Math in Indigenous Weaving - An Overview


Andy Hope

July 2004


The model for the Math in Tlingit Art curriculum project is the Math in Navajo Weaving project that Dr. Bradley administered in Monument Valley in 1994.

The innovative program is the first time Navajo elders have been paid to come into the classroom to help teach skills like geometry. Monument Valley High students have below-average aptitude testing scores in math and Principal Pat Seltzer has been searching for new ways to educate the predominantly Navajo student body.

"We have a hard time motivating kids here because something like geometry has no relevance to them," she says. "You don't really learn unless you're putting the information in your own terms, your own perspective."

Most math books and math teachers in America educate with a foundation of linear, progressive thinking that is common to the Anglo culture. But in schools like monument Valley, educators are finding Navajos don't think like Anglos. So alternative teaching methods are evolving.

"We are trying not to use books and chalk as much," says Seltzer, whose faculty and families live in a residential compound next to this remote Utah high school. "We are trying to fuse the traditional life with modern technologies."

The three-week "dual understanding" math education program initially was developed by Claudette Bradley, a Harvard scholar, University of Alaska educator and American Indian. Bradley has published research on the use of educational computer-graphic-design program LOGO to design Navajo rugs and beadwork.

Under the program at Monument Valley, six Navajo elders teach weaving, beadwork and basket-making to volunteer students, explaining the symbolism of the design and the folklore which surrounds the crafts. Students are simultaneously introduced to computer-aided geometric design by LOGO teachers. Three to four youths team up with an elder and LOGO teacher to create a traditional craft design on the computer and then produce the rug, basket or beadwork in the Navajo way.

In the process, the students learn math.

"The Navajos' innate strong suit is design. It's in the blood," says Herb Clemens, a University of Utah faculty member who spent more than a year preparing the three-week curriculum. The program was supported with donations from Kerr-McGee Corp., Richard D. Harrison, Quaker Oats Corp. and the Herbert L. and Elsa B. Michael Foundation.

Conventions in math are different in different cultures and you find that mathematics are a sort of sociology," says Clemens.

The Salt Lake Tribune, July 11, 1994

The 'NDAHOO'AAH website can be found at:

For a variety of reasons, the Math in Tlingit Art project didn't get underway until the summer of 2003. The University of Alaska Southeast -Preparing Indigenous Teachers For Alaska Schools (PITAS) program, Southeast Alaska Tribal College, the Southeast Alaska Native Educators Association and the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative cosponsored a Special Topics course, with undergraduate/graduate credit options, ED 493/693.

The course ran from early August through mid-December of 2003. Ten teachers from throughout southeast Alaska enrolled in the course. Dr. Bradley was the instructor, with support from Tlingit weavers Nora Dauenhauer, Teri Rofkar (Find the Teri Rofkar website at:, Marie Laws and Janice Criswell. Steve Henrikson of the Alaska State Museum and Richard Dauenhauer also presented lecture/technical support. The teachers and weavers gathered at the UAS Auke Lake campus for an intensive one week workshop. The teachers then continued working on course assignments throughout the fall.

Eleven teachers from Chatham School District (Angoon School, Tenakee School, Klukwan School and the Juneau School District enrolled in the course. A number of teachers in the course developed and presented Math in Tlingit Art units during the 2003-2004 school year Find an article on the course at and go to the archives, August 10, 2003). Lori Hoover, a 1st/2nd Grade teacher at Riverbend Elementary School and Topaz Shryock, a 7th/8th Grade Math/Science teacher at Dzantik'i Héeni Middle School presented Math in Weaving Units during the 2003-2004 school year. Lori Hoover produced a website, Tlingit Basketry: Art~Math~Technology, which can be found at:

These units will be posted on the Math in Indigenous Weaving website that is currently under construction. This website, along with periodic professional/staff development workshops and occasional courses, will serve as the main forum for ongoing development of Math in Indigenous Weaving curriculum.

Approximately twenty educators gathered at the Sitka Campus of the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) in August 1999 for an Indigenous Curriculum Development in Science Institute. Dr. Claudette Engblom Bradley (UAF), Dr. Tom Thornton (UAS), Michael Travis, Dr. Richard and Mrs.Nora Dauenhauer (Sealaska Heritage Foundation) served as the Institute instructors.

The purpose of the institute was: (1) to develop classroom adaptations of science lessons based on the Cultural Atlas (which began in 1997 in the Southeast Region) and Axe Handle Academy (Which began in 1996)curriculum projects; (2) To inform teachers about the work of Tom Thornton, Michael Travis, Lydia George (Tlingit Elder) and Jimmy George on the Angoon Cultural Atlas (which was produced in 1998); (3) To familiarize teachers with the bioregional, thematic curriculum of the Axe Handle Academy developed by Richard and Nora Dauenhauer (1996-present); (4) To provide teachers with field experience with middle school student science projects at Dog Point Fish Camp of Sitka, AK.; and (5) To facilitate development of science curriculum for Southeast Alaska schools in the 1999-2000 school year.

More in-depth information and material on Cultural Atlases and the Axe Handle Academy can be found at the Place-Based Education Resources for Southeast Alaska Educators website:

Two Native Science Camps took place in the summer of 1999. The first (for girls grades 5-11) was held July 5-17 at Dog Point Fish Camp and the UAS-Sitka campus (for use of science and computer labs.) The second camp (for boys grades 5-11) took place August 2-14, also held at Dog Point Fish Camp and the UAS-Sitka Campus. The students were from the AKRSI partner school districts: Sitka School District, Hoonah City Schools, Chatham School District and Juneau Borough School District.

The second Science Camp was held in conjunction with the Indigenous Curriculum Development in Science Institute The students developed rough ideas for science projects while at camp and presented their projects to Institute participants. These projects were then refined in the fall and winter and entered in the regional, state and national AISES science fairs.

Andy Hope interviewed Tlingit Elder Lydia George of the Raven moiety Deisheetaan clan of Xudsidaay Khwáan (Angoon) at Dog Point Fish Camp during the Institute. Mrs. George has been a member of the Southeast Alaska Tribal College Elders Council from 1996-present. The interview can be found at:

During the institute, participants took the opportunity to view the Doris Borhauer Tlingit Basket Collection at the Sitka National Historical Park. This collection of 92 baskets was collected by Doris Borhauer from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s. The baskets date from 1850 to 1967. This is one of the most thoroughly documented collections of Native American baskets . The Tlingit basket collection inspired the institute instructors to begin discussing the possibility of developing a Math in Tlingit Art curriculum project.

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska recently received a historic preservation grant from the National Park Service to fund photo documentation of the Borhauer collection and interviews with relatives of the basket weavers. Photos and interviews from this project will be posted on the Math in Indigenous Weaving website.