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

IMPORTANT: In order to view this page correctly, you will need to download the Navajo font (truetype) and install it on your computer. It's available as a free download from Diné Education Web.

These two should look alike.


Exploring Native Snow Terms

With a background in traditional winter lifestyles and the field exercises conducted with local elders and experts, we now have a context within which to learn about specific snow types as recognized locally, especially those types given specific names in the local native language. Native terms and concepts are part of a system of knowledge developed through a relationship with the land and out of long-term observation. These observations have been shared among communities and have become an integral part of the way people communicate with each other. In short, native snow terminology makes most sense within the stories native people tell about snow, or in which snow plays a role.

It is commonly stated that Eskimo languages have a great many words for snow, and the same can be said of Alaskan Athabascan languages. But this proposition is controversial and estimates of the number of Eskimo snow terms range from four into the hundreds. The various estimates result mainly from different ways of determining what counts as a word. Eskimo and Athabascan languages are structurally quite unlike English, which has relatively simple word formation processes. Words in Alaska Native languages can sometimes contain ideas that would be expressed as an entire sentence in English. At the same time, those words are based upon stem meanings to create large sets of related words. So the four Eskimo snow terms in one estimate is probably looking at what English speakers might consider four broad categories of snow, while the estimate of hundreds of terms is probably a list of what English speakers would think of as expressions (sentences) about snow.

When we investigate Native snow terminology, focus should not be the words themselves, though they are interesting. Nor should we focus on counting them, though you might find many. Our concern is with the concepts recognized by local experts and the significance of those concepts for life in winter and our understanding of the winter environment.




" When it snow, snow every day like that, they say noghedetsitl. Gonna be deep snow. Gonna be easy to catch moose now, run them down, you know. Too much snow for the moose. It get too deep snow. You can catch him up after the snow settles. So everybody get happy. They gonna have a good winter.
- Wilson Titus"


"Snow is tsitl. Just like if you see if it's snowing now, you'll say e[yoth. And summer time is e[chonh, rain. So e[yoth. Falling snow is yoth. And then when the snow is on the ground, tsitl. New snow, top snow is kocheda'. Just like when I tell you about getting the bottom snow, the top one is kocheda'. Just like right now, too [November], it's kocheda'. You don't get no bottom snow because there's not enough snow. When it's deep and the bottom snow turn to ice, there's little cube of ice like when you get to that bottom snow. So the bottom is yeth uga'. That's what we use for water a long time ago, because it makes more water. It turns to ice, little ice. You can see it. You get that top snow it's too light. It don't make much water when you try to melt it. We just dig all the top snow off like that, and then get the bottom one, you
know. - Wilson Titus

winterFalling snow you say e[yoth, "it's snowing." Big snow they call it gwx tthi chwx. You know the snow is about this big [large, fluffy flakes]. E[yoth is the same thing, but they call it gwx tthi chwx. It look more like rabbit head, so they call it 'rabbit head snow'. They call it gwx tthi chwx e[yoth.

New snow is kocheda'. Tsitl kocheda'. Little animals they like to travel on that kind of snow. Like rabbit, chicken, fox, mink. Otter, beaver, things like that. They go out for something to eat. I don't know why. Just like us they want to be out in the fresh air. We see their tracks. And if I go out and I want to catch fox or rabbit I'll follow it. I'll follow fresh tracks until I catch up. This time of year, right now [November], rabbits they stay under, you know. Stay under snow sometime. And February they come out. And it's easier to catch rabbits that way. Right now when they come out they go anyplace, you know. Winter time sometime they make straight trail, where he go lots. And that's where we go set snare.
- Evelyn Alexander"


draws parallels
derived from
oral tradition
that derived
from books


  • Identify some basic distinctions the Minto Elders make in describing snow. (Hint: "rabbit head snow" is not a basic term, but is an expansion of "snow").
  • Under what conditions does "rabbit head" snow form? (Refer to the graph on page 28.)
  • Refer to the Athabascan Snow Terminology table on the facing page and try to identify more basic distinctions. Do you see words that look related across languages? (See, for example "sled" which, despite the different spelling systems, sounds nearly the same in all three languages)
  • Can you relate Athabascan snow types to the processes you investigated in the snow pit exercise?
Athabascan Snow Terminology (examples)

