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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
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Alaska Science Camps, Fairs & Experiments

ANKN is a resource for compiling and exchanging information related to Alaska Native knowledge systems and ways of knowing. We are pleased to create and distribute a variety of publications that assist Native people, government agencies, educators and the general public in gaining access to the knowledge base that Alaska Natives have acquired through cumulative experience over millennia.


Contact the ANKN offices at 907-474-1902 or email

Drum FramesDrum Frames

While many traditional drums appear simply made, much care is given to their construction. There is a tremendous amount of science involved in determining the pitch, timber and durability of a drum.


Tlingit people make drums about 12"-16" in diameter, covering them with deerhide. Fermenting the skin for a while allows the hair to slip easily.

Drums are culturally very significant, so check with the Elders in your area to be sure the following suggestions are appropriate.

The skin is washed and fleshed after the hair is removed, then cut to shape and lashed to the frame in a variety of ways, Experiment with the different ways. Which way keeps the skin tight and is easiest to retention? Which way is traditional in your clan or village?

The outer part of the drum frame should be beveled. If the top of the frame is flat, the drum will have a strange twang. Make one with a beveled top and one with a flat top. Can you hear the difference? A few people make their own frames, but most folks buy them already formed. They are made of thin strips of wood laminated together around a round frame.

Drum Frames

The striker is made of a stick, often devil's club, and a head, which is wound string or cloth covered with leather. Make different strikers: one hard, one soft. What difference do you notice in the sound?

Does humidity change the pitch of the drum? Why do people often heat the drum head over a fire before playing it? After painting, does the drum have a different sound?

Which makes the biggest difference: the size of the drum frame, shape of the frame, thickness of the skin, tension of the skin, or type of striker?

Yupik and Iñupiaq drums are made quite differently. They are large, two to three feet in diameter. They are held with the face down and struck with a long slim stick, often hitting the rim. The rim is thin, made of driftwood, with a wooden handle lashed onto the bottom of the frame.

Some people have speculated that Yupik and Iñupiaq drums are larger because it is much more difficult to bend coastal driftwood than the live trees of the Interior and Southeast Alaska. The drums had to be bigger to keep the frames from snapping.

The covering used to be made of walrus gut, but nowadays people use airplane fabric. The sound is almost the same, and fabric is much easier to obtain and maintain.


Make different size drums. Use different size strikers. If you can, compare the sound of a drum made with walrus gut with one made of airplane fabric. Experiment with different tensions on the surface: tight and looser. What happens if you make it too tight? How do you tighten the airplane fabric?

Make different size drums. Do the pitch and sound change? Does humidity affect the sound?

Contemporary Athabascan drums are similar to Tlingit drums, but some people say they used to hollow out a cottonwood or spruce tree and stretch caribou hide over it. Someone should make one of both kinds and test them for the sound. With science and experimenting, the reasons for the original materials and shape could be rediscovered.

Drums make interesting science. There are several variables and the result is always a product that will last many years.

Finding and Developing a Science Fair Project

Examples of "Observe and Think" Projects

200+ Ideas for Science Fairs!

Traditional Lighting


Traditional Firemaking


Fishing with Lures

Rabbit Snares

Spearing Fish and the Refraction of Light

Chill of the Campfire

Solution vs Suspension

Seals & Beaver, Floating & Sinking


Selecting a Birch Tree

Spruce & Other Roots

Spruce Gum

Spear Throwing

Berry Pickers

Drum Frames


Book Cover

© 2004 Alaska Native Knowledge Network. All rights reserved.

A partner with the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0086194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


Camps as an Environment for Science & Culture

Culturally Relevant Science Fairs



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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 April 12, 2011