Lesson Plans: Grades K-2

Native American Cultures Across the U.S.

Created October 5, 2010


The Lesson


Native American Cultures Across the U.S.: Sioux woman

Sioux woman

Credit: Image courtesy of Photographs from the Collection of the Denver Public Library

The term 'Native American' includes over 500 different groups and reflects great diversity of geographic location, language, socioeconomic conditions, school experience, and retention of traditional spiritual and cultural practices.

—Debbie Reese, "Teaching Young Children About Native Americans"

Children's literature, movies, and other media often perpetuate generalized stereotypes, whether positive or negative, in their representations of Native American peoples. Teaching children about the First Americans in an accurate historical context while emphasizing their continuing presence and influence within the United States is important for developing a national and individual respect for the diverse American Indian peoples, and is necessary to understanding the history of this country.

By the time children in the U.S. begin school, most have heard and developed impressions of "Indians" from books, movies, or in the context of the Thanksgiving holiday. This lesson helps dispel prevailing stereotypes and generalizing cultural representations of American Indians by providing culturally-specific information about the contemporary as well as historical cultures of distinct tribes and communities within the United States. Teachers can divide the class into groups that each study a tribe from a different region, or the class can select one region to study, such as the geographical region in which the school is located.

Please note that this lesson plan alternates among the three terms, "Native American," "American Indian," and "Indian people" so as not to privilege one designation over the others. In her essay, "Teaching Young Children about Native Americans," Debbie Reese explains that she uses the term "Native American," but also "recognizes and respects the common use of the term 'American Indian' to describe the indigenous people of North America. While it is most accurate to use the tribal name when speaking of a specific tribe, there is no definitive preference for the use of 'Native American' or 'American Indian' among tribes or in the general literature."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs states in its "Answers to Frequently Asked Questions" : "The term, 'Native American,' came into usage in the 1960s to denote the groups served by the Bureau of Indian Affairs: American Indians and Alaska Native (Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts of Alaska). Later the term also included Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in some Federal programs. It, therefore, came into disfavor among some Indian groups. The preferred term is American Indian." The issue of designating terms is still evolving.

Guiding Questions

  • How are American Indians represented in today's society?
  • What objects and practices do we associate with Indian culture?
  • What are some actual customs and traditions of specific Native American groups?
  • What are some cultural traditions and customs that have changed over the centuries?
  • Which ones have continued into the present?

Learning Objectives

  • Compare and contrast how American Indians are represented in today's society with their actual customs, traditions, and way of life
  • Understand that Native Americans are made up of diverse peoples and cultures
  • Identify the names of specific native North American tribes
  • Describe the historical and present-day locations, houses, clothing, food, and cultural traditions of specific tribes
  • Learn the geographic regions of the United States that correspond to Native American cultural bands
  • Name various tribes' cultural traditions and customs that have changed over the centuries as well as those that have continued into the present

Preparation Instructions

  • This lesson requires you to access web pages through EDSITEment-reviewed websites. You may share these pages with your students at individual computer stations, assign small groups to share several computers, display computer-projected images to the whole class, or print out the pages and distribute copies to the students.

  • You may want to review some of the following background literature on teaching about American Indians, as well as the lists of recommended fiction and non-fiction books for young children:

  • The following vocabulary appears in this lesson; you may want to go over these words with the students as part of the introduction or as they come up in the lesson. If possible, obtain and provide pictures of the items, or ideally, bring in examples of the actual items to display and allow students to handle them in class.

    • Nation, tribe,
    • Coast, woodlands, plains,
    • North, South, East, West
    • Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest
    • Reservation,
    • Trade,
    • Ceremony, tradition,
    • Commemorate, ancestor,
    • Canoe, totem pole, hogan, tipi,
    • Harvest, lye, sofkey,
    • Breechcloth, moccasin,
    • Cradleboard

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Representing Native Americans Today

Before offering information about Native American Nations and cultural groups, introduce the terms "Indian," "Native American," and "American Indian," and ask students what they know about these terms and about the people they represent. Create two columns on the chalkboard or a piece of paper, and write down student responses in the first column. This first column shows students' preconceptions about Indian peoples; the second column will reflect information students receive through the lesson.

Have students draw two pictures: one representing an "American" and one representing an "American Indian." Line the two sets of pictures in two rows, and ask students to compare the "Americans" to the "Indians." Add their observations about the "American Indian" pictures to their initial responses on the board or paper.

After students have offered their first impressions about Native Americans, explain to the class that the words "Indian" and "Native American" refer to a diverse set of Native American tribes or nations who lived for centuries across the lands that Europeans claimed later to have "discovered," which are now called the Americas -- the Caribbean islands, Canada, the United States, Mexico, the countries of Central and South America.