Snow Type

Tanana: Minto







falling snow



"it's snowing"




powder or new snow




tseetl zrax

zhah tsuu

hard snow

tseetl tl'ene'


dry snow

tsitl naga'

wet snow

tsitl tr'ela

yo[ tlugge'


blowing snow

tsitl e[choyh


tsi[ hàat[it





snow drift

tsitl kat'ena


zhah khàdk'at

snow on tree branches

dwx tsidla'


deh zhàa





falling frost

tsitl done'

k'ekk'utl done'

ice crusted snow




depth hoar, bottom snow

yeth uga'


tsaih ghyàa

snow water

tsitl tu






river/lake ice







overflow ice



overflow (water)

tenh ko tu'

tenh kontoo'


get [u

[oo se[


winter trail

xwyh tena










Snow Water

"Tsitle tu' means snow water. We taught the kids to dig to the bottom to get the snow there, yeth uga', bottom snow. Kind of little bigger than the top snow. You fill up bucket like this, the water will be this much for the top snow. But if you get bottom snow the water will be almost full. More water come out of the bottom snow. Anyway they used to say clear water, cleaner than top snow.

All winter we use snow water. Springtime come we use water, but sometimes we go around in canoe we look for snow drift. We get snow. We save it for drinking water until no more snow, until in June. Sometimes late June. Out in camp, we stay out in camp. They make cellar, and they keep snow in cellar. Tanana River, when ice move we put ice to shore. We cut them up and haul them back to our house. Most of the people used to have cellar. We keep ice there.[ut. [ut tso k'a drighila means ice cellar.

Sometime when the water come it's a little bit muddy, you know. Lots of little grass, gotta settle them. Lots of little bugs sometimes. We have to boil them and settle it. I haven't seen that for a long time. We don't do that no more. If I move I'll take that snow, maybe I'll save ice. We get ice too. Clear water. Snow water, tsitl tu'. We use that for tea, and drinking. It tastes better than well water.
- Evelyn Alexander

There's a different name for ice, tenh. Tenh means it's down there in the creek, you know. That ice down there in the creek. Another kind of ice, you bring chunk of ice up they call that [ut. Ice down there on the lake [or creek] is tenh. Chunk of ice you bring up that's [ut. We got two different names for it, two different kinds. Sometimes you use [ut for drinking water, sometimes snow, yeth uga'. You got nice clear water, anyway.
- Wilson Titus"



  • What are the advantages of "snow water"?
  • What physical process creates "bottom snow"? What do scientists call this type of snow?
  • Why do you think Minto Elders distinguish two types of ice? What does this suggest about traditional ways of classifying things?
  • Are people in your community concerned about potential contamination of snow from environmental pollutants?
Snow in Trees

Snow in Trees"Snow in the trees is dwxtsidla'. Dwx means up high. You go up the Washington in the winter it's just like Fairbanks, no wind up there. All the snow on the brush. You see, when you see lot's of dwxtsidla' it makes good hunting. The sound don't move. It don't make no sound when you walk and break little twigs. Because you gotta stay pretty quiet when you tracking moose, you know. Because he's gonna hear you before you see him. That's why I say they were good hunters. Hunters they know just how to sneak for moose. And they get 'em every time. Before moose lay down, too, they go around downwind. They go around in circle. Sometimes they can see their track and know where they went. They watch all the time. They watch for wolves and everything. The good hunters they turn off the track. And come to this [downwind] side where they can't smell you all the time. Because they'll smell you every time. Little breeze, that's why. They circle around before they lay down. Even no wind like this, you get that light snow that kocheda'. They throw it up, they know which way that breeze blows, the way that snow blows. When they're tracking moose, then they know which way to go.
- Wilson Titus

