The Rich Cultures of Native Americans- For Kids!

From the time I was about 4, I have always loved learning about other cultures- and it all started with Native Americans. I can remember dreading going to preschool except that one day where we all dressed up as American Indians and ate traditional food and listened to traditional music- it was so much fun! You do have to be VERY careful when presenting information about tribal groups, because so often throughout American history their rich culture has been stereotyped and boiled down to pretty much just the Plains Indians’ culture (think tee pees, feather head dresses and buffalo hunts), and Native American culture is so much more than that. When planning these lessons, I was extra careful to make sure I was creating activities that accurately and respectfully portrayed each Native American group- you won’t find any feather head dress activities because feathers are considered sacred and therefore those kinds of projects are disrespectful. I also tried to keep the information on a level that preschoolers could still digest, which basically means focusing on “surface culture” (clothes, food, homes) rather than “deep culture” (religious beliefs, government, social norms).

There are 12 Native culture groups based on physical location, and therefore natural resources. Although each culture group is made up of several tribes, each with their own unique culture (see map here), many of the Native American tribes in each group lived in similar ways as far as homes and food because they used the resources in nature to survive- for example, Eastern Woodland tribes usually built homes from the abundant trees in the area and ate things like fish, deer, turkey, nuts, berries and crops they grew whereas tribes living on the Great Plains relied on buffalo for food, shelter and many of their daily utensils. I decided to focus on 4 of these culture groups- eastern woodlands, great plains, southwest, and subarctic. I have activities in literacy, math, social studies, and art as well as a book list for each group, and they are meant to be done together so you’re learning about one group per day, so instead of grouping my plans by academic area this week, I’m grouping them by Native American culture area.

Although I don’t like the word “indians” because it’s a misnomer by Christopher Columbus (he thought he had reached India…and had no earthly idea he’d accidentally run into a different continent entirely until much later), the term “American Indian” is considered appropriate by tribal peoples. Although many of these activities are based on historical culture, I also included books about modern Native Americans. Although Europeans purposely killed off most of them to steal their land (the sad but true history they sometimes forget to teach in school…) they are still here in our country today, and still celebrate their rich heritages. Although many of them don’t live off of the resources of the land anymore, some still do to some extent, and I know many are working to keep their traditional culture alive. So without further adieu- let’s dive into some Native American culture!

Each day during calendar time we sang this song written by a fellow teacher back when I was student teaching (we called her “Ms. T” and I can’t for the life of me remember her actual name- it was 14 years ago!) I tweaked some of the lyrics to make them more inclusive to the entire culture area of each verse and added the last verse myself! If you’d like the tune, here’s a video of me singing it… LoL We also listened to traditional Native American music on Alexa during the week.

Each day we also looked at this map of Tribal Regions and I colored in the region for the day (you can also have your little color it in, but I wanted it to be precise!) Thinking back I should e printed one for him and one for myself so he could color it in too!

Woodland Indians:

-“Hiawatha and the Peacemaker” retelling: We read “Hiawatha and the Peacemaker” about a Native American named Hiawatha who worked to unify 5 Iroquois tribes and stop the war between them. The Iroquois Nation was the first nation who had a true democracy where all the people- men and women- had a voice and voted on different issues within the nation. It was one of the inspirations for our founding fathers when they were writing the constitution of the United States of America! After reading the story, I made a foldable retelling graphic organizer and my little retold the story using the pictures and my questioning as a guide.

-Wampum word problems: Wampum beads are beautiful purple and white beads the Eastern Woodlands Indians hand made out of clam shells found along the coastline. They were made into belts, and used in ceremonies and as gifts, as well as for currency- in fact, the English settlers even used them as the very first form of currency in the United States before we became a country. I wrote a few trickier word problems based around the beads (the value in the problems is purely fictional to keep the numbers at a preschool level!) and gave my little a few pony beads to use to solve the problems as I read them aloud to him. They are definitely “thinking” problems, and encourage deep “math talk” in order to solve them, which is why I only wrote 3.

-“The People of the Forest” video and charting: We watched the video “The People of the Forest” (I stopped it at 23 minutes) on YouTube, then added to our daily chart some of the culture of the Woodland Indians that we learned.

-“Birch bark” canoe: I folded a piece of paper in half, then drew a canoe shape making the fold the bottom of the boat. Then, I hole punched the sides and had my little thread them with string to make a toy canoe! You can have your little cut and hole punch themselves too (I probably should have, but it was almost dinner time and we were in a rush!)

-Wampum necklace: I threw a few ziti noodles in a Ziplock baggie with some purple paint (then did the same with white paint) and shook them around to coat them. After allowing them to dry on some wax paper, my littles threaded the “beads” onto string to make “wampum” necklaces.

-Woodland Indian book list:

Plains Indians:

-Buffalo skin story: Since Native Americans didn’t have paper to write on, they often recorded important events and stories using picture writing on animal hides, so we thought we’d do the same! I drew an animal hide shape on a piece of tan construction paper and had my little cut it out. Then he drew a picture story of his recent bike ride with his Grandpa where he saw deer and turtles!

-Color by number tee pee: I printed this color by number tee pee for free, then added the color code as we went (they seemed to have forgotten one, but that’s ok!). I had my little find each number and color it accordingly.

-“The People of the Plains” video and charting: We watched the short video “The People of the Plains” (I stopped it at 20 minutes because the end was the same as “The People of the Forest” from the day before) then we used the information we learned to add to our culture chart- my little told me what the Plains Indians homes were like, how they traveled, what they hunted and what they wore and I drew pictures to match.

