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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide
 

Observing Snow

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These two should look alike.

shroo
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The Four Corners of Life:
A Traditional Seasonal Round

The traditional Athabascan lifestyle was quite mobile and depended on moving with the seasonal changes and hunting opportunities. This wheel represents some of the information that was gleaned from several visits with the Elders of the Minto community. Rural students can search out the specific information for their own village.

Chapter
1
Calendar Cycle

" They were wise about where to go. They had an elder in the camp that told them which way they should go. They never went just any old place. They know where to go. They know a lot of things that nowadays parents don't know. They use an Elder for the leader. Every time they get stuck they go to the Elder. That Elder he think and then he tell them, he know. All the decisions, the old people used to make the decisions. They got no books and no stuff to follow so they gotta follow the people that have experience.
- Geraldine Charlie"

R

Reading

" Well we talked already about fall, winter, and spring. Already we talked about that. And summertime. That's four corners of life, right there. I think it's important that the kids understand. They had certain things they do in these four seasons, four different in a year. And all these four seasons we used to go out. We used to know the country. And that's another important thing they used to teach young people about, the country. Every season they know where to move to get the kind of thing that will be around at that season.
- Neal Charlie"

In Interior Alaska, the climate is demanding. Yet people have lived here for thousands of years. They survived because of skills and knowledge acquired through experience and passed down through the generations. This body of traditional knowledge is the common heritage of today's Native people and its bearers are contemporary Elders.

When we asked Minto Elders what they know about snow, the question didn't seem to make much sense to them. It was too specific, out of context, and they were rightly reluctant to begin talking about snow types and snow terminology without first providing a context within which their very specific knowledge about snow would make sense. They talked first about their lives, their experience on the land, and the lessons they learned from their parents. They talked about the mobile lifestyle of their youth and emphasized its seasonal patterns. They talked about their parents' knowledge of the land, their knowledge of animal behavior.

Native knowledge is based upon long experience of living off the land and is best understood in that context. Alaska's Native people possess in their cultural heritage a great deal of specific knowledge about all kinds of natural phenomena, including snow and the winter environment. But before we move on to investigating specific snow types, we need to understand how they came to know what they know.

The following comments from Minto Elders are a sample drawn from several hours of conversation, and are intended to give just a sense of the pattern of traditional activities. In this brief sketch, we will not get into all of the interesting and important topics addressed by the Minto Elders, such as animal behavior, weather observations, place names, and social history and customs. These topics will come up in the accompanying Activity called "Documenting Seasonal Activities." Students are encouraged to listen for this information and document their findings. Teachers are encouraged to look for connections with other topics they teach and to bring Elders and local experts into their classrooms on an ongoing basis.

Sharing of the first salmon
photo by Wallace M. Olson from Handbook of North American Indians, Smithsonian Institute, 1981

Sharing of the first salmon, Old Minto, 1967

Seasonal Mobility

"In the spring time they used to move to where they call spring camp. Mostly where they think the ducks come early. And our time when we were raising our kids, we used to call it spring camp where we hunt muskrat. Because we eat the bodies and we sell the skin, too. So that was very important to us in the springtime, to stay in the spring camp to get muskrats and stuff. Summer time they go down to the Tanana river for fishing, on the Tanana River.

And the fall time we stay where there's moose. Good moose hunting time. That's the time we try to put away as much meat as we can for the winter. We know just where to move to get meat for the winter. So that was four different kind of seasons that we used to look forward to. We know where we're gonna move. They start planning [for winter] right after they get through fishing on the river down there. They start planning it. Maybe it could be last part of August, somewhere around there. Anyway they were ready all the time, for the four seasons.

First of November they started to trap for fur. Remember I tell you they used to use fur for clothes, so they add that trapping to what they're doing for fall camp. Camp there until Christmas. And then after Christmas they move out to winter camp. After Christmas, after New Year. After they celebrate New Year and Christmas in the village, in the Old Village down there. I'm talking about Old Minto. Were talking about something they don't do no more. We're talking about something we used to do. After they celebrate, that is when they move to what they call winter camp.

We caught the end of it, us. But our people, our grandma and them they used to do a lot of that. Moving around, yeah. I mean we had a new camp every day and you do a lot of walking. Sometimes two or three days and they move again. Just to keep it going. If they stop too long in one place they probably get hungry. You know, they didn't have no store. They stay there two or three days. And hunter he catch moose way up, way up Tatalina [River] or way up Washington [Creek]. And they move camp up closer to where he catch the moose, so they don't have to haul it that far. They're moving up that way anyway.

