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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 9, 2002 - Issue 56


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Science Fair Projects Combine Western, Native Knowledge

Western scientific method partnered with age-old knowledge at the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Society's state science fair.

The event, which is open to nonurban students statewide, encourages participants to work with Native elders on subjects pertinent to their geographic regions.

"What we're trying to do is link these kids with elders so they can see they are one of the greatest sources of information," science fair coordinator Alan Dick said. "Elders have tremendous knowledge."

Projects delved into why salmon turn color in fresh water, whether blubber or feathers offer more insulation, the effects of traditional Inupiaq massage on health, and the antibacterial properties of sphagnum moss.

Others explored how bugs walk on water, how to find magnetic north without a compass and the relationship between age and reflexes.

One compared the absorbent properties of traditional moss and fur to disposable Pampers and cloth diapers.

Judges, who hailed from both the scientific method and traditional wisdom camps, viewed projects and grilled students on their results at Camp Carlquist near Mirror Lake before the awards ceremony Feb. 6 at the Sheraton Hotel.

The second-annual event was hosted by the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative and drew projects from every corner of the state. Those judged best go to nationals in Albuquerque, N.M., this month.

Ely Cyrus tapped neighbors, teachers and village elders for his project, which compared Inupiaq methods of weather prediction with National Weather Service broadcasts. He illustrated his project with a January temperature chart and photos of cloud formations and sun dogs.

Cyrus, 10, is from Kiana, a village 60 miles above the Arctic Circle. He picked the brains of his neighbor, Pat Reale, and interviewed villagers Elmer Jackson and Jonas Ramoth to learn about predicting weather Inupiaq style.

Native elders Tommie and Ella Sheldon helped him compile a list of traditional weather predictors. His Inupiaq teacher, Viola Nasrukbarr, collaborated on a list of more than 90 weather-related terms in Inupiaq. "Uvlugiat unasriksikmata" means "When the stars seem far, the weather gets bad." "Kanakniqusq" means the wind is blowing from the east; "kivakniqsuq," from the west.

"Kobuk people watch for mare's-tails (qugaguq)," Cyrus said.

A ring around the sun indicates good weather ahead; half circles around the sun signify approaching clouds and wind. A basic understanding of local weather patterns helps, Cyrus said.

Cyrus discovered that animal activity, cloud formation and wind direction all offer clues to understanding weather in the Kobuk Valley.

"Inupiaq predicting is more detailed, but it's not always right," he concluded. "Modern predicting isn't so detailed, but it is right more often."

Kami Wright, 13, and Amanda Padron, 12, students at Floyd Dryden Middle School in Juneau, compared the effects of hydrocortisone and devil's club salve on psoriasis. The students learned about the spiny shrub from Della Cheney, a Tlingit elder who works at the school.

They got the Tlingit recipe for the salve from their teacher, Angie Lunda, who told them a story about a group of hunters who speared a bear. The hunters tracked the bear for a long way. They found him in a patch of devil's club, chewing the leaves and spitting it on his wound.

"As legend has it, devil's club has thorns to protect its medicine," Wright said. "If you hang a stalk above your door, it protects you from evil spirits."

To make the salve, they shaved the bark off devil's club stalks and boiled them in a crockpot with canola oil. They strained the oil and mixed it with beeswax to make a thick, woody-smelling salve. They illustrated their project with photos showing the progression of a patch of psoriasis treated half with hydrocortisone and half with the salve.

Their experiment showed the salve reduces the irritability, flakiness and itchiness of the skin disease, measurably better than hydrocortisone.

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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