Photo Credit: Frank Kovalchek

LESSON 9: By Ways And Highways: The Living Source



In this lesson students will be given some “artifacts” that might simulate what someone might find in a forgotten envelop in an attic. Students will take a stab at deciphering and connecting the pieces.  Then students will listen to an interview (Mona Painter of Cooper (s) Landing) that will help explain the significance of these and give a glimpse into life on the early trails of the Kenai.




Alaska Content Standards:


A-2:  Understand that the interpretation of history may change as new evidence is discovered.

A-4:  Understand that history relies on the interpretation of evidence.

B-5:  Evaluate the influence of context upon historical understanding.


Inquiry Based Thinking Strategies Utilized:

Interpreting:  Students will read “raw” text, edit, and describe the intent or meaning of the passages.

Hypothesizing:  Students will take the known artifacts to try to construct the meaning that connects these.

Observing:  Students will observe documents and photos and take note of details that will help tell the story.


Background Information:


This lesson is a culminating activity that illustrates the importance of students conducting primary resource research within their area. Alaska is different from other areas. The footprints of the early people and of the settlers can still be seen on the land. The habitations, the trails, the stories   —  they are still fresh. In many cases, these can still be seen. They are, in many cases, still within the living memory. In the earlier archaeological power point, Dr. Aron Crowell uses the memories of the living descendants to provide the contextual clues that remain silent in artifacts. Without this living interpretation, it is difficult to tease out this contextual knowledge. We can only guess.

In this lesson the students have a go at being a historical detective. They will be presented this scenario: They’ve been rummaging in a dust filled attic when they’ve come across an old steamer trunk. Inside there is but one item  —  a tattered manila envelop. On the envelop it simply says: “Important – don’t discard. Save.” They open it and find inside an old letter, some documents, and some photos. Nothing else. Somehow the items are connected (at least we can assume this because of their packaging within the common envelop).

It is up to the students to use the skills that they’ve learned during this unit to decipher this story. (Understanding, this is not a contrived story but one that will be described later in an interview.) Their first job will be to inspect the items  —  prospect for details (there’s gold there after all). Take notes. Analyze… but, at first, only on the individual item’s own terms  —  singularly. As necessary, students may try to answer those questions that arise by using other resources (books, maps, or internet). Analyze singularly, but not in a vacuum. Remember, one can’t find connectivity until one fully understands the item itself.

Then, once done, it is the students’ job to interpret the connection between the items. They will hypothesize why these have been placed together. What is the story that ties them together? It’s important to remember, this isn’t a story based on fantasy or supposition; it’s a real story with real people   —  don’t go beyond what has been provided and researched.

The students will share their versions and critique them according to the information that is available. Then the artifacts get a chance to “speak.” Earlier in the archeological video, Rhonda Moonin lamented that “she did not listen” to her “Poppa.” Students will get the opportunity to listen to an interview of Mona Painter, resident of Cooper Landing, who arrived on her own to Alaska as a 11 year old girl, her adventures traveling the route from Seward, and later developing a very special relationship with Jack Lean  —  long time settler of Cooper’s Landing and mail runner on the Iditarod Trail.



1) Set the Stage: 

In this lesson the students have the chance to put together all their skills as primary source researchers to decipher a story. When finished, accuracy can be checked by listening to a personal interview that tells the context behind these items.

2) The Scenario:

The students have been rummaging around in an dusty attic when they come across an old steamer trunk. Like all inquisitive sluethers, they open it (no doubt with a resounding creak) and inside is found an envelope labeled, in fading pencil, “IMPORTANT – DON’T DISCARD – SAVE.” They blow off the dust and open it. Inside are several objects. They are to examine these and try to put together a credible story.

3) Provide the materials/Start taking notes

Start making observations and inferences regarding the photos and documents. Write these comments directly on copied documents and photos. Careful, photos and documents are not necessarily directly interrelated (one leading to another) don’t overextend assumptions. Keep only to facts.

Pay attention to names, dates, and context within photo/document.

4) Decipher Letter

First, rewrite letter correcting grammar, punctuation, spelling and paragraphs. (Careful, less editing is good. Just do enough to provide readability) If words or letters are added show this in (___). If words are taken away show this with . . . Remember, edit only enough to increase readability.

At the end make a note saying the document has been altered to improve readability.

Set right margin to 3 inches and print.

In margin, provide possible explanations or connections. If questions arise note these as well (in a different color).

In addition, look at what the writer is saying, how he is saying it. What is going on between the writer and the recipient? Consider the information that is being shared. Put historical context onto the information.

5) Consider the bigger “story”

This is not a linear story. The task is to discover who these people are and what their relationship is to each another. Look for any possible connections between items. Look for what information is present. Although assumptions can be made, they have to be grounded in the information that is provided. Don’t look for a bigger story than what is present   —  again, look just for the information that is available.

6) Write out a summary of your thoughts

Summarize thoughts. Note: it’s not important to connect specific photos as being specific events. Think “contextually.” We have two different people that represent two different eras of history. We want to get to know the people involved, the relationship between these people, and their relationship in history  —  both time and place.

Consider crafting your summary in this way  —  with a statement of fact next to supporting details. Consider the statements based on the following documents which are in larger format at the end of this lesson.:



7) Share . . . And be ruthless!

In groups or as a class share interpretations. Interpretation might not be a) like others or b) correct, however that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a wrong interpretation. Every statement that is suggested must have concrete evidence to support it. If it doesn’t, group members should point it out. Make the researcher be accountable for every single point. Don’t allow the researcher to go off on tangents that are not supported by evidence.

8) Listen . . . And learn . . . And now, the Rest of the Story

Listen to the interview of Mona Painter in Cooper Landing September 13 and October 4, 2012. Be prepared to stop the interview from time to time. Students should note on their paper when the interview validates one of their points or when their assertions are inaccurate or incorrect.

IMPORTANT: In addition, make notes for new information that could not have been determined from the artifacts.

And here lies the biggest lesson . . . We can only learn so much from objects.

Objects and artifacts are stubbornly silent. There is only so much that can be learned from photographs, maps, and documents.  Photographs can show an image but it can’t tell about the kinship between 3 generations of Aluutiq fisherman pictured leaning against their seiner. A map can show a dotted route through a given pass, but it can’t speak to the perils and death encountered while mushing it. And a plane ticket can give a name and a date, but it’s mute to describe the feelings that that little girl had when her plane landed in Alaska and how it changed her entire life.

And that’s why, as a student in this state of new and raw history, it is important to be part of this process of recording history through the elders that still live in our communities.

9) How Did Your Interpretation Change?

Have students select 4 –5 statements from Jack Leans letter (or from photos) in which their interpretation changed substantially after hearing the interview with Mona Painter. Explain their earlier interpretation and then discuss their current interpretation based on the new information.

In addition, have students write at least 4 questions they would ask to help understand this story. Next to the question describe what is it that is hoped to be learned from this question.