Read one or more of the books from the following list of Fiction Books about Contemporary Native American People, recommended by Debbie Reese. American Indian's in Children's Literature is Reese's website that provides lists of the best in children's literature about American Indians.

  • Children of LaLoche & Friends. (1990). Byron through the Seasons. Fifth House Ltd. (Grades: K-1).
  • Harjo, Joy. (2000). The Good Luck Cat. Harcourt Brace (Grades: P-3).
  • Hunter, Sara Hoagland. (1996). The Unbreakable Code. Northland (Grades: 2-3).
  • Keeshig-Tobias, Lenore. (1991). Bird Talk. Sister Vision (Grades: P-K).
  • Sanderson, Esther. (1990). Two Pairs of Shoes. Pemmican Publications (Grades: P-K).
  • Smith, Cynthia. (2000). Jingle Dancer. Morrow Junior (Grades: P-3).
  • Tapahonso, Luci. (1999). Songs of Shiprock Fair. Kiva (Grades: P-3).
  • Waboose, Jan Bourdeau. (1998). Morning on the Lake. Kids Can Press (Grades P-3).
  • Waboose, Jan Bourdeau. (2000). Skysisters. Kids Can Press (Grades P-3).
  • Wheeler, Bernelda. (1995). Where Did You Get Your Moccasins? Peguis Publications (Grades: P-K).

Each of these books portrays Native American characters in a contemporary context in ways that challenge common stereotyping representations. After reading one or more stories, ask students to describe the characters they have heard about. Write their responses in the second column of the board or paper. Ask the class to compare their original ideas about American Indians with the portrayals offered in the book(s). Do the stories and the people represented alter their views about Indian peoples?

You might point out to your students that, through much of the 20th century, Indian peoples came under intense social and economic pressure to assimilate into mainstream American society, and as such had to make difficult choices between identifying with their native communities and finding a livelihood in the larger society. Today, by contrast, increasing numbers of Native Americans are able to participate more fully in traditional community activities, which in many locations are thriving, while at the same time attending college and obtaining jobs in non-traditional settings.

Activity 2. First Nation Tribes Across the U.S.

To introduce the five cultural bands of American Indian tribes and the general regions of the United States in which they live, display or print out and distribute to students copies of the History page of the First Americans website, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Native Web. This page contains a map of the United States divided into five Native American cultural bands, including Plains, Northwest, Southwest, Southeast, and Northeast. The text explains that areas in which people share similar environments and customs due to their proximity to one another are called cultural bands.

Print out and distribute to students copies of a map of the United States, available from National Geographic Education. From the Atlas page, select North America, then United States of America, and you can choose whether or not to have state borders displayed. As students acquire information about the regions of the U.S., Native American tribe names, and cultural aspects and traditions of their assigned tribe, they can fill in the information on the map by writing words and/or drawing pictures.

Depending on the reading and writing level of your class, you may choose to have students fill in the blanks on a chart or answer questions and write a paragraph describing one tribe. This activity can be done by the entire class for one tribe, or by small groups each for one of the five tribes.

The Tribes page of the First Americans website displays images of clothing, housing, and food items from the five cultural groups of Native Americans. When you place the cursor over an image, the word describing the image appears, and the object's corresponding Native American cultural band is highlighted on a small map of the U.S.

From the Five Tribes page, you can click on the name of a tribe to get information about the land, clothes, housing, and other cultural aspects of the following five tribes: Tlingit, Dinè, Lakota, Muscogee, and Iroquois. When you click on an image, it takes you to a page with information about one tribe from the indicated region. Using the information provided through each of these tribes' pages, have your students identify the traditional customs of one tribe. On their maps, students can shade in the area of the U.S. in which their tribe lives and can write the words or draw a picture describing the clothing, house, and food of their tribe. They can then complete the following written exercise:

For Kindergartners, have students fill in the blanks on the following chart available in pdf format. Students can then draw a picture to illustrate the chart information for one tribe.

Information on the Native American Tribe__________

For the following sentences, fill in the blanks:

  • This tribe is called __________.
  • We live in the __________ region of the United States.
  • We wear __________.
  • We eat __________.
  • The type of house we live in is called a __________. It is made of __________. 

 For first and second graders, ask students to read the descriptions of the land, food, housing, and other social and cultural aspects listed for their geographical region. Students can use the information to answer the following questions and write the facts on note cards. They can use the information they record to write a paragraph about their group and draw a picture to illustrate their paragraph.