Yeah, dwxtsidla' means snow on the brush, on the trees, or on the stump, or stuff like that. Dwxtsidla', that's what we call it. I can tell you one thing about that dwxtsidla', it's no good to walk in there. Just get down your neck all the time. Especially at marten trapping time. Wet your gloves, maybe wet the back of you if it's warm enough.
- Neal Charlie"


The Koyukon Athabascan Dictionary (Jette and Jones 2000) lists duxtseedla', "snow on trees," and notes that it undergoes melt-freeze metamorphism on the branches and can be eaten for moisture, while powdery snow only increases thirst.


  • Have you noticed snow in the trees? What's good and not so good about that condition?
  • Look at dwxtsidla' through a hand lens. What kind of crystals do you see?
  • Draw a diagram (on paper or the board) of the moose tracking technique described by Wilson Titus.

Snow Drifts

" Snow drift is tsitl kat'ena. If the snow is high enough you can make a shelter in there for one thing. And another thing is that when we used to snowshoe all day, we take our snowshoe off, and we walk on that tsitl kat'ena. Just like walking on trail. That way we don't have to make trail on snowshoe, so that's two good thing there. Them Eskimos, I hear over in their country they follow that snow drift, and they know which direction that snow drift just lead them. Just like trees to us. Trees is what we follow. If I was gonna go out this way, I'll see a tree out there, and maybe I'll just go by that tree mostly. Or like island with birch on there, something like that.
- Neal Charlie

Wind blown snow is tsitl enitr'eda[tr'eyhti. So when the snow blows it piles up by the woods, that means that tsitl enitr'eda[tr'eyhti, when it pile up. Tsitl enitr'eda[tr'eyhti means it just blow, just like out on the lake. When it hit the brush it just pile up, snowdrift. That's what makes a snowdrift. Tsitl kat'ena you call that. Tsitl kat'ena means hard snow, you walk right on top. When it's building up they call it tsitl enitr'eda[tr'eyhti. It's blowing into one place, blow clean across the lake. We use it in spring to melt, you know, melt that in bucket. For water, nice cool, clear water. Like you make tea you want snow water tea, clear snow water. Nice, clear, snow water tea.

Wind is e[tr'eyh. There's this windy place right there, come down from that creek, from that Ptarmigan Hill. That valley down this way, come right down there. It's just smokey down there in that creek. Snow blowing, so they call it Tredhk'oni No'. Just like it's burning, that's why they call it that.
- Wilson Titus"

 snow shoes


  • How do snow drifts form? Where do they form?
  • Could you tell direction from the orientation of snow drifts in your area? Why does this work in some places and not in others?
  • Are traditional place names always strictly practical?

Deep Snow

"Hard, frozen snow is xwlu. Xwlu means, like in winter it's wet snow, you know. And it freeze up like, and it's hard. Then on top, it snow on top of it. Snow about this much maybe. It stay like that. And deep snow it used to be hard for moose. Easy to catch moose, because it's hard to step through.
- Evelyn Alexander

deep snowSo when it snows a lot, every day, the snow is getting deep. They call that noghedetsitl. It snow day and night. Detsitl means snow, you know. That means we're gonna have a lot of snow, deep snow. That's the most snow I seen in my life, 1937. Snowed, snowed, every day. Me and this guy I was talking about, we went way up the Tatalina [River], walking while the snow was still soft yet. Took us three days to walk out [there]. While we was up there we had nothing to eat, ran out of groceries. We went after moose during that soft snow, snow that deep. Sink right down in the snow that moose. We caught him up.

While we was out there it rain, you know. Quarter inch, half an inch. Crust. It cleared up. Just cleared up and then it snowed 3 inches more, 4 inches more. On that soft snow, you just go right on top, drive dog team. Those poor moose had a hard time. They had to break that crust too, you know. They just stay in one place. Place where it could eat, you know. Where they could eat. Just go back and forth.