The whole camp moved together. When the chief said we're going to move tomorrow, everybody gotta move. Everybody gotta have snowshoes. Or they make a trail so that people who don't have snow shoes can walk, you know. The hunter gets the moose and comes back and you go on their trail. Cause when you walk on snowshoes, overnight the trail gets hard.
- Neal Charlie"

Note:
The Minto Elders sharing their stories here grew up in the 1920s and 30s prior to the establishment of schools and modern villages. They grew up speaking their native language and participated in a highly mobile lifestyle following patterns handed down by their ancestors. Though things have changed a lot during the lifetime of today's Elders, many current subsistence practices are based on traditional knowledge and practices. During the year, think about how current subsistence practices are connected to those traditions.

Discussion

  • Describe the main activities of each season for the Minto area.
  • Imagine living the lifestyle described above. What parts would you find
    difficult? What would you enjoy?
  • What kind of environment did Minto people seek out during each season.
  • What was the basis of leadership in their society?

Fall

"Well we move to fall camp from Old Village. We used to move over here [near Minto] to what they call fall camp. That means they're gonna stay here and spend freeze-up here. It used to be right there at what they call North Fork. Or they move out to what they call Cache, Dwxtso Dedhdlode. It means you put your cache away there. This is the meaning of fall camp, they move to special place. We used to move all the way from Old Village to here to the place called Benok'oget, right there, right corner of this hill, point of this hill here (near Minto). You can just go to the bank and fish with fish hook there. That's one of the reasons they do that. And before fall freeze they set fishnet there, catch fall fish. And they pick berries from there. And they hunt moose, and catch bear. And chickens [ptarmigan] and rabbits, whatever they can catch, to get ready for winter. And that's the reason it was a good place. And the same thing with the other place Cache, Dwxtso Dedhdlode. They used to put in fish traps, and good place for hunt moose, hunt ducks in the fall. So they pick two place to move for fall. Not everybody move there, maybe two or three families maybe. Same thing over there, maybe two or three families.
- Neal Charlie

They hunt for moose for the skin because we need the skin. In the fall they hunt moose and sheep. Moose meat. They go out try to get 'em. Sometimes they stay out for two weeks before they can get a moose. They have to paddle, too, up the Nenana river. [Wilson Titus lived near Nenana as a boy.] That's pretty swift current up there, you know. You stop there and hunt back in the woods. Look around, look for fresh moose track. They get a moose way up the river someplace. They can come down in about two, three hours. When they go up for two or three days. That's fast water coming down.

I remember one time my dad and my two brothers went out. A couple of times they did that. They go up there, right above the fish camp there, there's a slough there coming out. You go up that slough, way up there. There's a long lake there, and they leave the canoes there. There's little hill on this side, all the way up. They walk all the way up and they hit that Nenana River way up there. One time my Dad he caught two moose up there. He's figuring what he's gonna do. So he take little nails, you know, little nails they build canoes. He take the moose skins, cut the hair off and made that canoe and come down by the river. Pretty hard to come down, but they can paddle it you know, the whole load.

Made from moose skin with a frame. You could use willow on that. It's a pretty good canoe. You're not worried about tearing it, anything. You hit a rock, it's shallow, you just slip right on.
- Wilson Titus"

 

Chief Peter John
Chief Peter John of
sketch by Claire Fejes from Villagers,1981

Discussion

  • Describe the fall subsistence activities of Minto Elders.
  • Describe the fall moose hunting strategy.

Winter

"You got xwyhts'en [fall], you got xwyh, that's winter. We figure it starts around November, it starts around November, wintertime. - Neal Charlie

Usually winter start right now. Benenh Taxuk'oddhi is November. The beginning of winter. Benenh Taxuk'oddhi means it freeze up, everywhere it freeze up in November. In November they stay one place for all fall, from beginning of moose rutting until after this [late November]. They go to village like and stay there getting ready until Christmas. And then after Christmas they move. After that they move in January, move to different camp. Move way up Washington sometime, up Tatalina sometimes. Whichever way they're planning on going. - Evelyn Alexander

