A Fish Simulation, Plus Tlingit and American Conceptions of Property

the cannery at Klawock, c. 1878
(courtesy of Ketchikan Museums)
On Tuesday, October 8th, I had the sudden opportunity to insert Tlingit-American history into a simulation planned by my mentor teacher. For lack of a desire to rewrite everything that happened, here are the notes I took that day, somewhat edited:

I leave at the beginning of class to make copies of a reading for a student who was missing it. When I return, O is reviewing the concept of “opportunity cost.” [O is my name for my mentor teacher, elsewhere referred to as Teacher Y.] O then collects an economics assignment, and reminds the students that they have a page of other economics questions due tomorrow.

We then turn to a fishing simulation...

my note-taking handout
The simulation consists of two iterations of free-for-all “commons” fishing, followed by one iteration of fishing with nine sections of private property in the ocean, and some fish on the boundaries to fight over. (Paper clips represent fish, which can buy Hershey’s kisses at different prices.) O repeatedly tells the students that if they wait, they can get a better price in a second round of fishing, but as long as they can pick up paper clips anywhere, no one waits. After the simulation, O briefly talks about the meaning of the activity, and a few students explain why dividing the ocean into private property makes it easier to wait for the higher prices.

Then I take over. I pass out the three-part note-taking sheet (that I created during lunch) and begin by saying that different cultures have different conceptions of property. One student explains what “culture” means. I repeat what they said to the class, and then I say that back in the 19th century, Tlingit and Americans had different conceptions of property. I ask if that makes sense or seems correct, and the students seem to agree. I then write “at.oow” [actually at.óow] on the whiteboard and explain how fishing sites and creeks were Tlingit at.óow and belonged exclusively to certain groups. I compare this to the second part of the simulation, when there were nine squares of private property. I then write the word “commons” on the whiteboard and explain how this was the concept that Americans brought to Alaska in terms of fishing and water rights—equal access fishing anywhere. I compare this to the first part of the simulation when the students could pick up fish anywhere.

Tlingit men on a seiner skiff
(courtesy of Ketchikan Museums)
Then I ask why this situation might be ironic, and a student supplies that it was ironic because Natives did not have this conception of private property on the land, which is where Americans have it. I approve of this thought and add that when we commonly think of Native Americans, we think of them not having conceptions of private property and divided land, but that was not the case for water rights in Lingít Aaní (the land of the Tlingit). I add that it’s also ironic because O talks about private property as a pillar of the American economy, but that wasn’t the case here when it came to fishing.

I ask if there are any questions, and O adds that there was overfishing during this time as well, because of the tragedy of the commons. (I add “tragedy of the” to the whiteboard.) I then ask the students how the U.S. deals with this problem today when it comes to fishing, since it hasn’t split up the ocean into parcels of private property. A student supplies that there are limits to fishing today, while another mentions that in some cases they have sold parcels of water, or rather the mineral rights to sections of water, as on the Yukon River. O then wraps up the class.

[Note: If you'd like a copy of my simple note-taking sheet for my ten-minute mini-lesson, find it here. And—if you have any questions about the activity, (or anything else), please don't hesitate to leave a comment.]