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Alaska Native Cultural Resources
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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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sealSpear Throwing


In certain seasons in certain water conditions seals sink when shot. Losing a seal is always a possibility. Even today, many people living in the mouths of Alaska's rivers spear seals rather than shoot them with guns so they can be retrieved before sinking.

For centuries, people experimented with spears and throwing sticks called atlatls. A precise science has been developed by seal hunters to obtain the greatest distance and accuracy. There are three variables in throwing a spear:

  • The hunter
  • The spear
  • The atlatl

Spear ThrowingSpear ThrowingSpear Throwing

Experiment with different atlatls. Make a long, a short, and a medium length atlatl. Traditional atlatls look something like those on the left:

You can make a simple one like this:

On the end of the atlatl is a pin that was traditionally made of bone or a tooth. You can make it from a nail while experimenting.

Spear Throwing

hollow  tipHollow the tip of the spear so the nail will seat in the end of the spear and not slip off.

Throw a spear ten times measuring each throw for distance.

Spear Throwing

Throw the spear ten times measuring for accuracy (How many times you can get the spear within a 10' circle from 50'.)

Which atlatl gives the greatest distance, the long, medium, or short one? The best accuracy?

Now experiment with different spears. Try a long spear, a short one and a medium length spear.

Try a spear with feathers in the back.

Try a spear with a weight in the front.

Try a spear with feathers in the back and weight in the front.

What is the most effective combination of altatl length, spear length and spear design?

Experiment with different weights on the end of the spear. Put on a heavy, a medium, and a light weight. (I test by wrapping with strips of lead.) Which is most effective for distance and accuracy?

With your ability to throw a spear, would you eat supper tonight or go hungry?

I have always wondered if the long slim shape of the Aleut bentwood hat was to keep the hunter from knocking his hat off when he threw a spear.

Spear ThrowingSpear ThrowingTraditionally, the length of the atlatl is from the elbow to the first knuckle.

The length of the spear is from the elbow of one arm to the outstretched finger of the other arm.

Another person bigger or smaller than you should try the same experiments with the same atlatl. Are the results the same for a different size hunter, or does the size of the "perfect" atlatl vary with the size and strength of the hunter? Do left-handed people have an advantage or disadvantage.

Again, there are three variables:

  • The hunter
  • The atlatl
  • The spear

Long ago, hunters threw while sitting in a kayak. Nowadays, they stand up in the front of a large boat.

Compare your distance and accuracy while sitting vs. the results while standing. Use the same atlatl and spear. From which position can you throw farther? Is this true for other hunters too?

This enjoyable experiment has very important conclusions.

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
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Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
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Last modified April 12, 2011