You wait until after New Year's. Then people, they move out just like my dad used to do. They move way up the Tatalina, Washington, Chatanika. Look for moose meat. They used to look for moose skins, you know. Cause they don't throw away skin, they tan it. They tan it or either make babiche (rawhide webbing). Babiche you gotta use for sleds or use for snowshoes. They use the light stuff for snow shoes. - Wilson Titus

dog sledYou know Wickersham Dome? There's another creek all the way down to the Beaver Creek. They move down that way mostly, you know, for caribou. Sometimes there used to be a lot of caribou on that Wickersham Dome, stay there all winter, you know. Mostly caribou because long time ago there was hardly any moose, moose was scarce. I was hunting by the time moose was scarce. There was hardly any moose, compared to right now. That's why I tell them young boys, it was like them days right now you'd never get any moose. It takes good hunters to get a moose. They track them down in the woods, back in the woods there. Mostly they move out look for caribou, wherever caribou was, all winter, you know. - Wilson Titus

You see right now, November, there's hardly any snow. We don't know if we'll have snow, but it can get a lot of snow in January and February. So that's when people start moving out, traveling. Somebody had to go out and make the trails. They walk, they cut trails. There's four or five of them maybe. They snowshoe and they make trail. Leave it like that for about two or three days, to drive dogs on. Then we move to another different camp. If you make a trail once you use it all the time, all winter. We go back and forth on there. If we move out we make trail, we come back on that trail. Like we break trail over to Sawtooth [Mountain], we'll move back on the same trail. It'll be a good trail by that time.
- Evelyn Alexander"

Discussion

  • What natural events signal the beginning of winter?
  • When did people gather? When did they disperse?

Cultural Standard:
Curriculum
D1

draws parallels

Winter Trails

"Xwyh tena is winter trail. Gee we used to work hard. Yeah, can't keep still, all day long. After they break trail they hunt, too. I remember we move up Tat'ali No' [Washington Creek] and we stopped for lunch, gonna make tea. They don't know where to put up camp. winter treesThey say we wouldn't go far after we drink tea, cause we gotta look for camp. As we were drinking tea moose crossed the trail. Fresh moose tracks. With the axe handle they poke it a little. When it's soft that means not long ago. When it's kind of hard it means this morning or last night. This old man he went after it. We heard two shots. That's all. We were drinking tea and here comes that old man. He shot two moose. We didn't go far we just went from here to about Lodge [Minto Lodge - about 100 yards]. We were forced to put up camp there. And some boys went over with that old man to butcher that moose. And some people helped that old lady to put up tent. They set their stove and wood and build fire and melt snow. They cooked the stomach part. When everybody get through putting up tent, everybody eat with that old lady. The one that her husband catch moose.
- Evelyn Alexander

[How did you make trails?] Double track. You gotta walk on snowshoes, one on this side, one on this side to make trail wide enough. A snowshoe and a half. Or you could make it wider you know if you got a bunch of people. Wide trail. Make a wide trail so it [your sled] don't turn off you know, deep snow. When you got load and you get off in that soft snow you gotta get out in front and pull it back.

[Can you drive on the trail right after you make it?] Yeah, you could do that, dogs follow you behind, you know. But they usually break through like one day ahead, or maybe a couple of days. See when they got camp they go out on snowshoes. Where they hunt they got trail, maybe a whole bunch of them. And they got pretty good trail, hard trail then. And when they gonna move they move right on the snowshoe trail you know.
- Wilson Titus"

Discussion

  • When does deep snow usually occur in your area? What did this mean for mobile people?
  • What does "break trail" mean? What happens to the snow when you break trail?
  • How can you tell the age of an animal track? Why is this important?

Spring

"March is what we call spring camp. March is the beginning of spring, early in March. We start getting ready for spring camp. From winter camp we move to spring camp. We move to spring camp in March. In March at spring camp we move there to catch muskrat and to try to catch fish and black fish. [How do you say spring?] D5y.

muskratWell, like before in winter time we figure out where, where would be the best place. Again we ask the elders where we should go. They used to call Montana [Creek] spring camp up this way, Montana spring camp. And out where they call Lake Minto. It was the two main places where they used to move, because there's more lakes in those two areas. There's good places to trap muskrat. That was the reason they picked these two places. Montana spring camp and Lake Minto spring camp they use to call it. Oh yeah, Birch Hill too, where they used to call Birch Hill spring camp.

They start hunting ducks in April for food. And then they start to catch pike with dipnets. That's some of the reasons we pick that place over at Old Minto, cause you could do that, fish through the ice with dipnet. After water start coming, and they could use dipnet, at that time of year the snow is melting. Melting, every day, and the water opens up. There's water all over.

