Counting in Iñupiaq, Alaska students build clocks using Kaktovik numerals

In a sunlit room in Anchorage on a recent afternoon, high school students from all over the state were painting, gluing and covering wood with resin. Round handmade clocks dotted the table, each creation adorned with a different design — and each featuring Kaktovik numerals, which reflect how one counts in Iñupiaq.

This month, 20 students participated in a series of Kaktovik numeral clock-making classes held by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s School Yard program at the Denełchin Lab. The students were from the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program’s Summer Acceleration Academy, which allows high schoolers to take a few college courses in math or science over the summer.

School Yard program assistant Ankse “Terrence” Long paired up with instructor William Boyles to first teach students about Kaktovik numerals, and then help each of them create a unique clock using the numbers.

Kaktovik numerals were invented by a group of middle schoolers about 30 years ago. Composed of straight strokes, the numbers visually reflect the composition of the number.

Kaktovik numerals use numbers ranging from 0 to 19 in a base-20 system, instead of from 0 to 9 in the Arabic numbering system. That corresponds to how people count in Iñupiaq as well as other Inuit and Yup’ik languages, and often makes math more intuitive to students.

“It took me a while, but once I figured out that this is one and this is two, it’s just like building on things,” said Bethel student Isabella January, 16. “I just found that really interesting.”

[Previously: Numerals invented by Kaktovik students can now be used digitally]


The clock-making project started with learning about numbers — how they’re different from the Arabic numeral system and how they were developed. Then students painted the pieces, each of them choosing whatever color scheme or artwork they liked. Fireweed, constellations, abstract ornaments and even a record label were some of the designs they conjured up.

January said she spent half a day picking artwork, settling on a mountain landscape.

“I want to keep this clock forever, so I wanted to find, like, a good photo,” she said. January used a laser machine to transfer the outline of an image she’d traced onto the clock face.

Eiley Reid, a 15-year-old from Anchorage, drew koi fish on her clock by hand.

“I just chose it because they’re very peaceful. They are one of those things that makes you calm,” she said, adding that she liked learning about the numerals during the lessons.

When the designs were done, students glued wooden arrows and numbers to the clock faces and applied resin to the surface. After the resin dried, students took the last step to transform a piece of art into a working clock by inserting the clock mechanism into their creations.

Before holding the three classes for ANSEP students this month, the School Yard program instructors in May had taught a group of students mostly from the Central Middle School of Science and Bettye Davis East Anchorage High School. That clock-making class was also a success.

“Some of them wanted to make a second one,” Boyles said. “They loved the fact that they were able to make something that they can bring home and talk about with their parents.”

Boyles, who is originally from Fort Yukon, said he came up with the idea for the clock-making project when he saw a clock that was going to be thrown away. He wanted to incorporate cultural elements into the lesson, so when his co-worker Benjamin Schleifman suggested using Kaktovik numerals, he became excited.

“I fell in love with it and knew that I wanted them to make clocks out of it,” Boyles said about the numbering system. “I like the fact that they’re the only written number system in Alaska, and I love the fact that they’re easy to work with.”

When Long heard about the Kaktovik numerals clock project, he knew he could help. With roots in the Iñupiat village of Point Hope, Long is intimately familiar with the counting system and knows how it reflects counting in Iñupiaq.

“That’s how I learned how to count,” he said. “I just brought the knowledge that I had.”

“He knew the names of the numbers and he knew more about it than I did,” Boyles said, “because he comes from that culture. It was very important to have him there. It’s just as much his lesson as it is mine.”

Preparing for clock-making, Long made worksheets to teach students how to do basic math operations using Kaktovik numerals. Some of the students liked counting with Kaktovik numerals so much that they completed the whole worksheet without transferring numbers into the Arabic system.

“There were definitely a few students who got really into it, who came to me repeatedly and were like, ‘Hey, so how would this work?’” Long said. “They had a lot of fun with that and they were actually really engaged.”

Born in Anchorage, Long as a child would often visit his mother’s home community of Point Hope, until his family left the state when Long was 3. Keeping in touch with his Indigenous roots was difficult growing up in Florida and Missouri, where many customs were different, he said.

Still, “even down in the Lower 48, I always, always tried to find out information about my people,” he said. “I’ve always had a strong stance with my own culture. It’s very important to me.”


Long’s mother, Crystal Cleva Long, told him and his brother Sal traditional Iñupiaq stories about the moon and about a narwhal. She also trained their dog in Iñupiaq and taught the brothers as much of the Iñupiaq language as she knew herself.

Whaling was another cultural link Long’s mother kept, speaking about Long’s uncle, who was a whaler, and about her own experience cooking for whaling crews. “They really loved her soup,” Long said.

The family moved back to Alaska about six years ago, and now Long often visits his grandmother, or aaka, who shares her stories about Point Hope. He also enjoys the Native food sent to his family from the village, whether it’s whale meat or seal oil.

Last week during the clock-making class, he was cutting maktak to share with students.

“What’s your favorite traditional food?” Long would ask students who came up for a piece of maktak. “Try this with salt!”

Some of the students had never tried maktak before, while for others it was one of their favorite treats. Similarly, for some students the classes marked their first time learning about Kaktovik numerals, while others were familiar with the system.

“I grew up knowing the numbers,” said Nome 15-year-old Sara James. “Now I have the actual numbers to go with it. That’s a cool connection, I’m so happy! I love learning new things and it was nice to learn about my culture.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.