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Tauhna Cauyalitahtug (To Make a Drum)

A database of lessons and units searchable by content and cultural standards, cultural region and grade level. More units will be available soon. You can use Acrobat Reader to look at the PDF version of the Cover Sheet for the Units and Self-Assessment for Cultural Standards in Practice.


Jim Dillard
Kodiak High School,
Kodiak, Alaska


Project Description & Research


Social Studies



Critical Thinking


Caring for Elders


Project Description 

Students will make a traditional Alutiiq drum. During the process of the project, students will record the research and construction of the drum in a manner which promotes Alutiiq culture, values and the use of traditional tools. These skills will promote the Alaska Standards for Culturally Responsive schools. At the same time, the methods used to calculate and document the steps of the construction will promote the Alaska State Academic Standards.


Project Research and its Academic Parallels


1. Students will read journals of early Alaskan explorers for historically correct uses of drums. (Promotes reading from a historic and cultural perspective.)

2. Students will research museum catalogs for photos and descriptions of historic Alutiiq drums still in existence. (Promotes technical reading, verbal description and accurate measurement using scientific systems of measurement.)

3. Students will research technical woodworking manuals on steam bending - sections on steam bending for furniture making and boat making are especially appropriate for drum making. (Promotes technical reading and critical thinking to choose what factual material is appropriate to drum making.)

Specific topics to be explored in these manuals will be:

a. types of wood best for steaming

b. types of grain structure in wood and its effects on bendability

c. moisture content best for steaming

d. durability of woods which may be used for drum making

e. resonance factor of woods - Which are best for drum making?


4. Students will research technical woodworking manuals on steam bending to learn to design and build a steamer appropriate for drum making. (Promotes technical reading and the critical thinking needed to adapt steamers designed for other uses to drum making.)

5. Students will research technical woodworking manuals on steam bending to learn the step-by-step process of steaming a piece of wood. (Promotes technical reading, following instructions and sequencing.) Specific topics to researched will be:

a. preparing the wood for steaming

b. building steaming forms to hold the steamed wood to shape till dry

c. drying steamed wood - allowing for expansiona and shrinkage



The following is a set of steps that students could take to learn to write a clear, sequenced instructional paper using standard technical writing formats and technical writing conventions rules.


  1. Students read high school level technical writing texts to determine the reasons and applications for accurate technical writing. An excellent high school text for this step is Technical Writing: A Reader Self -Centered Approach by Paul V. Anderson.
  2. Students examine real-world examples of instructional technical writing such as automotive manuals, television / VCR manuals, carpentry / building manuals and so on. Students should pay particular attention to material descriptions, sequencing in instruction and measurement.
  3. Students read sections of woodworking texts which contain instruction in steam bending wood for use in furniture making.
  4. Students make a simple list of all tools used in making a drum.
  5. Students make a list of all materials used in making a drum. This should be a detailed list which would describe the condition, quality and source of all materials.
  6. Students should take sequenced notes throughout the entire drum making process.
  7. After the drum is complete, students should examine all notes for clarity and syntax and then revise notes for correct use of technical terms and standard technical writing conventions. (A condensed set of technical writing convention rules is included with this paper.)
  8. Students will write an instructional paper which would take the reader through a step-by-step process of making a drum. The paper should be made up of three parts: 1. a list of tools needed 2. a list of supplies and materials needed (with sources) and 3. the instruction itself.
  9. After the document is completed, students should have a variety of community members read and critique the writing. These readers could include other students, someone in the building trades, someone who works in a technical field such as a mechanic or a computer technician, and, if possible, an elder who has made a drum in the past or who has been involved in other traditional crafts. These proofreaders should be encouraged to write on the document and to especially make suggestions as to its clarity and completeness.
  10. Taking into consideration the revision suggestions made by the proofreaders, students should then revise the paper and put it in a final, standard technical writing format currently used by business. Examples of this format will be found in any of the suggested high school level texts listed at the end of this paper.
  11. Students should submit the paper to their teacher for evaluation and grade credit.

