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How carving halibut hooks teaches Juneau students both science and tradition

In a science classroom at Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé, students are holding carving knives. Teacher Henry Hopkins walks up and down the rows of desks, showing them how to shape the hunks of yellow cedar in their hands.

“The students were working on traditional Tlingit halibut hooks, which sounds like it’s primarily a Tlingit carving project, but it’s actually a science project,” said Hopkins.

Hopkins has taught science at JDHS for nearly 20 years. Before that he taught in rural Alaska, in remote communities with majority Alaska Native populations. He said he quickly realized subsistence activities like hunting and fishing were their own kind of science textbook.

Hopkins started working with elders and culture-bearers to emphasize that in the classroom.

“It’s important for me that we don’t stop the science to teach Native knowledge,” he said. “I would rather teach the science through Native knowledge.”

Take Tlingit halibut hooks: They look almost nothing like the metal circle hooks used by commercial fishermen. They look more like over-sized clothespins. Two pieces of wood are lashed together in a V-shape, with a spike of either metal or bone. Woods of different density are used to achieve the right float, and the hooks are designed to catch only fish of a particular size.

Hopkins said studying — and crafting their own — halibut hooks gives students in his outdoor biology class the opportunity to learn about everything from sustainable fisheries management to changing oceans.

Leading the carving itself is Tlingit carver and teacher Donald Héendei Gregory.

Henry Hopkins (left) and Donald Héendei Gregory teach students at Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé the science and tradition of Tlingit halibut hooks on March 5, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

“My name, Héendei, is translated to ‘in the water’ or ‘into the water area,’” said Gregory, “and we’re Deisheetaan, we’re Raven Beaver, so it’s an appropriate name for a beaver.”

Gregory learned his craft from a long lineage of Tlingit carvers, and he hopes to continue that legacy.

“For me, the most important thing about learning it is to be able to pass it on to the next group of people that want to learn it,” he said. “I don’t want to take anything with me to the grave.”

Gregory has worked with Hopkins for several years, teaching both the science and the tradition of halibut hook carving to students at JDHS. He said the project builds some pretty specific carving skills, but mostly it’s about common sense: paying close attention and working with what you’ve got.

“Oh, I think it’s real important, I mean when you get out of school, if you don’t have common sense, you’re way behind the curve,” Gregory said.

Hopkins said by incorporating Native knowledge and hands-on learning into his science classes, he’s been able to get buy-in from students who’d never engaged much in school.

“Oh yeah, usually I’ll get a number of texts and emails in the summer of kids holding up halibut and these hooks,” Hopkins said.

Once, a student even gave Hopkins a fish. It was a halibut caught on a hook carved in his classroom.

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