Questions about the Native American Tribe__________ 

  • What does the name of the tribe mean?
  •  What is another name for this tribe?
  • Where did the tribe originally live?Where do members of this tribe live today?
  • What did this group traditionally eat? What do they eat today?
  • What are other cultural traditions that this tribe followed?
  • What are some ways in which the tribe has changed its customs? Are there customs it has kept over time? Which ones?

 Background Information About Native American Tribes from the Five Cultural Bands of the United States

(Note: Information is taken from the First Americans website, unless otherwise noted.)

Tlingit Information

 Tlingit live in the American Northwest Coast that is now part of Alaska.

  • Food is provided by both land and sea.
  • Originally traded and did business with Europeans and other Native American tribes.
  • Ceremonial dress includes carved masks, weapons and "Chilikat" robes
  • Chilikat robes may be fringed, fur-trimmed, and multicolored. The designs on clothing depict animals significant to the family and town.
  • The Tinglit used to wear hats made of roots. Men and women wore ear and nose rings. Some had tattoos and disks pierced through their lower lip.
  • Tlingit are master fishermen.
  • They eat fish; most important is salmon.
  • In the summer they eat wild berries.
  • Tlingit traditionally hunted and trapped animals such as goats and deer, and used canoes to hunt seals, sea lions, and otters.
  • Tlingit live in towns with wood buildings that are sometimes decoratively painted.
  • Long ago families lived together.
  • The houses had no windows but had a hole in the roof to let smoke out.
  • Houses had no rooms but had partitioned sleeping and storage areas.
  • Fishing gear, canoe paddles, and other large objects were stored in the rafters.
  • The Tlingit made totem poles to tell a family story or legend, honor the dead, commemorate a birth, or make fun of someone.
  • Totem poles are carved from cedar trees, painted and placed near the house or in the forest.

Dinè (Navajo) Information  

  • Dinè means "Children of God."
  • "Navajo" comes from a Spanish word meaning "stealer."
  • Their ancestral home is the desert of the American southwest.
  • Dinè is the largest Indian Nation.
  • Today, most Dinè live on the "big rez" which includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.
  • The Dinè are known for creating beautiful silver and turquoise jewelry and wool rugs.
  • Rugs are made on a loom.
  • The Dinè originally farmed beans, squash, and corn and hunted deer, prairie dogs, and other animals.
  • Corn was the most important food. Indian corn comes in many colors and could be eaten fresh or dried and ground.
  • Today, many Dinè raise sheep for meat and wool.
  • They eat mutton and fry bread.
  • The traditional house is called a hogan.
  • Hogans have six or eight sides and are made of logs, brush, and mud.
  • The door of the hogan faces east towards the rising sun.
  • Today, many Dinè live in modern houses, while some still live in hogans in order to live together rather than separately.
  • Hogans are still used for family ceremonies.
  • Some Dinè believe that illness comes from harmful forces and have medicine men get rid of the harm by performing ceremonies that include singing and sacred objects.
  • Sometimes the medicine men make sand paintings as a way to get rid of the harm.
  • Dinè now have access to doctors; however, some continue to use medicine men because Western doctors are just now learning the importance of curing the spirit.

Information from Photographs of the Dinè (Navajo) by Ilka Hartmann, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Native Web:

  • The Dinè, Dineh, or Navajo Nation is the largest Native nation in the United States, both in territory and population.
  • Navajo Reservations are in Arizona and New Mexico and are held in trust by the United States Government.
  • The population is approximately 165,000.
  • Approximately twenty percent of the Dinè live off the reservation, many in urban areas.
  • The name Dinè means "The People."
  • Dinè women own sheep herds and produce very beautiful Navajo rugs.
  • Dinè men create beautiful works of art in turquoise and silver.

Muscogee (Creek) Information

  • The Europeans called the Muscogee people "Creeks" because they built their villages near creeks.
  • The people call themselves "Muscogee."
  • Their ancestral home is the American southeast, in what is now Georgia.
  • Because white settlers made them leave their original home, most Muscogee people now live in Oklahoma.
  • Women traditionally wore skirts, and men wore deerskin breechcloths.
  • In the 1700s, European traders introduced wool and cotton clothes made in England.
  • The Muscogee adapted the European clothing and traded deer pelts for it.
  • Today, Muscogee wear American clothing.
  • Corn was an important food, which women ground into meal and boiled with lye to make "sofkey."
  • For food, women gathered nuts, wild onions, and berries, and men hunted deer.
  • Muscogee had gardens full of corn, beans, and squash.
  • They shared the food among the group.
  • Today, Muscogees mostly eat American foods.
  • The Muscogee originally lived in houses with thatched roofs.
  • A typical village was built around the council house and a large field used for sports.
  • After the Muscogees were forced to move west, their towns and homes looked different.
  • In the West, most of the houses were made of logs.
  • Traditional Muscogee ceremonies take place at the stomp ground.
  • An important celebration is the Green Corn Festival, when people give thanks for the harvest.
  • During the Green Corn ceremony, women dancers wear turtle shells or cans on their ankles to make music while they dance.

Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Information

  • The word Iroquois means "rattlesnakes."
  • The Iroquois call themselves Haudenosaunee, which means "people building a long house."
  • Iroquois live in what is now the state of New York and parts of Canada.
  • The Iroquois Confederacy originally included five nations and was a democracy.
  • The five nations include: Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Mohawk, and Oneida.
  • The pine tree symbol in the middle of the flag represents a White Pine because this tree's needles are clustered in groups of five.
  • Onondaga - Keepers of the Fire, Capital of the Confederacy (currently they live near Syracuse, New York). Seneca - Keepers of the Western Door (currently they live in New York and Canada). Cayuga - Younger Brothers of the Seneca (currently they live near Buffalo, New York). Mohawk - Keepers of the Eastern Door (currently they live in New York and Canada). Oneida - Younger Brothers of the Mohawk (currently they live in Wisconsin and Canada).
  • The U.S. government was modeled on the Iroquois nations.
  • The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) used European cloth and adapted it to their own style.
  • Some men wore feathers in their hair, rings in their nose, and other jewelry.
  • Men also wore capes, sashes around their waist, breechcloths, leggings, and moccasins.
  • Today, the Iroquois wear modern clothes.
  • Before the Europeans came, the Iroquois were farmers and hunters.
  • The main crops were corn, beans, and squash, and these were known as the "sustainers of life" and were called the "Three Sisters."
  • These three crops were considered special gifts from the Creator, and each was believed to be protected by one of the Three Sister Spirits.
  • Legends were woven around the Three Sisters who would never be apart from one another, just as corn, beans, and squash were planted together, eaten together, and celebrated together.
  • The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people lived in villages and farmed.
  • Iroquois houses were called longhouses because they were longer than they were wide.
  • The houses were made from elm bark.
  • Longhouses had door openings at both ends and no doors or windows.
  • During the winter, the doors were covered with skins.
  • The Haudenosaunee Flag represents the original five nations that were united in peace by the Peacemaker.

Lakota (Sioux) Information

  • Sioux means "Lesser Snake" in Chippawa.
  • The people call themselves Lakota, which means "friend."
  • The Lakota lived on the plains with many other tribes, such as the Cheyenne and Oto.
  • Traditionally, the Lakota hunted buffalo and followed the herds from place to place.
  • Today, the Lakota have reservations in North and South Dakota and Montana.
  • The Lakota decorate their clothing with bead work and designs to honor the spirit world.
  • Traditionally, clothing was made of buckskin and elk skins.
  • Women traditionally wore dresses and leggings, and men wore shirts and breechcloths.
  • In cold weather, Lakota wore buffalo robes. Infants were placed in cradleboards for protection.
  • The Lakota people used buffalo to provide everything they needed to survive.
  • The buffalo was considered a Spirit Being by the Lakota.
  • Buffalo meat provided food, the pelt, clothing, and the bones, tools.
  • The buffalo is central to the traditional religion of the Lakota and of neighboring tribes.
  • The Lakota called their houses "tipis" which means "the place where a person lives."
  • Because they roamed the plains following the buffalo herds, Lakota needed housing that was lightweight and could be taken apart quickly.
  • Tipis were made from buffalo hides. They were warm in the winter and cool in the summer and large enough for the entire family.

Extending The Lesson

Selected EDSITEment Websites

Oyate Website

National Geographic Education


New Perspectives on the West

  • People
  • Have students create a book about their own families and cultural traditions and customs, including their lodging, clothing, food, and other aspects of everyday life, and relate their family activities and traditions to similar Native American customs. Students will see the continuity over time and the influence of the First Americans on contemporary life in the U.S. through food items such as corn and squash, and through activities such as fishing and canoeing.
  • Using the profiles on the People section of the EDSITEment-reviewed resource New Perspectives on the West, have the class create biographies of the following nineteenth-century Lakota leaders: Red Cloud; Sitting Bull; Crazy Horse; and Big Foot.

The Basics

Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Native American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • Art and Culture
  • Analysis
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical thinking
  • Data analysis
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Synthesis


Activity Worksheets