Social Studies / Humanities

To fully understand the importance and use of drums in both modern and ancient times, students should investigate some or all of the following topics:


  1. A broad definition of religion - this should begin with the dictionary, should investigate ancient religious beliefs of Native peoples throughout America and should culminate with a thorough investigation into the beliefs of ancient Alutiiq people. Sources for this investigation could include Masked Rituals of the Kodiak Archipelago by Dominique Desson, Historical Atlas of World Mythology by Joseph Campbell, speakers from the Alutiiq Museum, and, if possible, local Native Elders.
  2. The belief in spirits of animals, especially the concept that the animal taken for food had to be treated with great respect so that the spirit of that animal would return again in the flesh to once again feed Native people.
  3. Ceremonies which were held to make contact with the spirit world to give thanks to and pay respect to animal spirits.
  4. Music (drumming and singing) as an elemental device to make contact with the spirit world.
  5. Music (drumming and singing) used for community building and entertainment.
  6. The fascination that non-Native people have with Native song, dance and drumming.


The following is a list of drum-related science questions / topics which a teacher could use to explain various aspects of the technology used in making a drum and in the function of the completed drum. These topics could be answered in a simple form or could be used to launch a full investigation into the scientific principles and their related topics. The teacher may give the students the included prompt, or students may discover the principle in the prompt through research and / or deductive reasoning.


1. Investigate: Which woods have a high degree of bendability and Why? 

Prompt: Some woods have a long grain structure which enables them to bend further than short-grained woods. (related to question number two)

2. Investigate: Why does wood bend when hot and wet, yet will break when cold and dry?

Prompt: The tubular grain structure of the wood allows water to penetrate the wood. The water molecules adhere to vascular tissues and they increase the bond distance between the cells of the vascular tissues. This allows slippage within the structure of the wood and allows the wood to bend without breaking. Heat and steam cause further expansion between the tissues.

3. Investigate: Which woods have a high degree of resonance and why?

Prompt: When the xylem section (central woody section) of a tree dies, the cells in some species of wood eventually become completely hollow (form a skeleton cell frame). When other woods die, the cell structure remains mostly in tact.

4. Investigate: Why do gut drum heads stretch when wet and then shrink when dry?

Prompt: Water fills the center of the dead cells in the gut. This causes a dramatic expansion. When the head dries, the cells empty.

5. Investigate: Why do cloth (aircraft fabric) drum heads shrink (tighten) when heat is is applied to them?

Prompt: The cotton cloth is made entirely of cellulose. Heat causes cellulose molecules to coil.

6. Investigate: Why do uncoated synthetic (aircraft fabric) heads only produce a dull thud when struck, while the same head coated with a varnish will produce an extremely loud "boom" sound?

Prompt: All sound is produced by the movement of air. When an uncoated head is struck, most of the air goes through the head.

7. Investigate: Why will fresh green wood break if an attempt is made to steam and bend it, while wood that has been dried and then soaked in water will successfully bend when steamed?

Prompt: When wood dies and is dried out, "pits" form in the cell structure. These pits, or holes, in the cells allow water / steam to penetrate thoroughly throughout the wood. Green wood still has a "closed" cells which are not broken down and will not allow water to penetrate into all parts of the wood structure.


Using skills taught in any high school practical math book or a book such as Workshop Math by Robert Scharff, students should learn to perform the following operations:


  1. Figure the length of a board needed to build a drum which is 19 inches in diameter and which has a four inch overlap for gluing and handle attachment.
  2. Figure / predict the variation of the dimensions of the drum at different stages of construction by calculating the amount of shrinkage in wood from its green state to its dry or cured state. The rates of shrinkage for different woods can be found in many woodworking books such as Understanding Wood: A Craftsman's Guide to Wood Technology by Bruce Hoadley. It is likely that this drum will be made of local spruce. Spruce will shrink laterally by 12% and in length by approximately 2%.
  3. Figure the dimensions of all wood used in the project by calculating the board feet. Students should also evaluate the materials at hand for quality so they can predict the amount of waste likely in selecting a quality board for the drum rim. This will enable them to actually predict the entire amount of material needed to actually produce a drum.
  4. Taking into consideration the skills above (number 3) students should be able to calculate the amount of material needed to supply an entire class.
  5. Students should be able to describe in standard business terminology the dimensions of the materials needed to supply a drum making class. This description should be termed in a manner which enable them to make an accurate order of all materials.

Critical Thinking

All questions on this list promote respect for the skill level of ancient Alutiiq craftsmen, and at the same time promote adaptive / critical thinking. These questions might be discussed in a student seminar and then could be used for prompts in argumentative essays or paragraphs. 


  1. How were ancient Alutiiq craftsmen able to make drum rim boards to a consistent thickness which would result in a nearly perfect round drum? Keep in mind that the original Alutiiq drum makers started with a log and stone tools.
  2. How were ancient Alutiiq craftsmen able to carve drum rims, handles and decorations without the use of metal tools?
  3. How were ancient Alutiiq craftsmen able to steam long boards without the use of modern steamers and especially metal pipes?

