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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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Traditional LightingTraditional


The long winter months of Alaska make lighting very important. While recent years have brought electricity to the villages, many remote cabins and camps still rely on traditional methods of lighting.


In the Recent Past

We used kerosene lamps, Coleman lamps, and candles for years before we had electricity.

Traditional Lighting

Upriver people used rendered bear, caribou, and moose fat for lighting. Coastal people used fish, seal, whale, and walrus oil. In Southeastern Alaska, the hooligan fish gave so much grease trade routes were built on its supply,

Whaling boats decimated the Alaska whale population in the late 1800s in order to supply lighting for the East Coast of the United States. Whole cities were lit by Alaska whale oil.

A simple lamp can be made from a jar lid, a piece of cloth, and some shortening or vegetable oil.


Traditional LightingThere are three parts to a traditional lamp: the container, the wick and the fuel. The fuel is from seals, moose, whales, bears, fish, etc. The lamp itself must be of a material that won't burn such as rock, clay, sea shells or metal. The wick was traditionally of certain mosses, but cotton replaced moss long ago. The wick lifts the oil from the lamp by capillary action and provides a surface for burning to take place.


Traditionally the lamp was of a hollowed stone and sea shells. More recently, jar lids and metal cans were used.



Make several lamps with different containers. Use jar lids, stone, metal, aluminum foil, anything you can find that won't burn.

Use shortening for oil and a wick of cotton cloth for now. Soak the wick in oil before lighting it.

Which materials work best for the container? It takes a bit of skill to keep the wick properly trimmed. Push it into the oil if it burns too brightly, and expose it more if it is too dim.

Don't leave the lamp unattended.


Try different materials for wicks. Try the traditional mosses used in your area. Oil or grease the wick before lighting it the first time.

Try strips of different kinds of cloth. If the wick has any nylon in it, it will work the first time, but will not wick the second time.

Adjust the flame height by moving the wick in or out of the oil. Which wicks last the longest? Which ones fall apart after several uses?


Try all kinds of oils: margarine, bear fat, vegetable oil, seal oil, etc. Do not use volatile fuels like gasoline or Blazo. They are far too dangerous. Do all experiments on a clean flat surface that cannot burn, like dirt or concrete. Do not leave lamps unattended. Sooty flames give headaches after a while.

One time we were stuck with no lights and didn't even have margarine, so we used 30W motor oil for lamp oil. It gave a decent light, but the next morning the inside of our noses were completely black from the soot!

Observe the soot content of the smoke from each oil.

Which oils burn the cleanest? Which burn the longest? Which give the most light?

To render bear, moose or caribou fat, cut it in very small pieces, and put it in a pot with a slampmall amount of water. Turn up the heat. Keep the fat from boiling as it is being rendered. All the water you started with should boil away, or the grease will sour in time. Pour the rendered grease into a container as you would bacon fat.

Rendering can be done with any kind of fat, including fish oil. We have done it from the whitefish entrails as they come out of the lakes in the late fall. They are exceptionally fat at that time. There are several ways to render seal oil. 

Other Adaptations

Kerosene lanterns evolved from oil lamps. Is there any way you can make a chimney that causes the oil lamp to burn cleaner, better or more controlled? Experiment with chimneys of different lengths. A tomato paste can or coil of aluminum foil might serve for experimenting purposes.


When you are done experimenting, you should know what containers and wicks are most efficient and safe. You should know which oils burn the cleanest, brightest, and longest.

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