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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.



spruce roots

By Alan & Helen Dick

The Iditarod Area School District
McGrath, Alaska




The old-timers used spruce roots for many purposes. Roots are tough, do not stretch, hold a knot well, and are free for the digging. However, knowledge is required to get them and to do a good job with them.

The old-timers had many uses for spruce roots. Anything that we use string for today, the old-timers used either roots or babiche. Roots are better than babiche in applications where the object would be in water, as wet babiche stretches terribly. Babiche is much stronger in dry applications.

Fish traps were always lashed with spruce roots. The lashing does not stretch, does not rot for many years when well cared for, and is strong enough. Roots do not hurt a person's hands when the fish trap is being cleaned as nails do.

Bark baskets were lashed with roots. The stiff roots hold shape and, do not require a needle to thread through the holes. They are stronger than the bark, so they do not break. Many times poles and sticks were lashed together with roots. On smokehouses, bark canoes, and hand tools, parts were joined by roots.


The first and hardest part, it seems, is finding a good place to dig the roots. When the old-timers found a good place, they often did not tell anyone else because good places are hard to find. If the roots are too deep in the soil, they are hard to dig. If they are mixed with birch, willow and alder roots, they are hard to untangle. It is best to invest a little time looking for a good place among spruce stands. Look for a place that has a nice moss floor, with relatively little brush. Dig around and see how many spruce roots there are and how deep they are. You might have to try several places until you find a good one. Travel by boat is the best.

Telling what's under from up above

How can you tell what the roots will be like? Trees are just like people; they are different from each other. Some are tough and some are not. Some are short and wide; others are long and slim. How can you tell what the roots will be like? The roots will be like the trunk and branches of the tree.


If the tree is tall with little taper, then the roots will be long with little taper. If the tree has many branches, then the roots will have many forks and branches.


If the branches are tough and hard to break off, then the roots will be tough and hard to break.

We can tell how the roots will be by the rest of the tree. We want roots that are long, have little taper, few branches, and are tough. We do not want short roots that are easy to break.

Method of digging

What is the best way to dig the roots?

The old timers used a stick shaped like this:


Nowadays we often use a hammer.


When we have enough roots, we coil them up together, and try to keep them from drying


While digging roots, it is often hard to tell a spruce root from those of birch, cottonwood or willow, as they are interwoven under the moss. If they look too much alike to tell them apart, smell or taste them. Spruce is quite different from the others.

Some people get roots from a cutbank where they are hanging down free from dirt. This is ok, but often the roots are very dry and take a long time to soak and soften. Also, it is hard to remove the bark from them. Old-timers used roots from cutbanks when the land was frozen in spring and fall and they were the only roots available.




The time of year roots are harvested determines if the job is easy or hard. Roots dug when the bark slips easily off the trees will also peel very easily (June-July). Roots dug in spring and fall will be harder to bark, but certainly not impossible. Cleaning roots is far easier than digging them.

Step 1) Cut off all the small root hairs with a pocket knife.

Cut off all the small root hairs with a pocket knife.


Step 2) Remove the bark. There are several ways to do this. The old-timers often split a small stump (about 2"-3") with an axe. They pulled the root through the crack, starting with the big end of the root. This works well, but the crack soon plugs up with bark, and needs to be cleaned out with a stick.

Remove the bark

Another method is to split a dry spruce stick about ten inches long then tie the top of the two halves back together again. Put the root between the two halves, and squeeze the bottom together creating just the right pressure to scrape the bark from the roots. This way is good because it is easy to clean the bark from between the two sticks.

Another method

A more modern way is to pull the roots through the claws of a framing hammer. The bark slips off easily. Cleaning the hammer claws is not a problem.

A more modern way is to pull the roots through the claws of a framing hammer


Step 3) Split the roots

After the roots have been stripped of their bark and root hairs, they need to be split. This is not hard, and is even fun when the method is learned. Most roots have a dark line or dent in their surface. Start the split with a knife or teeth along this line.

Split the roots


Hold one side of the split in your mouth, and the other side of the split in one hand, placing the other as shown in the picture below.

Hold one side of the split in your mouth

The trick is to keep the split pieces equal in thickness. If one side gets too thick, end the thick side so stress on the fibers causes them to split over to the thin side. Keep the thin side straight.

split pieces equal

split pieces equal

Once you master this, there is nothing hard to splitting roots. You will also be able to split willows, and any other kind of brush. When teaching students we often let them practice splitting willows as they are easier to gather than roots.

splitting willows

If they are split in quarters like the above root, the lashing will not lay flat on the workpiece.

lashing will not lay flat

Tying roots together

There is only one knot that works well tying the roots together. The big end should be used to make the "V", and the little end of the root to tie around it. Look at the drawing, and practice the knot until you master it.


Now that you have found the roots, cleaned them, and split them, you can make many traditional crafts. After the ground is frozen, there is a sense of wealth when you have a supply of roots hidden away. Perhaps you will make a birch basket for a present. Maybe you will give roots to an elder.

Whether you have a supply of roots or not, the knowledge of how to find and prepare them will be with you for the rest of your life.

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Medicinal Plants of the Kodiak Alutiiq Archipelago Beaver in Interior Alaska Digging and Preparing Spruce Roots
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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 August 18, 2006