[You call that crust] xwlu. On top of the snow they call it xwlu, yeah. You need snow on top, you know. Otherwise you can't walk with snow shoe, you know. It's too slippery.
- Wilson Titus"



  • Discuss the consequences of light snow seasons and heavy snow seasons.
  • What is the average annual snowfall in your area?
  • How does snowfall affect animal populations? (Think about large and small animals.)

Spring Snow

"Nezrax, that's in spring time. It's heavy and it makes more water. No good to walk in though, no good to walk in. They used to just travel at nights when that kind of slushy snow start. Slushy snow that's nezrax. In the evening when it freeze, when the snow freeze, we call that noxuthdetenh. They test it. In the evening they test it. They throw a big stick over on the snow. If it land on the snow and don't bust through that means it's time to go.
- Neal Charlie

Nezrax. That means it soften up - the snow, you know. You don't travel on that. Don't travel on nezrax. Wait until noxuthdetenh. It freeze up, then you go. It's not good for walking on that soft snow. Your snow shoe gets heavy. It just stick to those snowshoes. You have to take a stick knock it off. Nezrax. No good for your babiche [raw hide snowshoe webbing]. Your babiche get all wet and you step right through. My father used to use willow. He get willows and he split them. Never loosen up, stay tight all the time. Babiche is no good for spring time. It get's wet and pretty soon you just step right through. That's why they use willow all the time. My dad used it, I saw him. Black ones they use. He splits it just like string or twine. He don't put it through the holes he put it right around the frame.

spring snowIn the spring time it melts and freezes and the top is icy, noxuthdetenh. In springtime when snow is soft you just gotta travel when noxuthdetenh. You gotta start out in the evening. It's too soft for your sled. People travel at night. Just like when I say you move out and you move back. From way out you're moving back, you do it nighttime. Maybe four o'clock in the morning. Sleep all day, you know. Just keep moving nighttime.

You can hunt in that snow with dogs when it freeze up good. You turn them dogs loose and they find moose right away. The dogs stay on top. Those dogs catch him. He just stand there and turn around. He don't start running by the time you get there. Good hunters, them dogs. Real good hunters. They just go like that right in front of him. Dogs too they learn, too. I know a good hunting dog, train them you know. They don't care for bears, though. You go near bear den, they don't want to bother with it.
- Wilson Titus"


  • Discuss the challenges and advantages of spring snow.
  • What kinds of technology allowed people to survive in the winter?
  • How did native people use dogs in winter? How has that changed over time? How do people use dogs today?

Travel Conditions

"Really light snow, that really soft snow, light. That's good for traveling. Like when you travel with dog team light snow on the trail. Warm weather kind of wet snow is hard pulling, because it sticks to the bottom and ice up. Runners heat up, I guess, and the runner ice up. Once in a while you stop and scrape the ice off like that. Cold weather hardly don't do that.
- Wilson Titus

You walk today and you make a trail. Today it'll be soft but tomorrow it'll be good to walk on. Yet you still use snowshoes, though. Twx xwlu. Tena twx xwlu, means a little bit hard. Tena is trail. Tena twx xwlu xulanh means it's hard now, time to move. But we stay in one camp if they catch one or two moose. They stay there until the women get through with moose skin. Take two days, three days sometimes.

When we move, and they shovel snow where we gonna put up tent, they always say tsitl naga'. Means soft snow, easy to shovel. Sometimes we shovel snow on berries. We use snowshoes lots when it's like that, like right now [thin snowcover]. That's not because it's deep but it's good to walk through niggerhead [tussocks]. Snowshoes. Praise the lord.
- Evelyn Alexander"

Activity: Documenting Local Snow Terms

Ask Elders to teach you about snow terms.
Time: 2-3 hours
Materials: Voice recorder and tape

