In November, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, a national holiday that began as a celebration of the autumn Harvest. The first Thanksgiving was marked by the gathering of English Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians, who feasted for three days on dishes of venison, mussels, and roast corn (not what you would think of as a “traditional Thanksgiving meal, huh?). November is a month dedicated to giving thanks, but it’s also National Native American Heritage Month. In honor of the people who lived in America thousands of years before Columbus set sail, we’re taking a look at activities you can do to learn more about Native American culture!
Our fall learning series is designed to give you a chance to teach your children about something new and interesting. Each week our blog covers a new topic, and is filled with specially curated activities that let you get hands-on with each lesson. It’s a great way to spend time with family and learn all at once!
Eastern Woodlands tribes include the largest Native American group, the Cherokee, as well as the Iroquois, Algonquian, Choctaw, and Seminole. Their region stretches from The Atlantic Ocean in the east, the Mississippi River in the west, the Gulf of Mexico in the south, and regions of Canada in the north. Canoes made of birch bark were used to navigate the many rivers, and they lived in a variety of housing structures like wigwams, longhouses, and daub houses (wooden framed houses covered with reed mats and plaster). Many tribes cultivated corn, squash, and beans, and deer hunting was especially important to the people in the north.
These were the first people to meet with European settlers when they arrived on the coast. Initially many tribes were friendly, and signed treaties with the newcomers. As conflicts emerge amongst the white settlers, Native Americans began to take sides. The Huron and Algonquian groups sided with the French, the Iroquois League forged an alliance with the British, and eventually, the Oneida (originally of the Iroquois League) sided with the Americans during the great Revolutionary war. These peoples were great influencers in the formation of our country’s early history.
Wampum, or shell beads, were commonly worn amongst the Eastern Woodlands tribes as a status symbol, traditionally in a woven belt. Strings of wampum were used for storytelling, ceremonial gifts, and as a recorded piece of history. All Things Beautiful has a great tutorial on crafting your own wampum belt using pasta and yarn. Assign different values to each “bead”, then figure out how much your belt is worth!
If you think about teepees, buffalo, and horseback riding when you think of Native Americans, you’re visualizing the tribes that inhabit the Great Plains region of America. These tribes live in the middle of the U.S. and Canada, and included groups such as the Crow, Lakota, Comanche, and Sioux. The groups were once divided into two groups – nomadic tribes that followed buffalo migrations, and the sedentary tribe that lived in permanent villages.
For the Plains Indians, the buffalo was a major resource. All parts of the animal were utilized – the hair for ropes, the horns for spoons and ladles, the stomach for water storage. In 1865, Chief Kicking Bear of the Kiowas explained, “The buffalo is our money. It is our only resource with which to buy what we need and do not receive from the government.”
The tribes who followed the buffalo migration also used buffalo hides to create teepees for housing. Teepees were essential for nomadic tribes because they were easy to assemble and transport. First Palette has a step-by-step guide to create a miniature teepee using paper, glue, a ruler, scissors, and three sticks. Before assembling the teepee, encourage your child to decorate the outside wall with traditional Native American symbols. Click here for a good resource on pictography of the Sioux and Ojibway tribes.
The southwest constitutes the land in Arizona, New Mexico, southern Colorado, and northern Mexico, and is known for its hot, arid climate. Rain is sparse and the soil was rocky, which meant that the Native Americans had to use irrigation for their crops. The five major tribes consist of the Apache, Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo, and Zuni. Many tribes created clay houses known as Adobe houses, which kept people cool in the scorching temperatures. Many of these structures have stood the test of time and can be seen today near places like Flagstaff, Arizona.
The southwest tribes’ religions mostly revolve around Animism, which is the belief that all natural objects had souls or spirits. This was a common belief among Native Americans across the continent, but the southwest peoples visualized those spirits in a unique way – through brightly colored Kachina dolls. These dolls were used to teach children about the spirits that would occasionally visit the villages and bestow gifts such as good harvests and rain. You and your child can create your own Kachina doll with Erika Lancaster’s simple tutorial. Talk to your children about the type of spirit their doll will represent (Will it be a rain spirit? An animal spirit?), then talk about the different colors and symbols needed to accurately portray that element.
The northwest peoples were once considered the richest of all of the North American Indians in that they had an abundance of resources. They live along the Pacific coast in in a region that spans from Alaska to Northern California. Tribes such as the Chinook, Tlingit, Tillamook, and Umpqua hunted deer and moose on land, and salmon and seal in the water. Giant canoes that could hold up to 20 warriors were carved from cedar trees. Society was very stratified, and was made up of nobles, the middle class, commoners, and slaves. The tribes believed in guardian spirits that bestowed specific skills on whomever they favored, such as carving or hunting.
The northwest tribes had no written language, but they expressed their history in the form of totem poles. These massive structures, carved out of a tree trunk, passed down stories and often represented family crests with representations of the animals that inhabited the land around them. Your child can create their own family crest totem pole using this tutorial provided by My Creative Life. Have your child think about what animals would best represent his or her life and family, then draw them on construction paper. When they’re done, wrap it around a long cardboard tube, and talk about what each animal represents.
Native American culture is rich and extremely diverse, and has had a lasting effect on the identity of North America. This month, take a moment to teach your children about these amazing people and their diverse backgrounds. And stay tuned for next week’s Learning Series post as we talk about the importance of math education!