'Mock dig' helps Cooper Landing students piece together history

Future meets its past

Posted: Wednesday, September 05, 2001

Cooper Landing Elemen-tary students are taking a step back in time through a project called "Windows of the Past," a study of the Dena'ina culture, and members of the Kenaitze tribe are guiding them in their exploration.

Hoping for funds to help with the project, teacher Sheryl Sotelo submitted applications to Toyota and the Alaska Science Technology Founda-tion. As it turned out, the project was awarded $10,000 from Toyota and another $5,000 from ASTF.

"I called both organizations, figuring we'd have to return some of the money, but they said to keep it and expand the project," she said.

The students made signs for the K'Beq Interpretive Site, participated in cultural studies with members of the Kenaitze tribe, studied with a stone tool expert, went on field trips, enjoyed a Dena'ina potlatch and created a Web site to share their project with others. They also have plans for a virtual museum that will allow them to share their experience with others.

The focus of the project now is a "mock" dig that was prepared for the students by behind-the-scenes work of students from Kenai Peninsula College.

"A couple of (KPC) students that had taken archaeology classes and who are involved in the summer dig that we had two summers ago helped (Sotelo) set up the dig," said Alan Boraas, professor of anthropology at the college.

"They constructed a site using various materials as a way to provide the students with an understanding of how archaeology works, the logical thought processes and record keeping."

Helping create the mock dig last fall were anthropology majors Gilbert Burkman and Zoya Oskolkoff, a Kenaitze tribal member.

"Toward the surface, we put in stuff like old bullet shells, pieces of shoes, more modern stuff," Burkman said. "As you go deeper, it goes back further in time. We buried pottery shards, arrowheads, fish bones and a fire hearth.

"Actually, Zoya buried the stuff," he said. "I came for the glory in the spring when the students started digging."

Burkman said his involvement has been "a great opportunity and a lot of fun. I'm glad they let me help."

Austin and Nicholas Hawthorne, seventh- and eighth-graders at Cooper Landing, are enjoying getting their hands dirty. Nicholas, who has uncovered pieces of glass, bullet shells and a piece of shoe, said he's learning the importance of documentation and precise measurements. Austin said he and his digging partner have found several items, including a chipped rock.

"If you find a rock, you have to look to see if it's been worked on," he said, adding that the one he found appears to have been used for grinding.

Austin also is fascinated with studying different aspects of the Dena'ina culture, including edible wild plants, fishing techniques and the language.

"I'm learning about history, how they worked and how they lived," he said. "It's really fun."

Kelsey Skolnick, a seventh-grader at Cooper Landing, is enjoying her brush with archaeology.

"We're down to about 50 centimeters and uncovering a hearth," Skolnick said of a big rock and a piece of wood she and her digging partner have found.

So how does she know is isn't just a rock?

"There's a guy named Gilbert that thinks it's probably a hearth," she said.

Bernadine Atchison, cultural heritage director for the Kenaitze tribe, said the involvement of Cooper Landing Elementary School students has been a fun addition to the tribe's archaeological exploration.

"They have lots and lots of questions and really want to learn," she said.

She credited the students with this year's increased interest in the K'Beq Interpretive Site.

"This is the best season we have had in terms of the amount of visitors," Atchison said. "A lot of it was just word of mouth from Cooper Landing folks who know about the site because of their kids' involvement."

The kids are really going to like the next project Atchison is planning.

"We want to get into learning about fishing and maybe make a boat like the Dena'ina used to make from cottonwood trees," she said. "They burned it from the inside out and scraped it.

"That's just one of the projects that we want to do. Any type of hands-on project we can do helps the kids learn."

For information about Cooper Landing Elementary School's 'Windows of the Past" program, visit the World Wide Web at http://www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us/cles/funpage.htm.

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