This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner Home Page About ANKN Publications Academic Programs Curriculum Resources Calendar of Events Announcements Site Index This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner This is part of the ANKN Banner
Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Observing Snow

Toward a Culturally Responsive Curriculum

Snow DesignObserving Snow is intended as a journey to bridge the gap between the old and new, the traditional and the scientific, Native and Western approaches to education. A generation of sharp young minds from Native communities are encountering substantial roadblocks when faced with the typical western school curriculum. Observing Snow is an attempt to teach basic core subjects, especially science, and listening and reading comprehension, using materials that make sense to the Alaska Native student. Snow is a natural choice. Everyone who lives in the interior subarctic has a personal and intimate knowledge of snow.

Every student has ways of making sense out of the world that surrounds them. It is vital that teachers find new and innovative ways to instill confidence in their students so that children can trust their own powers of observation, utilize their own style of learning, and feel comfortable making rational and logical connections that expand their knowledge. Developing these skills is important in learning effective problem solving. Statistically, rural Alaska students have a poor track record in academic institutions. Their education has been dominated by a culture that makes little sense in their immediate experience. There is a serious need to harmonize traditional ways with western culture if these kids are to succeed.

Children raised in a rural Alaska village have an intimate knowledge of winter and snow. What they probably have not come to realize is how this knowledge has already given them a strong foundation for such subjects as chemistry, math, and ecology. All of these children have grown up with a traditional culture interacting with a modern one, and a network of community members and Elders. Few have made the connection between complex environmental science and the knowledge of their grandparents. Faced with huge environmental challenges, western science is now looking to traditional cultures for ways of living sustainably on a finite planet. The goal of the Denali Foundation's snow curriculum is to help make these connections in the minds of each student. Sound environmental education starts with a strong understanding of how the natural world functions and an appreciation of the vast web of interdependencies that we all rely upon.

Programs that seek to teach scientific methods of environmental science must realize that there is a strong foundation of traditional knowledge and a reverence for the natural world. This is a great setting to teach children the scientific interrelationships of the natural world. There is a serious need to help students learn not just good scientific information, but to develop critical thinking, problem solving, and effective decision-making skills.

The Observing Snow Curriculum of the Denali Foundation directly targets many of these issues with a strong science program that employs a wide variety of learning techniques. We also seek to root the learning experience directly into the local area and to incorporate traditional native knowledge as an integral part of our curriculum. Parallel chapters will guide students in an exploration of snow from scientific and indigenous points of view.

We wish you a pleasant journey as you help school children unravel the mystery of the winter world as seen through both the eyes of Native elders and the methods of Physical Science.

for the

Cultural Standards:

Recognize the validity and integrity of the traditional knowledge system

Traditional Knowledge and the Modern School

Traditional knowledge is exemplified in this curriculum by the words of four Elders from Minto, Alaska, whose comments were recorded in the Fall of 2000. Excerpts from those conversations indicate the kind of snow-related topics Elders wish to discuss and the kind of values they choose to emphasize. Teachers and students will find similar concerns and knowledge in their own communities, but the specifics will vary from place to place and from one elder to another.

In addition to conducting the activities suggested in this curriculum, students are encouraged to pursue related topics and document what they learn. You may decide to document the activities of other seasons or to expand the study of geography based on the mapping exercise and place names discovered here. Or you may use these exercises as the start of a student conducted oral history project for your area.

Alaska Native Elders have much to teach, a lot of traditional knowledge to pass on, and a strong desire to assist in the education of the children in their communities. Working with the Elders can not only improve the quality and relevance of classroom instruction, but can also improve a teacher's connections with and understanding of the communities in which they teach. However, the establishment of formal schooling in rural Alaska has profoundly influenced Alaska Native ways of life and cultural practices, so Elders in your community may be ambivalent about western schooling. The large amount of time children spend in school has been disruptive to traditional forms of education, and the school system has been a major contributor to the demise of Alaska Native languages. The Elders may have had unpleasant experiences with the local school and may not be comfortable there. Nevertheless, working with Native Elders to bring local knowledge into your curriculum is highly rewarding, and you will be surprised by the depth of knowledge they can bring to your class and the enthusiasm which students will have for discovering connections between scientific investigations and Native ways of knowing.

The readings presented in Observing Snow are a small sample of what the Minto Elders have to say about snow. They have generously agreed to share their words to help kids begin to explore snow related knowledge in their own communities. The readings can be done individually or in class. The Class Discussions are intended to provide practice in making inferences from oral teachings and should be used to both discover what students already know about snow and to highlight concepts which might be useful in integrating indigenous and scientific perspectives on snow.

