Plains Indians on horseback
In this four-part lesson, students examine the concept of geographic region by exploring the history of the Great Plains. In Part I, students gather information about the location and environment of the Great Plains in order to produce a map outlining the region in formal terms. In Part II, students examine how the region has been mapped at different stages in U.S. history and create informational brochures which reflect the changes the maps mark in the functional definitions of the Great Plains. In Part III, students compare descriptions of the region, from the time of the Spanish conquistadors to the early 20th century, and write their own descriptions based on these models in order to gauge how changing perceptual definitions of a region reshape its identity and its relationship to human life. Finally, in Part IV, students compare images of two cultures that made their homes on the Great Plains, Native Americans and "sodbusters," and summarize their distinct ways of life and the distinctive regional identity each brought to the Great Plains by writing imaginary letters from a Native American and a sodbuster homesick for the land they have left behind.
Begin by introducing the geographical concept of "region." In general, a region is any place that has certain characteristics that give it a measure of cohesiveness and set it apart from other regions. By this definition, a region can cover continents (e.g., the developing world) or a few city blocks (e.g., Wall Street). Whatever their scale, however, regions are essentially human constructs whose boundaries are determined by specific criteria.
Explain that in this lesson students will use the concept of region to explore the history of the Great Plains, an area that early maps labeled the Great American Desert but which is known today as a showcase for American agriculture.
Divide the class into research teams, provide each team with a fresh copy of the outline map of the United States, and have them produce maps of the Great Plains based on the geography of the region. Have each team note and/or represent on its map the formal characteristics they use to define this region: for example, landform, climate, average rainfall, vegetation, land use, population density, etc. Direct students to standard library reference works for their research. In addition, two websites listed in the "Resources and Links" section of the National Geographic Society Xpeditions website may be helpful. (Click on "Resources and Links" at the Xpeditions homepage to reach this listing.)
Display the students' maps and again discuss similarities and differences, focusing this time on the formal characteristics that students have used to define the Great Plains.
Turn next to consider the influence that human purposes have played in defining the Great Plains as a region. Use EDSITEment to examine these historical maps from the New Perspectives on THE WEST and the Exploring the West from Monticello websites:
After students have examined and compared these historical maps, ask them to consider their significance. To what extent are these maps functional definitions of the Great Plains region -- portraying it as an area organized by human purposes at a specific moment in American history? To help students see the maps from this perspective, ask them who the maps were made for and how they characterize the region. What do they "say" about the Great Plains? For example, you might point out that:
Following your discussion of the historical maps, divide the class again into small groups and have each group produce an informational brochure about the Great Plains based on one of the historical maps. Their brochures should express in words and pictures the implicit message behind each map -- its functional view of the Great Plains -- and should reflect the circumstances of American history under which each map was produced. A brochure for the Lewis and Clark map, for example, might encourage entrepreneurs to discover for themselves the riches of the region, while a brochure based on one of the 1880s state maps might advertise the availability of extensive tracts located near major rail lines. When they have completed their brochures, have students share these historical interpretations of the Great Plains in infomercial-style class presentations.
To explore how human perceptions have defined the Great Plains, use EDSITEment to provide students with descriptions of the region from a variety of time periods and perspectives. The examples suggested here fall into three sets—explorers, emigrants, and settlers. It may be convenient to divide the class into three groups and have each group compare and report on one set of descriptions.
As students read these accounts of the Great Plains, have them take notes on the natural features mentioned and the descriptive terms and adjectives used. In class discussion, compare notes to determine which features are consistently mentioned across the centuries and how they are characterized in different time periods. Focus also on each writer's portrayal of the relationship between people and the world of the Great Plains. What brings people to the region in each era, and how does this purpose influence their perception of the landscape and climate, the animal and plant life, the native inhabitants? How, too, does the writer's place in the historical procession across the Great Plains influence his or her perception of its landmarks and defining features?
Students will find that few of these writers offer set descriptions of the Great Plains, reporting instead on what happens there. Yet each writer to some degree expresses an attitude toward the region, provides us with a point of view that imparts a significance to this space on the map. Have students summarize these viewpoints by writing a description of the Great Plains modeled on one writer from each set of readings: an explorer, an emigrant, and a settler. Have students draw on the vocabularies they have gathered from their reading to give three historically relevant portraits of the region. As an alternative, have students create an anthology of Great Plains writings, adding examples to those listed above, and write an introduction to each section of the anthology explaining how changing perceptions of the Great Plains throughout U. S. history have redefined the region.
To conclude this exploration of the Great Plains, turn to visual portrayals of life in the region. Like written descriptions, paintings and photographs convey a point of view, influenced by the culture and experience of the person making the image. In this respect they offer a complementary record of the way perceptions of the Great Plains have evolved over the centuries. At the same time, paintings and photographs provide an important supplement to the written record in their ability to convey the Native American experience on the Great Plains, whether directly through images created by Native Americans or indirectly through documentary images created by white observers.
Use EDSITEment to provide students with a selection of images that represent Native American life on the Great Plains. For example, in the Archives of THE WEST section of New Perspectives on THE WEST you will find:
Ask students to identify common features in these three images. They will probably point out the horse, which is the only feature that all three images share. Have students suggest reasons why the horse should be, in effect, a defining characteristic of traditional Native American life on the Great Plains. Encourage students to base their explanations on the knowledge of Great Plains geography that they gained by mapping the region. How did the horse help the Indians adapt to and survive in this environment? How did it alter their perspective on the space around them? To what extent might one see the horse as an embodiment of the Plains tribes' relationship to their region?
To help clarify this composite picture of Native American life on the Great Plains, have students examine images of late-19th-century settlers in the region.
Have students contrast these images of sodbusters with those portraying Native Americans. Point out the sod house as a constant feature of the settlers' way of life, comparable in this respect to the horse in the pictures of Native American life. Ask what the sod house suggests about the settlers' relationship to the world of the Great Plains. How did it help them adapt to and survive in this environment? How did it influence their perspective on the space around them? Have students compare the sod house and the horse as characterizing features of the Great Plains region. How do these competing "landmarks" influence our understanding of this place? How does the significance of the Great Plains shift in history as the culture of the horse gives way to that of the sod house? In what other respects do these two sets of images show how cultural values influence people's perceptions of a region and the life they fashion within it?
Remind students that they have examined only a small sampling of images of life on the Great Plains. Discuss briefly how they might test their interpretations through further research. Then ask students to summarize their interpretations of the Native American and the sodbusters' way of life by writing two letters, one from an Indian, the other from a settler, both homesick for the region they have left behind. What details of the natural landscape do these imaginary writers mention in their letters? What routines of living on the Plains do they recall? What questions do they ask to find out how things have changed there?
Like the land itself, the history of the Great Plains can seem endless. For additional perspective on the region:
4 class periods