-Parfleche bag craft: I really wanted to make this one with craft foam, but I didn’t have brown or tan like I thought I did so we ended up using construction paper. I traced a U shape on a piece of folded paper (with the fold being the bottom of the U) and had my little cut it out. Then he hole punched both sides and I had him “sew” them together with string. I tied the two strings together at the top to make the handle of the bag. You could also have your little decorate their bag with American Indian patterns if you wanted (my little opted for a plain bag)! It’s still functional for play, but craft foam would’ve been much more sturdy!

-Tee Pee decorating: I printed these Blackfoot tee pee templates from online then had my littles color them. My preschooler cut his out himself, then I taped it in a cone shape for him and hot glued some craft sticks to the top. Last we snipped open the tee pee door and folded back the flaps!

-Book list:

Southwest Indians:

-“Arrow to the Sun” cause and effect lesson: We read the story “Arrow to the Sun” (the only one we had on hand/at the library about a Southwest Indian tribe) then we reviewed what cause and effect is. I always like to teach it backwards to my students, so that’s what I did with my little too- an effect is just an event that happened, and the cause is what made it happen. Thinking about it this way helps them make the connection a bit easier! I wrote my little’s answers on a graphic organizer I drew on our chalkboard, but paper would also work!

-1 little, 2 little, 3 little Pueblo song: I changed the words to this famous counting song so that it reflected Southwest Indian life- particularly farming and irrigation. We used it as a spring board to talk about irrigation and how the Southwest Indians were the first people in North America to use irrigation to water their crops (they dug ditches from riverbeds to their fields then planted crops between the ditches so they could easily scoop water from the ditches to water their crops! Some of their irrigation trenches were as long as 19 miles!!!) then sang it a few times for math! Fun fact: the young girl I drew is sporting the traditional “Squash Blossom” hairstyle worn by unmarried girls of the Pueblo tribes!

-“The People of the Desert” video and charting: We watched “The People of the Desert” on YouTube, then added what we learned about their way of life to our culture chart.

-Clay pot making: The tribes of the Southwest had access to LOTS of clay- it’s what they built their homes out of, and also made pottery out of. To explore this tradition, we made our own “clay pots” out of white playdough, then let them dry and decorated them with black sharpies.

-Corn dot painting: We discussed how the corn grown by Native Americans wasn’t just yellow like it is today, but had many beautiful colors like purple, brown, deep red, and orange. Then I gave my littles cardstock with long ovals on them and some paint in those colors. I showed them how to make dots with Q-tips dipped in the paint, then let them paint their ovals. When they were dry, we added tissue paper leaves to our corn! I got this idea from Mrs. Jones’ Creation Station.

-Piki bread: We baked traditional Hopi piki bread and ate it with honey- it was delicious! You just mix 2 cups of self rising cornmeal (or add in 1 TSP baking powder if you can’t find self rising), 2 eggs, 1 1/2 cups of buttermilk (we used soy milk and it turned out fine!) and 2 TBSP sugar. Pour scoops of it into a hot oiled pan and cook them similar to pancakes. REAL piki bread is made with ground blue corn, water and juniper ashes, so I’m not sure how authentic this recipe is- maybe it’s a more modern version? I got the recipe off of Teachers Pay Teachers.

Subarctic Indians:

-ABC ice fishing: The Subarctic Indians used ice fishing to catch seal and fish through the frozen waters during the long northern winter. Since there was snow on the ground much of the year, their diet consisted mostly of meat and fat from the animals they caught (which also included reindeer, walrus and polar bear). For a literacy activity, I thought we’d go “ice fishing” for some letters! I cut a fishing hole out of a piece of cardstock, then hot glued it to the top of a bowl (the hot glue peels right off if the surface of the bowl is smooth). I made a fishing pole from a pencil, string and a magnet, then popped our ABC magnets in the bowl. The fishing pole magnet wasn’t strong enough to catch the letters, so my little ended up fishing with his hands- but it was still a fun activity! When he “caught” letter, I had him match it to the same letter on a laminated sheet of paper.

-Shape totem pole: Totem poles were put up all over the north west to share traditional stories, record important events, and to show ancestral lineage. I found a shape practice totem pole on Teachers Pay Teachers, so I printed it and had my little count how many of each shape he found. Note: a square is a type of rectangle, (technically the math definition of a rectangle is a 4 sided shape-or a quadrilateral- with 4 square corners- or 90 degree angles) so we counted the squares and rectangles together for that section. We also counted the larger rectangle that made up the entire body of the totem pole if you’re wondering why our number is so high! LoL

-“Tuktu: The Snow Palace” video and charting: We watched the short video “Tuktu: The Snow Palace” on YouTube then used the information we learned to add to our chart of Native American culture.

-Igloo building: As a STEM challenge, I blended up some ice cubes with a little bit of water to make “snow”, then had my little try to build a mini igloo with it! It was much harder than it looked- especially without mittens!

-Totem pole craft: I had my littles paint a paper towel roll, then add Melissa and Doug animal face stickers ($5 on Amazon) to it after it had dried. Some of the stickers ended being way too big, but we made do! As a final touch, we added wings to one of our totem creatures!

-Book list:

Supply/shopping list:

  • the book “Hiawatha and the Peacemaker”
  • the book “Arrow to the Sun”
  • ABC magnets
  • bowl
  • pencil
  • yarn/string
  • magnet
  • brown craft foam
  • craft sticks
  • purified water
  • playdough

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