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Native Americans Past and Present: Classroom Activities

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article contributed by Greta Brewster, a non-profit consultant and writer for

November is Native American Heritage Month, when Native Americans are recognized for their significant contributions to the formation and growth of the United States.

One of the challenges in teaching about Native Americans is the diversity of their cultures and histories. Within the U.S., there are 562 tribes, and more than 3 million U.S. citizens are Native people. Given this diversity, it is misleading to present to students a homogeneous “Native American culture.”

In addition to avoiding overgeneralizations, teachers should avoid what educator Debbie Reese terms a “tourist curriculum,” which emphasizes exotic differences. Since diverse Native American cultures continue to flourish today, educators also should refrain from focusing only on Native American history from long ago.

Use the following classroom activity ideas to explore the real-world daily life of Native Americans using both historical and contemporary subject matter focused on specific tribes.

Language Arts

Pourquoi Stories: Creating Tales to Tell Why is a lesson plan from Elizabeth Nolan Conners that introduces the pourquoi, or creation story. Students work cooperatively to write and present an original pourquoi tale. The lesson plan uses Cherokee and Nigerian examples; teachers can find numerous Web-based resources for additional Native American legends such as Pourquoi Stories Booklist and Native Languages of the Americas: American Indian Legends and Folklore.

For middle- and high-school students, PBS’s Circle of Stories explores storytelling in Native American cultures. The Web site offers stories from four Native storytellers, a gallery of stories for learning about the history of Native storytelling and an exploration of how Native American tribes are confronting land and language issues today. As a related classroom activity, students can create a story that they would want to pass down to next generations. Stories can be compiled in a class anthology of oral literature. More information about this and related activities is available at Discover Education’s Archeology and Storytelling Lesson Plans.

During a segment on early forms of communication, consider having students create their own pictographs, or teach students some American Indian Sign Language. You can also supplement a lesson on the Navajo Code Talkers with a classroom exercise in cryptology, in which students develop their own codes.

Use carefully selected literature (Cynthia Leitich Smith offers a good list of resources) to counter students’ preconceptions about Native Americans. Sandra J. Fox, Ed.D. suggests having students write down words that come to mind when they think of Native Americans, and explore how those ideas change after reading stories written by and about American Indians.


Social Studies

Scholastic’s Web-based Native American Cultures offers a teacher’s guide and activities for grades 4-8. Suitable for online education programs, this resource enables students to virtually “visit” three field sites: an ancient Native American settlement in New Mexico, ancient Native American rock art in Utah, and the Skagit River in Washington, where scientists interview local Native Americans to learn about the river and how to save its salmon population.

The Illinois State Museum created a lesson plan on prehistoric Native American pottery-making methods. Students in grades 3-12 experiment with three methods ancient people used to make pottery before the invention of the pottery wheel.

If you’d like to introduce a Native American game, consider Picaria, a game developed by the Zuni or Pueblo Indians, which is similar to tic-tac-toe. Step-by-step instructions on enable students to make their own game boards.

Math and Science

Can-Do Canoe, for grades 3-12, uses engineering concepts to have students build model canoes from everyday materials and test their designs. The canoes must be able to float for three minutes, and older students’ canoes must also support a load. After designing them, students evaluate the effectiveness of their canoes.

High-school algebra and geometry students can expand math skills with Mathematics with Native American Tepees by Richard Seitz. He has students use pictures of tepees, a graphing calculator, small sticks, cloth or paper and glue to create models of tepees. Students learn about the architecture, design, lifestyle and cultural significance of the tepee in Native American culture.

Native American food-drying methods offer an engaging way to teach students about history, culture, food safety and nutrition. South Dakota State University offers step-by-step activities for grades 3-8.

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