Igiugig students learn about archaeology at Goose Camp
On a sunny early-May afternoon, 10 Igiugig students sat around a campfire sanding down pieces of slate into various sharp tools.
After an hour of work, fifth-grader Walt Gooden began to realize that the piece of rock he had chosen for a blade might not be done for dinner, as he had hoped when he started the project.
"I have a lot left," he lamented, looking at his still-dull axe blade.
Walt was trying to make a slate axe with just a grinding stone and sandpaper to sharpen the blade. He and his classmates learned about old-style tools, and other aspects of archeology, from visiting instructor Monty Rogers. Before they got started, Rogers explained how various Alaska Native groups made their tools, and talked to the students about how different materials were available in different areas. Then, the Anchorage-based archeologist who has worked in the region previously read off the words for slate, knife, and other components of the tools in Yup'ik, Dena'ina and Alutiiq.
The knives being made in early May used slate for blades, birch for handles, and spruce sap (collected by Rogers at his Anchorage home) for glue. The slate the students used came from the Hope area. But cultures all over the state made tools, sometimes from locally available slate or other sources of rock, and sometimes from rock they had bartered. The Yup'ik word for slate, Rogers noted, is similar to the word for a round/semilunar knife typically used by women.
The activity was part of Igiugig School's annual Goose Camp, when students cross the Kvichak River for a change of scenery, and curriculum.
Head teacher Tate Gooden devised the camp four years ago as a way to add some place-based, environmental education to the school year. Students camp on the bluff across the river from town, where there's an old lodge that is no longer in use, and spend most of their time outdoors.
So far, it's been a hit with students, and the community.
"You're learning a lot, but you're not in the schoolhouse," Walt said.
Despite the challenge, Walt said knife-making was his favorite activity this year.
"I liked the knife-making, but I picked the biggest one," he said later in the evening. "It took me a couple of hours just to grind it into a blunt blade."
He didn't finish his axe at camp, but said he'd keep working on making it sharper, if he could find the right tools when he got home.
Each spring, camp has a different theme — past years have focused on climate change, survival skills and other topics. Some years, there are more geese flying overhead. This year, camp was light on geese, but a lot warmer for camping, the kids said. And the theme was archeology and Yup'ik language. Igiugig Village Council President AlexAnna Salmon helped get Rogers involved.
In addition to knife-making, Rogers worked with the younger students on painting, and added an unexpected exercise on the last morning of the three-day camp. He lead a group of students through measuring and recording old home pits that could be another archeological site to explore some day.
The group just stumbled on those pits this year. Rogers said when he went to set up his tent on the bluff, he admired the view — and realized that someone must have been there long before the lodge. Then he saw several pits from old houses. The students helped him mark each with a GPS, and record their sizes and locations so that a future group might be able to explore them further.