Evelyn Alexander

" Old Minto is Menhti Xwghotthit. That's where I grew up. That's where I was born, down in Old Village. We used to move around. I think 1930 school start down there, and since that time people start to stay in one place. They quit moving around, 'cause kids have to go to school. That's after we grow up, after I get married. I didn't have that kind of opportunity to go to school. There was no school until 1930. I was happy for school because I didn't go to school, and I'm for education. I like the kids to go to school. It's good for them.
- Evelyn Alexander"

Working with Elders

Start early. Several weeks prior to starting the curriculum, ask your students and their parents about who in the community might be willing to share traditional knowledge on the topic you are interested in. Talk to the bilingual program teacher at your school. They probably know the community well. If the bilingual program teacher is available and willing to participate in the snow science curriculum, you'll be much better able to accurately transcribe the Native language terminology encountered, and perhaps material from this curriculum can be incorporated into language instruction.

Identify local experts. Ask community members. A recommend form for this is: "Who around here knows about snow and winter survival?" Typically you'll be directed to Elders, but encourage other community members to participate. Ask the Elders. They are very aware of who the experts are on any given topic. You'll probably want to find 3-4 Elders to participate, depending on the size of your class. A ratio of 3-4 students per Elder is good; 5-6 might be OK.

Ask politely. Don't be afraid to ask the Elders for help, but be careful not to pressure them or put them in a position where it would be uncomfortable to say no. If an Elder can't help you with this topic, maybe they can help on a future topic. Don't expect an immediate answer; it may take folks a little time to decide amongst themselves who is best able to help with this particular project.

Be clear about the kind of project and amount of participation you require. The Observing Snow curriculum consists of a day-long field trip, 2-3 hours of discussion with students about traditional lifestyles, 1-2 hours of talking about native snow terms, and an optional 2-3 hours of participation in the snow shelter and snow pit exercises.

Be patient. Discuss the topic in advance with each Elder or local expert. Ask general questions and not too many of them. Listen. Give them time to warm to the topic, and you'll be impressed with the stories they tell. Assume that what they tell you is relevant, even if you don't get it at first.

Find a comfortable context for sharing traditional knowledge. The workshop begins with a field trip to teach traditional outdoor skills. This will be the most comfortable setting for the Elders. It might work best to find a neutral setting such as the local community center for the kids and Elders to discuss traditional lifestyles and snow terminology. You'll probably choose an outdoor location near your school to conduct the snow shelter and snow pit exercises, so invite the Elders to observe. After working with you for a while, the Elders may be comfortable enough to work effectively in your classroom.

Express thanks to the Elders at the end of the curriculum. Perhaps the students can report back to the Elders on what they learned and thank them personally.

Cultural Standard:

Views all community members as potential teachers


Neal and Geraldine Charlie Talk About Education


Neal and Geraldine Charlie, along with Evelyn Alexander, participated in our Snow Science Workshop in the spring of 1999. The following discussion highlights Neal and Geraldine's feelings about the current educational system and how native communities and Elders can contribute to the education of their children and grandchildren. As you read their words, notice what they have to say about traditional values, traditional modes of instruction, and how schools can facilitate the incorporation of traditional knowledge in the curriculum.

The following discussion was recorded on October 26, 2000 at the Charlies' home in Minto, Alaska. It is edited lightly for readability while maintaining the feel of an oral narrative from folks whose use of their second language is quite expressive. Notice that a transcription of spoken language is a little different than formal written language. This is true for people everywhere. Most of that day's conversation is included, with gaps indicated by ellipses (...) and editorial clarifications or comments in [brackets].

How did you decide what to teach the Minto kids in the Spring of 1999?

Neal and Geraldine CharlieNeal: I tell you, we lose too much of our native way. We already lost too much. And it's one of the things we decided, that we should start teaching our grandchildren things. Right now, our age. We used to go out there someplace with our dad or our older brothers, and they teach us what we have to do, being out there. That's the Indian way, find out things. Right now we hardly see our kids. Leave eight o'clock in the morning.

Geraldine: They're in school all day, not learning nothing at home. Most of them don't know nothing about going out, how to build fire, how to survive.

Neal: And that's the kind of things we're facing today. That's not only here, it's like that in Fairbanks, everywhere. I think that there's really a lot of important things young people learn out in the country, out on the land. Cause animals themselves are created by God and they got lots that they can teach, animal. And we were taught to respect animal, don't laugh at animal. How can you laugh at something your gonna eat? We see them crazy things, they make hamburger dance before they eat it, on TV.

Geraldine: He means them commercial [a television commercial for a fast food restaurant]. Yeah there's commercial about hamburger jumping around and talking. And our old Traditional Chief Peter John, he got mad when he saw that. It's not right, he said.