We got muskrat March, April and May. Around the 20th of May is when they stop shooting muskrats. They mate at that time, gonna have babies pretty soon. They just disappear.

They don't shoot them when their gonna have babies. Just like moose, they let them have babies. You hunt muskrat you can catch maybe 10-12 one night and the next night you're not gonna catch nothing. They just disappear. So that's the end of spring, end of ratting time. That's the beginning of summer. No more ice, no more snow.
- Neal Charlie"

flockDiscussion

  • Where did the Minto Elders go in spring?
  • What is "ratting"?
  • What natural events signal the end of spring?
hunting

drying fish
sketch by
Claire Fejes
from
Villagers, 1981

Summer

"We mostly looked forward to going to fish camp, get ready for fish wheel. We start building fish wheel around June, hey? Start catching fish in July. Start fishing for a little while, getting ready for fishing. Getting poles to hang up fish. When you're gonna build fish wheel you gotta look for small spruce poles. Sometimes we have to do all our work over again because flood. Fishwheel. All the time we're just busy every day. Most of that time we have hardly anything to eat while we getting ready for fish, but we always manage. By the time we start going out to get fresh berries. First of July we start catching our first fish. End of July is when we start picking berries.
- Geraldine Charlie

You ever see fish wheel? The basket is the one that catch the fish. They do that at Culture Camp [at Old Minto], get that ready. And we start it as soon as we get ready around first of July to fourth of July and we have a big potlatch with that. We don't stick it in the freezer, we share it. We stay in that fish camp until maybe the first of September. We stay in that fish camp through July and through August, dry that fish, take care of the fish we catch. By the time that we get through doing that it's time for moose hunting season. Moose hunting time. And that's what we call fall time, hunting ducks and moose. During that period of fishing and stuff they try to get berries, blueberries and blackberries. And the cranberries and stuff is ready by August.

When you make snowshoes you gotta make it out of birch tree, because birch tree is the strongest kind of tree there is. And the same thing with sled, sled runners. In summer time birch is easier to get and easier to bend. They claim that if you get birch in summer it's stronger. And it's easy to cut, easy to plane. Another thing we used to do is we used to get birch bark as much as we can get, and spruce roots. We start to get this stuff while it's fishing time. You stay in fish camp the whole summer, you'll find out that's one of the busiest times right there.
- Neal Charlie"

Discussion

  • Why are people so busy in summer?
  • What summer activities contribute to a successful winter? Refer to the chart
    on page 13, "A Seasonal Round."
  • Why is it "round"? Would another shape be better? Consider making a round
    for your community after completing the following activity.

Activity: Documenting Seasonal Activities

Ask local Elders to teach you about traditional life and activities.

Time: 2-3 hours
Material:
Voice recorder and cassette tape,
Snow Journal, page 9
Map

  • Work in small groups. Perhaps 2-4 students with each Elder is ideal. Find a quiet location where Elders and students are comfortable.
  • Use a tape recorder if the Elders and students are comfortable with this. It is better to listen attentively during the discussion and to take notes later.
  • Ask Elders to talk about the seasons and the things they did in each season. Ask especially about winter. Start with general questions like "How did people live in the winter? What did they do? Where did they go?" Listen for subsistence activities, observations about nature, and important places.
  • Don't interrupt with too many questions. You don't want to ruin the story. When the Elder finishes talking about a topic, they will pause and then you may ask questions.
  • If possible, record the names of the seasons and months. This is a difficult one, though. People may not remember, and you'll need help from your Bilingual Program Teacher or other adult literate in the local language to transcribe the names.
  • After meeting with the Elders, record your observations in the Snow Journal. Go back to the Elders to check the accuracy of your notes. Then answer the Discussion Questions in the Snow Journal.

Cultural Standard:
Schools
A2
provides opportunities to document Elder's cultural knowledge

Cultural Standard:
Students
E2

understand the ecology and geography of the bioregions they inhabit

Snow Journal icon
Snow Journal
pg. 8

 

Tolavana fishing camp and site of trading post, post office, and telegraph station
Tolavana fishing camp and site of trading post, post office, and telegraph station established in 1903.
Photographed July 1919.

 

Notes:

 

 

 

 

Observing Snow
Introduction

The Four Corners of Life
Water: the Stuff that Makes Snowflakes
Snow on the Ground Changes Through Time
Exploring Native Snow Terms
Glacier Investigations
Open Note Review
Conclusion
Bibliography & Resources

 
 

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Last modified August 17, 2006