Features: History & Social Studies
Photograph of a Hopi woman basket weaver, c. 1910

Native American Heritage Month

November is Native American Heritage Month, and what better way to celebrate it than to learn something about the culture of some of the first Americans? We can take advantage of the National Museum of the American Indian, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, as we search for information on Native American Heritage. This feature can serve as an introduction to the material cultural and history of a few of the hundreds of Native American groups composed of the 4.3 million people who identify themselves as Native American in the United States.

Further information on Native American heritage can be found in the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Picturing America Project as well as several EDSITEment lesson plans. Picturing America reproduces and discusses the long and varied traditions of American Indian pottery and basket making from 1100 through 1940 in the Picturing America Gallery (Illustration "1-A"). Included are ancient jars made by the Anasazi, an ancient Sikyátki bowl, a 1904–05 basket by Washoe artist, Louisa Keyser from the southwestern United States, from Alaska, a basket made from whale baleen by Carl Toolak in 1940, and a jar by the renowned potter María Montoya Martínez from 1939. Here is a large depiction of these items.

From EDSITEment, teachers in the K-2 classroom can introduce their students to Native American life with either Native American Cultures Across the U.S or Traditions and Languages of Three Native Cultures: Tlingit, Lakota & Cherokee. For slightly older students, EDSITEment offers two lessons aimed at 3rd, 4th and 5th graders entitled Not ‘Indians,’ Many Tribes: Native American Diversity, and Anishinabe-Ojibwe-Chippewa: Culture of an Indian Nation. High school students can delve into the complex issues of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act with the lesson Kennewick Man: Science and Sacred Rights.

Basket Weaving

For hundreds of years, and through to today, the art of basket weaving has been and continues to be an important component of many Native American cultures. Basket weaving is not just a skill leading to the creation of a nearly endless array of practical tools, from baby carriers to food containers and from water carriers to heirloom repositories; they are also the product of great skill, imagination and artistry.

You and your students can get a close-up look at some of Native American basket weaving by visiting the virtual exhibit, The Language of Native American Baskets. This virtual exhibit leads students through an investigation of Native American styles of basket weaving beginning with one hundred years of Haida baskets through the eyes of a Haida weaver. The Haida today live on the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia and the Prince of Wales Island in southeastern Alaska.

Next, you and your students can learn more about the techniques of basket weaving, including plaiting, twining, wicker and coiling. These techniques are exemplified by the collection of baskets, boxes, hats, and even a spoon that have been woven by Native American groups from around the country. These examples include not only a Haida hat which displays the image of an eagle (one of the two major Haida clans) in a style echoing the totem poles which may be more familiar to your students, but also a wicker pocketbook made by a member of the Cherokee Nation, a Paiute water bottle whose weave is twined tightly enough to carry liquid, a Akimel O’odham bowl from Arizona with an intricate pattern, and a Mohawk basket made to look like a strawberry.

What kind of materials do Native American basket weavers incorporate into their work? Are these materials the same across the country, or are they different? How do the basket weaving styles and designs vary across the Americas?

Each of the objects in this virtual exhibit highlights the highly perfected skills of the artisans who created each piece to marry aesthetic appeal and practical purpose. This is particularly exemplified in the section entitled Burden Baskets. As their name suggests, these baskets are created specifically with a utilitarian purpose in mind; however, the artisans who created them have not forgotten to bring beauty to each piece. The open burden basket created by a member of the Yokuts of south-central California shows a focus and attention to detail even in this uncomplicated piece. Among the more intricate closed burden baskets, the patterns woven into objects such as the Achomawi basket from northern California, the Arizona White Mountain Apache basket and Mrs. Snow’s basket from North Dakota all show the beauty invested in these everyday objects.

Why do you think many Native American cultures put such skill and effort into decorating utilitarian objects?

In the section entitled A Set of Values, students can read more about the ways in which artists place their personal stamp on each of their creations. The short essay reminds viewers that these creations are not simply a repetition of tradition, but are an expression of the weaver’s personal creativity and skill. From the colorful Aleutian trinket basket to the Chitimacha nesting baskets, and from the Huron birch bark tray to the Tlinglit bowl, each piece shows both tradition and innovation.

How do basket weaving techniques and designs represent the cultural traditions of the artisan? How do they represent the vision of the artist of him or herself?

 

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Native American Art

Basket weaving is by no means the only medium used in Native American art. Paint, clay, wood, stone, thread, reeds and beads are some of the many media utilized in the creation of Native American art. Picturing America includes amazingly detailed drawings of Lakota women and Crow warriors in their native dress by a man named Black Hawk of the Sans Arc Lakota that were made in 1880–1881, at the time when American Plains Indians were losing their land and way of life. The National Museum of the American Indian Museum exhibition entitled First American Art, will also give you and your students a varied and exciting introduction to some of the many facets of Native American art.