Neal: We were taught to respect animal. If you kill him, if you kill him to eat, you make sure you use all of it. Make sure you use it all. Like if they kill moose, we use the stomach, we eat the marrow. Just the bones we don't eat on moose. We use the head, the meat on the head. We use the moose skin for clothes. So that's the kind of things that our children should know. So they don't play with animal or laugh at animal, stuff like that.

Geraldine: We were taught to respect each other, too. Never put each other down. And we were always taught to help. If you know your neighbor or friend need help, you gotta help, don't let it go. It was all these things they taught us. Never talk back to Elder. If an Elder tell you something, don't talk back; that Elder know what he's talking about. Like right now today teenagers get mad at us if we tell them what's right. They don't know any better. I find out a lot of kids, right now their mothers and fathers don't teach them like we used to, long time ago. It's really hard to get along with that.

Neal: Another important thing that they used to tell young people is, don't laugh at crippled people. Don't laugh at blind people, or people that can't hear. Or if you see a man walking, paralyzed one side, don't laugh at them kind of people. They used to tell young people that kind of thing. Don't pass up old man or old lady. If you see they need help, you help them right away on what they're doing. What happen is, maybe that old person might pray for you so that you'll be in good health or you'll be lucky. That's the way they advised our young people. They don't only talk about snow, they talk about life [laughs]. What really life is. And be careful. Be careful with axe, be careful with knife, be careful with your gun. Right now kids and people just use guns to hurt each other and I think that's just plumb wrong, there. Axe and knife and gun is very good tool when you're out in the woods, and that's what it's for. I'm just talking about the advice they used to give us. And today, after we get pretty old, we find out that's right. What they used to say is true.
Another thing they used to tell our young people about is don't talk too fast. Don't say things you'll regret. Don't brag in front of your friends. Right now today we hear kids say "I'll kill you." That's an awful dirty word there. That's not right to say that. That's plumb wrong to say that kind of thing, especially when they're just starting out in life. They should never use that kind of a talk. I think this world would be a lot better off if we get back to loving one another. And try to do good to each other. In our language we call that hwtlani [taboo]. Hwtlani means if you say "I'll kill you," it might happen that way.

Geraldine: Your words might come true.

Neal: What you say might happen. If you think bad about your friend it might happen; that kind of thing. So you try to keep your mind clear all the time. Try to think about the good thing, that kind of thing. That's what you call healthy for young people.

Geraldine: There's a lotta lotta more things. You can sit there all day, all week and you'll pick up a lot of things we use in our life.

Neal: There's a lot of ways we could talk about in front of young people. Young people is not seem to be listening the way they should be listening. The young people are not listening hard enough.

How did your Elders teach?

Neal: The way we're talking.

Geraldine: I remember my grandmother used to tell me, you're going to that certain person, so just sit down. She'll tell you a lot of things you need to know. And I used to do that. That's how I learned to sew, a lot of things. She told us a lot of things, that old lady. Stories, about how to make a living. Our parents think we're too tired of listening to them so they send us to somebody else. (laughs) He'll [the boys] have to go to somebody else's house and listen to another person tell stories. That's how we learned.

Neal: We used to gather up in one old man's house. And he used to tell us stories. He tell us about stuff like that. That's what you call Indian education. We're talking about stuff here that young people should know.
It used to be very, very important that we understood our native languages. They had to teach us that, 'cause they can get across better to us in our native language. And I think that's one of the really truthful things we're missing, as Native people. I believe that we need to get back to our native languages and understand one another.

Neal Charlie
River Times, Fairbanks, Alaska
Neal Charlie, son of Moses and Bessie Charlie, in modern dance dress.
Photographed possibly at the Eskimo-Indian Olympics, 1970

Did they tell you a lot of traditional stories?

Geraldine: Yeah, we pick up the good parts of it. Sometimes when they think we get too bored they tell us funny stories in between, you know. Make us laugh. It gets pretty interesting when they do that, you know. Otherwise we just sit there and listen, listen, listen. But some people will find a little time to tell us jokes and funny stories. After that we start all over again. Just like going to school.

Neal: And them old time stories was really interesting because we understood them. And right now if I tell a story about the one that died here a long time ago, speaking this language I don't tell it right. I don't tell it the way it should be. Last night [at a memorial] them old people they sang some of our old native songs.

Geraldine: Mourning songs they call it.

Neal: Them songs could get back way back before we seen it, before our time. It's like they speak to us again. They tell us what it was like way back then. And today we find out it's just the same thing. When they sing them it sounds like it's still the same. That's the way they used to teach us. Stories and songs and advice. They explain who made the song, who it's after, and the meaning of the things in the song. That's part of the way we had to learn. There was no paper and pencil them days.

Where and when did your Elders tell stories?

