;

D-5 identify and utilize appropriate sources of cultural knowledge to find solutions to everyday problems;

E-2 understand the ecology and geography of the bioregion they inhabit;


Skills and Knowledge to be acquired by the students:

1. Students will learn to harvest spruce roots in a traditional manner, respecting the environment and becoming familiar with the local bioregion.

2. Students will learn from the words and examples of old timers how spruce roots can be used in place of modern products such as rope or wire.




1) Students will develop rapport with old timers.

2) Students will make appropriate preparations for gathering spruce roots.

3) Students will know where to look for spruce roots.


Materials: Gathering and Preparing Spruce Roots by Alan & Helen Dick



1. Students should read and discuss "Digging Roots", pg. 1-4 in the text.

2. Together draw a map of the local area, putting in landmarks known to the students.

3. Students should go to old timers of the area and find out from them where the best places are for gathering roots. They should then record this information on the maps.

4. Gather necessary tools and prepare for travel.






1) Students will have multi-sensory experience gathering roots.

2) Students will develop writing skill in describing the tactile experiences of digging roots.



Hammer, axe, pocket knives

boat & motor, gas

proper clothing for a boating trip



1. Quickly reread pages 1-4 in the text Review the maps and reports of old timers and decide where are the best places to go to look for spruce roots.

2. Travel to a site and check the roots you can find there. If there are good ones, dig there. If not keep looking; check other sites until you find a good one. Gather as many roots as possible. Remember only spruce roots are desirable. As you get the roots coil them and keep them in a plastic sack. (note: this is an excellent day-time activity during hunting season)

3. After returning from the trip mark on your map the locations you visited. Be sure to indicate where you got good roots.

4. Write a description of the feeling of dirt in your hands and the moss under your fingernails as you dig for roots. Describe the texture of the roots and of the dirt. Were you surprised to find how long some of the roots were? Did you taste the roots in order to tell spruce roots from other roots? Are trees more complex than you thought before? What other things did you find in the dirt?

5. Gather a few roots from willow, birch and cottonwood. Compare them to some of your spruce roots: size, shape, color, smell, etc. Make a chart to show the differences in the roots.




1) The students will be proficient in the techniques of cleaning spruce roots.

2) The students will be able to list the advantages and disadvantages of a given system of cleaning roots.




Digging and Preparing Spruce Roots


Broom, hammer





1. Read "Cleaning the Roots," pg.5 in the text.

2. Have different members of the class try the different methods and discuss them with the class.

3. List the advantages and disadvantages of each method on the board while cleaning the roots.

4. Clean hands after the session. Experiment with different types of cleaners. Try the following to see which works best at removing the gum:

- regular hand soap 

- dish detergent

- Tide or other strong laundry soap

- Crisco or other oil

(Because both spruce gum and Crisco or other grease are non-polar substances, the grease works best. For more information check "Soap", pg. 79 in Village Science) NOTE: You will still have to wash your hands with soap after the gum is removed with Crisco!

To learn more about spruce gum check Alaska Alive under "Spruce Gum", pg. 67-68.





1) Students will develop the skill of splitting spruce roots.

2) Students will develop an appreciation for the skill and ingenuity of the old timers.



Cleaned roots from lesson 3

Old timer pocket knives.



1. Read "Split the roots" in the text, pg.8

2. Follow the directions in the book or if possible get an old timer to help. This is the trickiest part of working with roots and old timers could be a great help.

3. If there is a shortage of roots, willows from the roadside are good to practice splitting on, if they are peeled first with a pocket knife.

4. Coil the split roots and put them away.







1) Students will compare spruce roots to other types of lashing and list the advantages and disadvantages of each.

2) Students will list the uses of spruce roots.


spruce roots

nylon string

cotton string




1. Put each material through the following tests:
a) Which stretches the most when pulled? (nylon) Which would make the sloppiest lashing? (nylon)

b) Which can take the most twisting and bending before breaking? (nylon and cotton)

Would you use roots in place where there was flexing and bending? (no)

c) Which is the most resistant to abrasion? Try rubbing them against something rough as if shining shoes. (Nylon and cotton do tray)

Which one would you use on a fish trap when you are poor? (roots) Which one would you use on a fish trap when you have lots of money? (None of them. Buy the fish)

d) Which one(s) of these do you think would rot easily? (Cotton is the worst, and nylon rots in sunlight)


2. Practice tying the root knot until it is mastered. How do you think the old timers know which knot is best? Experiment with other types of knots to see why this one way is best. Record number and types of knots tried and the results.

3. Brainstorm about all the possible uses of spruce roots. Make a list -include traditional uses and any new ones that you can come up with.

4. Consider the following questions.

Why did old timers get large supplies of roots in the fall? (They didn't have any stores handy and couldn't dig frozen ground if they need roots in winter)


Why do people still use spruce roots on baskets made primarily to sell to tourists?

(No one wants baskets made with synthetic materials)

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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Last modified December 12, 2006