This exhibition discusses the creation and the appreciation of Native American art through key concepts which include integrity, vocabulary, movement, emotion, intimacy, composition and idea. You may wish to investigate one, a few, or even all of these concepts with your students as you navigate through the collection. Using these concepts as tools for visual interrogation, you can lead your students through the process of reading the ways in which Native American art achieves success: such as through the creation of ‘movement,’ or the proper reference to ‘vocabulary,’ as discussed in the short accompanying essays of this exhibition.

For example, you might wish to begin by introducing the idea of movement, as expressed in this exhibition. This includes not only the movement of the person wearing or using the object, but also the object, animal or person being depicted, and even the movement of the earth and the stars. By having students view objects such as a stunning pair of Kiowa moccasins, a Western Apache bowl, or a Heiltsuk clapper, you can begin to discuss the ways in which each of the objects in this exhibit conveys a sense of motion.

How do the addition of beads and fringes to clothing, shoes or bags add a sense of motion to the object and its wearer? How is movement conveyed in the shape of an object? Do any of these objects suggest to you the movement of the stars in the night sky? How?

 

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Native Americans in New York City

Did you know that many of New York City’s most famous skyscrapers were built with the high rise construction expertise of Native Americans? When Americans imagine New York’s skyline they might think of businessmen such as Walter Chrysler, John Jacob Raskob, and even Donald Trump. But few imagine the Mohawk Indians. And yet, without the expertise and hard work of several generations of Mohawks, New York might not have the Chrysler Building, the George Washington Bridge, and the United Nations building.

The exhibition of photographs entitled Booming Out gives an introduction to students, parents and teachers who may not be as familiar with the modern, urban experience of many Native Americans. Mohawks from upstate New York and from the area around Montreal have been working on high rise ironworks construction projects since the 1880s, and continue to be an important part of this specialized kind of building in the 21st century.

Is high rise construction something that you think of when you usually imagine the Mohawks of New York State? Why or why not?

 

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Art, Life and the Reservation Today

More than half of all Native Americans in the United States live in urban areas such as Seattle, Portland, and Las Vegas. In fact, the largest urban population of Native Americans can be found in Los Angeles, California. While this means the majority of Native Americans live in cities, Yet, Native Americans are also the demographic group with the lowest percentage of urban dwellers among all United States demographic groups. In short, more Native Americans live in rural areas than any other ethnic group in America. While not all Native Americans dwelling in rural areas live on reservations, a significant percentage of the population does continue to live on Indian land and to be governed by tribal governments. Even for those who do not live on reservations, their familial reservation often continues to hold a deep and important personal and symbolic value.

An exhibition of seven Native American artists entitled Reservation X investigates the meaning of the reservation both as a physical location and as a symbolic location. What does the reservation mean, both to the contemporary Native American community, and to these contemporary artists? By viewing works such as Marianne Nicolson’s House of Origin, Mateo Romero’s Painted Caves, and Jolene Richard’s Corn Blue Room, you and your students can begin to expand and deepen your ideas and understandings of what it means to be Native American in the United State today.

What do each of these artworks tell us about life on the reservation? What do they tell you about what meanings the reservations hold for each of these artists?

 

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Conclusion

Parents and educators might wish to introduce the ideas of this feature using short activities that ask students to think about Native American Heritage and the information they will have gleaned from reading this feature.

1. Themes in Native American Art

Throughout this feature, students have had the opportunity to explore Native American art in a variety of media from basket weaving to sculpture and beading to ceramics. You can have students investigate Native American art more deeply by focusing on one of the seven themes described in the First American Art exhibition. You might ask students to select at least two and no more than five objects which exemplify one of these themes, such as movement or integrity. Ask students to write a brief essay explaining how these objects convey the sense of this theme. They should choose at least one object that is not found among the objects selected by the curator to represent this theme.

Students may wish to utilize objects from the First Americans Art exhibition, the Language of Native American Baskets exhibition, or the exhibition entitled Across Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life.

2. Contemporary Life and Native American Identity

What does it mean to be Native American in the United States today? Students most often engage with Native American culture in the American history classroom, however, being Native American is just as much a part of life in America today as it was in the past.

Have your students work together or individually to find answers to the following questions about contemporary Native American life. Students should find evidence for their answers in the web resources linked throughout the text, such as Booming Out and Reservation X.

  • Why do you think so many Mohawks work in high rise construction in New York City?
  • Many Native Americans in recent years have chosen to return to the reservations of their ancestors. Why do you think many Native Americans would chose to leave urban areas to return to the rural life of most reservations?
  • What do you think the reservation symbolizes to the people who decide to return?
  • Many of the artists featured in the Reservation X exhibition utilize domestic forms, such as the interior of a house. Why do you think that is such an important theme for this exhibition?

 

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Selected EDSITEment Websites

 

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Standards

National Council for Social Studies

  • I — Culture
  • Ii — Time, continuity, and change
  • Iii — Peoples, places, and environments
  • V — Individuals, groups, and institutions
  • Ix — Global Connections

 

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Featured Lessons

Featured Websites

 

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ABOUT THE IMAGE

Hopi woman basket weaver, c. 1910.
Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.