  • A good place to start this discussion is during the snow pit exercise conducted in Chapter 4. Invite Elders to observe and to offer their comments afterward. The better they understand our learning objectives, the better they'll be able to address the topics.
  • Continue the discussion in small groups, perhaps 2-4 students with an Elder is ideal. Find a quiet location where Elders and students are comfortable.
  • Listen first to the Elder's stories. When they make a long pause or ask for questions, you may ask about specifics.
  • Use a tape recorder if the Elders and students are comfortable with this. It is better to listen attentively during the discussion and take notes later.
  • Depending on the students' familiarity with the local native language and writing system, the assistance of your Bilingual Program Teacher or other adult literate in the local language may be necessary to get the native terminology transcribed accurately.
  • Record local terms and observations in the Snow Journal on page 9. Where possible, try to guess the snow crystal types which might be associated with each kind of snow.


utilizes the
local language,
local cultural


use of
skills and ways
of knowing to
learn about the
larger world

Glossary of Snow Terms
found in "Observing Snow"
Lower Tanan Athabascan (Minto)

tsitl - snow
yoth - falling snow
e[yoth - "it's snowing"
ghi[yoth - "it snowed"
kocheda' - new snow, soft snow, surface snow
tsitl kocheda'- new snow, soft snow, surface snow
tsitl zrax - snowflake
tsitl naga' - dry snow
yoth naga' - dry falling snow
yoth tre[- wet snow, falling
tsitl trela' - wet snow
tsitl naga' e[yoth - "it's snowing dry snow"
gwx tthi chwx - rabbit head snow (large fluffy flakes)
gwx tthi chwx e[yoth - it's snowing rabbit heads
nezrax - slush
e[tr'eyh - "wind blows"
tsitl e[choyh - blowing snow
tsitl enitre'da[tr'eyhti - "wind-blown snow
tseetl kat'ena - snow drift
srwx - frost
tsitl done' - falling frost
tsitl kat'ena srwx xulanh - "there's frost on the snowdrifts"
dwx tsidla' - snow on trees

Snow Water
yeth uga'
- bottom snow, depth hoar
tsitl tu - snow water

Trail and Travel Conditions
- ice crusted snow
twx xwlu - frozen surface
tena - trail
tena twx xwlu - hard trail
tena twx xwlu xulanh - there's a hard surface on the trail
xwyh tena - winter trail
tenh ko tu' - overflow
nolgat - overflow ice, glaciering, aufeis
ethdetenh - frozen up
noxuthdetenh - frozen crust
noghedetsitl - deep snow

- ice on a river or lake
[ut - ice in chunks
[ut tso k'a *drighila - ice cellar (*uncertain spelling)

- wood shavings
oyh - snowshoes
xwtl - sled
do'int'a - greetings
hwtlani - not good, forbidden, taboo
xo'iltanh - take care of yourself (be clean)
k'onaniltayh - take care, be careful

xwyhts'en' - fall
xwyh - winter
D5y' - spring
sanh - summer
Benenh Taxuk'odhi - November

Place Names
- North Fork, ridge near new Minto
Dwxtso Dedhdlode - Cache
Tthi'tu' - Tanana River
Menhti Xwghotthit - Old Minto
Teyh Tethde - Lake Minto Portage
K'athnodadelenh No' - West Fork Camp
Xoxwnghodeghesrdenh - Montana Creek / fall camp
Mentoli Chaget - Birch Hill
Tredhk'oni No' - blowing snow/smokey creek below Ptarmigan Hill
Tthayi Chaget - tributary creek of the Tatlanina
Ch'etoch'o No' - Tolovana River
Tolbo No' - Lower Tolovana River
Tat'ali No' - Middle Washington Creek
Dradlaya Nik'a - Chatanika River
Toltthwgha Nik'a - Goldstream Creek
Xwdodli Nik'a - Big Goldstream Creek
Menhti Xwno' - Minto Slough






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, educational institution, and provider is a part of the University of Alaska system. Learn more about UA's notice of nondiscrimination.


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