Geraldine: In the evenings is when everybody quit working. Every evening is when we used to go around for story time. Take a walk to somebody's house. In the daytime everybody's too busy. Until school start is when everybody just changed the whole thing for us. They had to go to school and spoil everything for us. Maybe that's where I learned how to speak English [laughs]. Yeah, I'm pretty sure if there was no school we would just speak our language.

Neal: Anyway, I think that there's a lot of it that they had to repeat it over, over, over. They have to repeat it. It's not just one day thing. They pound it right into us, because nothing is written down, you have to remember.
And that advice, you better listen, cause it's not gonna be written down. Your gonna have to accept it and try to hold it. Just like old man Chief Andrew Isaac said. One time I hear him say, lots of advice old people used to give me. He said lots of it I get a hold of it, I hold it, remember it, he said. And I think that's one Indian way, that's Indian way. That's the way they have to learn it. Not to look at it on a paper all the time. They gotta use their little brains for something [laughs]. My dad before he died, I don't know how many times he made that same speech. You young people try to hold each other together. Try to hold each other together. Try to hold each other together. He repeated that quite a few times. All good solid advice. Today right now it's all true, it's all true. It's good to take care of yourself. That's a short cut way to say it. Take good care of yourself.

How do you feel about Elders teaching at school?

Geraldine: I believe that, like he said, if we had our own place we'd be more open, more free to talk the way we want to talk. But up there [the school] we gotta watch the time. Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up. Twenty minutes or ten minutes is all the time they give us.. They do make time, but you can't teach nobody in 20 minutes.

Neal: Like we said before the way they learn is they had to sing these songs in between. And then after that they get to advise the kids about things. And we can't do that up there, we can't do that in that school building. Another thing is that we're pressed for time for telling stories. If we're gonna tell a story it might take quite a while to do that, that kind of thing. If we have our own place where we feel like we could just do it, we might have a better chance at it. You really want to get down to brass tack of things, the only way you really could do it is put a camp out there and stay in that camp for a while. To show the young people how if they need to build a sled or snowshoes you have to look for certain kind of birch. And teach them that kind of thing. And teach them how to hunt bear den, teach them how to set snare for rabbits, Indian way. We use sinew. They catch rabbits and ptarmigan in them, them snares I'm talking about. The only thing is, rabbits you gotta set different from the way you set for ptarmigan. You make it so it'll spring up and that rabbit will hang down, so he doesn't chew that sinew off. That's what I've been saying. You really want to get down to it you gotta take it out there, where it's at, out in the country. Get them out there where the action is, then they'll learn.


  • How were Neal and Geraldine taught by their Elders?
  • What are the important things they feel young people should learn?
  • What values do they emphasize? Can you think of other traditional values in your community?
Activity: Field Skills with Elders
Ask Elders and Local Experts to teach you traditional winter skills in the field.

Time: 6-8 hours
Materials: Tools and Equipment appropriate to the activities
recommended by your Elders and Local Experts

This activity is a good way to introduce the snow science curriculum by giving Elders a chance to teach what they know best in an environment in which they are comfortable. Topics related to the winter environment are chosen by the Elders depending upon their particular areas of expertise. Examples include, emergency skills such as fire making, shelter, and making meltwater. General technical skills might include snowshoe technique, tying snowshoe bindings, trail breaking, and tracking.

Making tea from snow water is fun and involves relevant skills and observations.

Arrange for a field trip. Small groups of student with each Elder is preferable.

Have students document what they learn and check their conclusions with their Elder instructors. Later they'll make connections between the practical skills and observations from the field trip and the scientific concepts they learn about snow.

Cultural Standard:

encourage experimentally oriented approaches

Cultural Standard:
provide opportunities for students to learn through observation



  • What skills do Elders choose to teach? Why do you think they chose those topics?
  • Are traditional skills important to us today?
  • What do local experts know about snow? How do snow conditions affect traditional activities?

Traditional Education is based on observation, practice, and the oral transmission of knowledge. Despite the relatively rapid pace of cultural change that has taken place in Alaska during the past century, a great deal of traditional knowledge is being practiced in Native communities today, and Native Elders, having spent a lifetime learning their culture, are ready and able to pass it on. Schools can contribute to the success of their students and well-being of their communities by incorporating native knowledge in their curricula.

Wilson Titus

" To make your luck better you gotta take care of yourself. Neat, nice and clean. Xo'iltanh, they say. Xo'iltanh means try to stay nice and clean, don't do anything wrong. If you do something wrong, bad luck will turn against you. Xo'iltanh. My dad give me a lot of advice every morning before he go out, before he go hunting. Just like going to school. He talk all Indian, too, he don't talk no English. When you're going out in the woods or anyplace like that, any place where you're gonna travel. We say k'onaniltayh. K'onaniltayhmeans be careful yourself, be careful of danger.
- Wilson Titus"

Observing Snow

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
Bibliography & Resources


Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.


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 17, 2006