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

Observing Snow



The Observing Snow Curriculum is designed as a culturally responsive program for rural middle school students. Core academic subjects including science, math, and language arts are taught using materials that are appropriate and make sense to native students. By reaching out to the community and involving Elders in the classroom, the Observing Snow curriculum has the potential to help develop a rapport between the schools and native communities, a relationship that has historically been less than ideal. Inviting Elders into the school nourishes the bridge between the young generation and their Elders, and helps perpetuate the transmission of native culture and skills to our children and the community.

When inviting Elders into the classroom, it is very important to let them take the lead and choose what they would like to do with the students. Very few Elders are comfortable lecturing in front of the classroom in the traditional western academic style. Many of our Elder activities occurred outside, where we have learned winter skills such as building snares, starting fires, making tea, building shelters and collecting drinking water.

The native culture will typically not address a topic such as snow in the discrete western fashion; instead a wealth of information and skills are melded into Elder's stories and activities. The schoolteacher exposes the students to the standard western academics. Math, science, and language arts are presented through a variety of fun and innovative activities. It is the task of the students to draw connections and conclusions as to how these two ways of understanding complement each other. This type of learning rings true with the personal experience of many of these Native children who are constantly trying to incorporate the high tech 21st century world and the ancient native ways of knowing.

Holy Cross Woman
Holy Cross Woman
by Claire Fejes from Villagers

This is a program that cannot operate in isolation. Its success depends upon the cooperation of the school, the students, and the community, especially the Elders. One of the toughest constraints to overcome when developing this program was to come as a guest to a small rural village and in a very short time try to rally the community to participate in the Observing Snow program. Now that the preliminary work has been done, the Denali Foundation would like to see the program turned over to local residents so that they may use it as a tool to develop a program in their own villages. Because community involvement is so crucial, it is highly recommended that a long time resident coordinate the local programs. The Denali Foundation will offer resources, materials and staff training if needed.

We chose the topic of snow to teach academic skills and encourage Elder participation, but this curriculum can easily be used as a model to do similar exercises with another topic of choice. The most important theme is to approach the learning in a manner that is receptive to the Native child's experience and environment. There has been a resurgence of interest in trying to preserve what is known of the native culture and languages while those most knowledgeable are still with us. Observing Snow challenges students to seek out their grandparents and community elders and make connections with them. This program encourages communication between generations and respect for Elders. Teaching children to respect the knowledge of their Elders and helping schools view the local culture as a resource are universal lessons that transcend the cultures.

It was an honor and a privilege to be a guest at the villages as we were developing the Observing Snow curriculum. Many kind people opened their homes, school, hearts and minds to us so that we could try in the field ideas that were designed to stimulate middle school native students academically, and to encourage collaboration not only between generations, but between school and community as well. Now that this work is done, we offer it as gift back to those communities, especially Minto, McGrath, and Galena, that trusted us enough to let us come into their close knit communities and work with their children, Elders and schools. The work was extremely challenging, but every time a student was successful with an activity, every time an Elder shared, every time a connection was made between native and western traditions, it was obvious that we were on the right track. The Observing Snow curriculum is only a starting point. By encouraging the collaboration of traditional native knowledge and western academics, we can give our children a strong foundation to become successful academically and also to understand their place in the rapidly changing modern world.

Activity: Making Connections
  • List the main points learned in the snow science exercises.
  • Identify the key ideas learned from working with Elders.
  • Make connections between those two ways of knowing.
  Circle City

Circle City
by Claire Fejes from Villager

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


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Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
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Last modified August 17, 2006