Improvisation - Having Fun Making Do 

Watching the Elders make do with the materials and tools at hand was a genuine learning experience for me. I have always been one to use "the proper tool for the job," and as a result am sometimes severely limited in what I can accomplish in arts or crafts outside my shop. As the Elders worked on different crafts, they always seemed to have everything they needed to finish the project at hand.

As several of the elders were building a skiff in camp, I noticed that there were no plans, no blueprints, no sort of device to keep everything to scale. I was to learn that these items, had they been there, would have only hindered the process. All measurement was by the length of parts of the human body, an arm span a hand span, nose to fingertip and so on. The finished project was beautifully balanced in form and was totally symmetrical.

As the boat was actually being constructed, the tools used were minimal. Knowing the importance of braces and clamps in such a project, I doubted that the quality of work would be what it should be without (manufactured) clamps. I watched with some delight as the braces and clamps were made on the spot. Several boards and a small beach log were wedged between trees close to the project. To apply downward pressure, boards were wedged from other boards which were wedged between trees - a bit complicated and maybe even comical to look at, but quite effective. Clamps were made of boards around which was tied scrap line scrounged from the beach. Strong driftwood spruce limbs were used to twist the line tightly around the boards to clamp glue joints perfectly together till dry. In essence, hundreds of dollars worth of tools were replaced by locally available materials and true ingenuity. The best part of watching the entire process was listening to the Elder boat builders as they joked and laughed at the "homely contraptions" they had constructed to do their work.

Several of the men at camp, including myself, decided to make darts for Uksgaaq, the whale - dart game. I had brought lead wire of the proper diameter to weight the heads of the darts, but soon discovered that I did not have the proper size 3/32" drill bit to install the lead wire in the dart heads. I was somewhat surprised one evening to find that several of the elders were actually finishing their sets of darts. I put down what I was doing and examined a dart made by one of the Elders. The weights in the head were made of the shot from a shotgun shell. The holes were drilled with a pocket knife and the lead shot was held in place by pressure applied to the shot with the side of a pocket knife. When I questioned that particular Elder as to where he learned the lead shot trick, he kindly explained that he had never really learned the method, and as a matter of fact, he had never used that particular method before, but, he told me, "That's just what I happened to have."

Throughout the rest of the week I frequently saw similar incidences of on-the-spot ingenuity. From my experiences I learned to not limit myself so much to using only the "proper tool." I have learned that common items found in any camp or boat can be used as effective tools. I discovered that an acceptable tool for a given job may be in my pocket or even on the beach right in front of me. I have begin to experience the special humor-laden pleasure of completing a job by improvisation.


Caring for Elders 

A memorable event for me at the 2001 Academy of Elders Camp was an evening discussion group with Cecilia Martz, a Yup'ik educator. Although I had a variety of things running through my mind at the time of the discussion, I still remember (without notes) the majority of the material in that discussion. One of the main points of focus in this discussion was a set of rules that Cecilia was taught as a child to follow . These were the rules regarding the care and treatment of Elders in the community. In my own village experience I had participated in sharing with Elders in the community, but after this discussion, I now realize that a fairly strict set of guidelines could have made that sharing much more meaningful for both the Elders and myself.

I remember often coming home with a tub full of king crab. I would always have my children climb in the back of the truck. We would drive around to the Elders' homes, honk and hold up a crab or two. If we received an affirmative nod in return to the honk, one of the kids would run up to the house with the crab. At the time, this act seemed noble enough, but I never thought past that moment. It can be a significant burden on an Elder to have to prepare a crab or any other wild food. Cecilia told us that one of the strictest rules to be followed is that food taken to the elders "must always be fully prepared." The burden of food preparation should never be placed on the Elder. This made total sense, especially in light of the fact that cooking a few more crab would be an insignificant amount of extra work when one is already cooking a few dozen. Several additional minutes of easy and pleasurable work on the part of the giver could certainly be a relief to the Elder on the receiving end. A small effort on the part of one can be a wonderful gift to the other.

Another food rule that struck me as a powerful caring tool was the fact that a certain percentage of the main courses of every meal were designated for Elders. Most of us get in a hurry, we forget, we rationalize, we find it easy to not do what we promised ourselves that we would do. However, most of us are creatures of habit, and once we form a habit of preparing that little bit extra, we will find it easy to do our ethical duty to the Elders. Making the bit extra will become automatic, because it is a personal rule - just something that we do.

