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Plains Indians Pictographs


  • Social Studies


  • 3-5

Brief Description

Students learn about the Native American tradition of decorating tipis with stories written in pictographs. The class designs their own pictograph stories, using scraps of brown paper to represent buffalo hide.


Students will

  • compare how people communicate today and how they communicated long ago.
  • learn to appreciate the culture of American Indian tribes.
  • think creatively as they draw simple symbols to convey ideas.


American Indian, Native American, pictograph, communication, stories, tipi, Plains, buffalo

Materials Needed

  • markers, crayons, or colored pencils
  • brown paper bags, lunch-sized (You can buy a pack of 150 for less than a dollar.)

The Lesson

Begin the lesson with a brief discussion about communication. Let students brainstorm ways in which people communicate with one another; students might generate ideas such as e-mail, the telephone, sign language, and books.

Explain that Native Americans did not communicate through writing as we know it. Instead, they told stories (oral history) and created pictures. Many Plains tribes used special kinds of pictures called pictographs. Pictograph stories were often painted on tipis.

Provide a few examples of pictographs: a triangle for a tipi, a lightning zip to represent a storm, or a spear or bow-and-arrow to represent hunting or war. Draw each symbol on the board and prompt the class to guess what each pictograph represents. Have students explain to you the difference between a pictograph and a typical drawing. (Ask students to explain how a tipi picture would be different from a tipi pictograph, for example. Help students see that a pictograph is a simple symbol, not a detailed or intricate drawing.)


If possible, share with students some sample pictographs:

Next, ask students to design their own pictographs for items or ideas that would be meaningful to them -- for example, basketball, school, homework, pizza, happiness, or anger -- and share them with their peers. Students might work in small groups to complete this activity.

Then provide for each student a brown paper bag. Instruct students to carefully rip from the bag an area approximately 8- x 8-inches square. (You probably will want to demonstrate that first.) Have students crumple their squares into a ball, and then smooth them out again. Explain that their papers now resemble buffalo skin right after it's been cured.

You also might write on the chalkboard a couple of sentences for students to translate into pictographs; more creative students or older students might create their own sentences. (Whatever the source of the sentences, beware of including stereotypes in them.)

Sample sentences:
  • "Grandmother built this tipi." (Women of the Plains tribes were responsible for the construction and care of the tipi. Many tribes held competitions between women to see who could pitch a tipi the fastest. The winners often were able to do this job in less than three minutes.)
  • "Father killed the buffalo on a stormy day."

Explain to students that their job is to design their own pictographs to communicate those sentences or others. They will draw the pictographs on their "buffalo paper" using whatever art supplies are available.

After students have finished their pictographs, they can mount the designs on construction paper. The projects make great wall decorations.


Use the following criteria for assessing students' finished products:

  • Does each pictograph clearly communicate an object or idea?
  • Does the student demonstrate an understanding of the difference between a pictograph and a drawing? (Some students have difficulty with that concept and produce a piece of "hide" covered with intricate drawings, rather than simple symbols.)
  • Did the student actively participate in the pre-activity discussion?
  • Did the student carefully follow directions?

Submitted By

Laura Wolfram, Horace Mann School in Bronx, New York

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