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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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Traditional FiremakingTraditional

Traditional firemaking with a bow and drill remained a mystery to me until I was shown a few secrets.

The bow is made from a thick piece of live willow or alder. It must be strong enough to pull the string tight.

The string can be of any stout cord.

Traditional FiremakingThe drill and bottom piece of wood should be made from soft hardwood, that is, willow or alder. They both must be very dry but not rotten.

The handle can be of any material. There should be a shallow hole in the handle to fit the drill. Lubricate this. It does not need friction.

The tinder must be of very fine materials. The "cotton" from cottonwood works fine. Traditional materials vary from region to region.

Traditional FiremakingFlatten the bottom piece of dry willow or alder on two sides. With a knife or drill, make an indentation, and then cut a "V" up to the middle of that indentation.

Traditional Firemaking

Twist the drill into the string of the bow. The drill should be on the outside of the string, not the inside. If it is on the inside, it will jam between the bow and the string. Traditional Firemaking


Put a large quantity of tinder under the bottom piece of wood.

Traditional FiremakingStart sawing away. Friction will soon cause enough heat to make smoke. This is as far as you are going with the bow and drill. It will never burst into flames as we always assumed. Drilling gets very hard once the smoke starts.

Traditional FiremakingQuickly scrape the glowing particles from inside of the heated groove onto the tinder.


Traditional FiremakingFold the tinder around the glowing particles to keep the heat in. Gently blow on the glowing particles. As the tinder starts to glow, there will be more smoke, but it won't flame yet.

Getting the tinder to burst into flame is the next step. A very thin piece of birchbark held in the midst of glowing tinder works for me.

I felt a great sense of accomplishment when I first did this. After many years of knowing it was possible, I was shown and was successful.


Try different kinds of tinder. This is the challenge. All must be bone dry and very fine. Shredded inner cedar bark works well, but that isn't available in most of Alaska except Southeast, and there it is hard to find anything dry. Experiment with different materials in your area. We also tried shredded manila rope. It was a bit too coarse. Jute cord from a garden shop has worked for us, but also tends to be too coarse. Materials that burn at a low temperature are desirable. Test first with a lighter or match. If it burns easily with a match it might also be good tinder.

Try different materials for the drill and the bottom piece of wood. Soft deciduous trees seem to work best. Soft woods make a lot of smoke, but don't produce glowing embers the way soft hardwoods do.

Find out from the Elders what was traditionally used in your area. Some regions of Alaska used flint and steel obtained through trade routes and never did use a bow and drill.

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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Last modified April 12, 2011