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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.


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Throughout the centuries, the ability to sharpen tools has been a matter of great importance to Alaskans.

SharpeningToday we have a variety of knives, and a variety of sharpening tools. Each has its own purpose. A good experiment will determine the application of each. A knife that is good for skinning beaver would be almost worthless to cut salmon. A knife that is good for butchering a walrus is undesirable for carving a wooden spoon.

Four Variables

There are four variables in sharpening a tool:

  • Material to be cut: Cutting meat and fish are quite different from carving wood.
  • Type of steel, shape of the blade and shape of the tool: There are many types of steel in cutting blades, each one with advantages and disadvantages.
  • Sharpening instrument: Files, stones and steels are all different. Each has its applications.
  • SharpeningThickness of the edge: A thin edge will act differently from a thicker one. There are different shapes of the edges: smooth, serrated, flat on one side, or beveled on both. An edge too thin will break off easily . An edge too thick will not penetrate easily.





Material to be cut


Fish or meat

Type of Steel in the blade

Soft steel

Hard steel

Stainless steel

Sharpening Instrument






Butcher steel
Diamond steel
Hunter's steel

Thickness of Edge

Thick edge

Thin edge

One sided edge


Try different combinations of the above. Find out which works best under certain conditions. Example: When cutting fish, a knife with a ver y hard blade might hold an edge longer , but it might be too tedious to sharpen. A softer knife that can be quickly stroked with a file might be better.

What kinds of steel ar e more efficient for different applications? (Soft steel, hard steel, stainless steel, etc.)

Which works best on soft blades, hard blades, and stainless steel blades: a file, a stone or a sharpening steel?

What is the best angle to sharpen a knife for meat, for fish, or for wood? Which one penetrates better? Which one lasts longer?

Is a smooth edge better on wood or meat? Is a rougher edge better on meat, fish or wood?


Look at a sharpening stone, both coarse and fine under a magnifying glass. Describe and/or draw what you see.

Why do people use oil or saliva on the stone?

How is a used stone different from a new one?

How do electric grinding wheels differ from hand stones?

Look at different files under a magnifying glass. What do you see? How are the teeth shaped?

Which files are faster? Course or fine?

Which ones smoother?

Under the magnifying glass, can you see the difference between a dull file and a new one?

What materials plug a file? File brass, aluminum, steel, wood, and other materials.

What materials dull a file?

Look at a butcher steels under a magnifying glass. What do you see? What is the difference between a butcher steel and one impregnated with diamonds?

Experiment with porcelain and diamond sharpeners.

Which is quicker and more effective for sharpening a hard blade: a file or a stone? Gerber or Buck knives are hard. SchradeWalden is softer steel.

Where did people in your area get sharpening stones in traditional times? The village of Sleetmute actually means "Village of the Sharpening Stones." Oldtimers knew where to find them or trade for them. Explore this in your region.

When old-time barbers sharpened the razor they stropped it on a piece of leather. What do you think this accomplished? How is this similar to the methods used by Native women when they cleaned skins?

Sharpen a piece of slate on sandstone. Wet the slate regularly. Then try to cut a fish with the slate edge.

I have found that learning how to create the proper edge for a given job is a lifetime experiment, but one that pays off in smooth effective cutting.

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
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Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
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Last modified April 12, 2011