There were other "rules" related to us by Cecilia that all were easy - an insignificant amount of work for the giver - that would mean a great deal to any Elder. But these were all kindnesses which would only reach their full potential if practiced as a routine part of one's life. They all have to be built into our personalities to become truly effective.

I fully realize that what worked for Cecilia Martz as a child may not always work in a modern society such as that found in Kodiak, Alaska. And I fully realize that in our culture, where most of our food comes from the grocery store, that to share a bit of everything would be a financial burden on most of us. My evening with Cecilia did, however, set my mind to work with what I could do within my own schedule and within my own financial limits.

As my fishermen friends tell me to come down to the boat to "take what I want," I now make it a habit to take a few extra, and when my wife and I grill those salmon and black cod we cook a few extra fillets for the Elders down the street. It's little trouble for us, and the response we get is magical. When making a month's worth of kindling, it is only twenty minutes extra work to fill a box which can be left on an Elder's steps. And, as I begin to build our new fish smoker in the next few months, thanks to Cecilia, we will designate one rack on the top as the Elder rack.


Jim Dillard, participant at the 2001 Academy of Elders/ Science Camp


Technical Writing:

Technical Writing : A Reader Self-Centered Approach by Paul V. Anderson, Harcourt, Brace 1995

The School to Work Sourcebook by Pat Sebranek, Verne Meyer and Dave Kemper - D.C. Heath and Co. 1996

Technology by Brad and Terry Thode - Delmar Publishers 1994


Understanding Wood: A Craftsman's Guide to Wood Technology by Bruce Hoadley - available from Highland Hardware, 1045 N. Highland Ave. NE, Atlanta, GA 30306

Wood Bending Handbook by W.C. Stevens and N. Turner - available from Woodcraft Supply, 560 Airport Industrial Park, P.O. Box 1686, Parkersburg, WV 26102


Workshop Math by Robert Scharff - available from Highland Hardware, 1045 N. Highland Ave. NE, Atlanda, GA 30306


The Etholen Collection: The Ethnographic Alaskan Collection of Adolf Etholen in the National Museum of Finland by Pirjo Varjola Pub. National Board of Antiquities of Finland (Excellent photos of Alutiiq drums collected on Kodiak Island in 1846. Has precise measurements which can be used to replicate student-made drums.)

Drums, Use of:

Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska by William Fitzhugh and Susan A. Kaplan Pub. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988 (for a brief description of Aleut / Alutiiq pre-Christian religion)

Masked Rituals of the Kodiak Archipelago by Dominique Desson, Ph.D. (copies available for loan at the Alutiiq Museum, Kodiak)

Inua: Spirit World of the Bering Sea Eskimos by William Fitzhugh and Susan A. Kaplan Pub. National Museum of History with the Smithsonian Instutution Press. (Althouth not about Alutiiq culture, this book explores in great detail the purposes of many aspects of traditional Native ritual, and explains the functions of made objects in those rituals.)

Social Studies / Humanities:

Alaska Standards for Culturally-Responsive Schools Pub. by the Alaska Knowledge Network, 1998

Historical Atlas of World Mythology by Joseph Campbell Pub. Harper and Row, New Youk (explanation if the importance of ritual in Native American cultures)

Ask an Elder. 


Any high school botany book.

Plant Physiology by Frank B. Salisbury and Cleon W. Ross Pub. Wadsworth Publishing, Belmont CA

Whouy Sze Kuinalth
"Teaching Our Many Grandchildren"
Tauhna Cauyalitahtug
(To Make a Drum)
Math Story Problems
St. Lawrence Island Rain Parka Winds and Weather Willow
Driftwood Snowshoes Moose
Plants of the Tundra Animal Classification for Yup'ik Region Rabbit Snaring
The Right Tool for the Job
Fishing Tools and Technology
Blackfish Family Tree
Medicinal Plants of the Kodiak Alutiiq Archipelago Beaver in Interior Alaska Digging and Preparing Spruce Roots
Moose in Interior Alaska Birds Around the Village Dog Salmon


Handbook for Culturally Responsive Science Curriculum by Sidney Stephens
Excerpt: "The information and insights contained in this document will be of interest to anyone involved in bringing local knowledge to bear in school curriculum. Drawing upon the efforts of many people over a period of several years, Sidney Stephens has managed to distill and synthesize the critical ingredients for making the teaching of science relevant and meaningful in culturally adaptable ways."



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Last modified August 14, 2006