Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Not "Indians," Many Tribes: Native American Diversity

Created September 24, 2010


The Lesson


Not Indians: wigwam

Wigwam, used by many Native American cultures in the East and Southeast

Credit: Image courtesy of EMuseum, Minnesota State University, Mankato

There were literally hundreds of Native American tribes and there still are. All of those tribes have their own traditions and their own customs. Many had their own language. To say that a certain word, recipe, or custom is "Indian" is incorrect.

Source: Wisdom Keepers, Inc.

What comes to mind for your students when they think of "Indians" or "Native Americans"? In this unit, students will heighten their awareness of Native American diversity as they learn about three vastly different Native groups in a game-like activity using archival documents such as vintage photographs, traditional stories, photos of artifacts, and recipes. One factor influencing Native American diversity is environment. Help your students study the interaction between environment and culture.

Guiding Questions

How did geographic location, climate and natural resources influence the diversity of Native American tribes and nations? What can we learn about a Native group from archival documents? What, if any, generalizations are reasonable to make about Native Americans throughout America?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to

  • Discuss ways a particular archival document reflects the culture and environment of a Native American group
  • List at least three differences among the Native American groups studied that relate to environment
  • Gather data about a Native group using the Internet, if available


The Abenaki, of the Algonquian group of Eastern Woodland Groups, lived in an area extending across northern New England into the southern part of the Canadian Maritimes. Their lifestyle was similar to that of other Eastern Woodland groups. Living in the northern range of the Algonquians, the Abenaki may have depended more on hunting and fishing than groups living in a more temperate climate. But they did grow corn, beans, squash and other crops.

More information about the Abenaki:

Recommended readings about the Abenaki (from NativeWeb):

  • Landau, Elaine. The Abenaki (First Books- Indians of the Americas Series). Franklin Watts, Inc., 1996. 64 pages. ISBN: 0531202275. Reading level: Ages 9-12.
  • McCurdy, Michael (Illustrator). An Algonquian Year: The Year According to the Full Moon. Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000. Hardcover, 32 pages. ISBN: 0618007059. Reading level: Ages 4-8.
  • Quiri, Patricia Ryon. The Algonquians (Full-Color First Books). Franklin Watts, Inc., 1992. 64 pages. ISBN: 0531200655. Reading level: Ages 9-12.
  • Bruchac, Joseph. The Heart of a Chief. Dial Books for Young Readers, 1998. Hardcover, 176 pages. ISBN: 0803722761. Reading level: Ages 9-12.

The following information is from the Official Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, a link from the EDSITEment resource NativeWeb.

Hopi Indians (pronounced HOH pee) are one of the Pueblo Indian tribes. According to the 1990 United States census, there are about 11,000 Hopi. About 7,000 live on the Hopi reservation in Arizona. They live in 11 villages on or near three high mesas (tablelands). One village, Oraibi, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited villages in the United States. It was founded about 800 years ago.

Like their early ancestors, many Hopi grow crops on plots of valley land. Some Hopi earn additional income by making and selling baskets, pottery, silver jewelry and kachina dolls. The carved wooden dolls represent messengers sent by the gods. Religious ceremonies play an important part in the life of the Hopi. At certain times of the year, Hopi men dress as kachinas and perform dances in the village square or in underground structures called kivas.

The Hopi Reservation is located in the high deserts of northeastern Arizona. The total land area is almost 2.5 million acres and the elevation ranges between 4,700 feet in the valley floors to 7,800 feet atop the northern reaches of the mesas. Temperatures range from an average daily maximum of 87°F in summer to an average daily minimum of 18°F in winter. The precipitation averages from 6 to 10 inches per year in lower elevations to 10 to 14 inches per year in higher elevations. About half of the annual precipitation comes from summer rains and the other half from winter snowfall. While natural springs abound across the landscape, there are no year-round rivers or streams and washes contain flowing water only after rains. Grassland and desert scrub dominate the lower elevations while pinyon and juniper woodlands cover the mesa tops.

More information about the Hopi:

The Hopi, from Kuwawata, official site of the Hopi tribe, available through a link from the EDSITEment resource NativeWeb.

Recommended readings about the Hopi (from the EDSITEment-reviewed NativeWeb):

  • McDermott, Gerald. Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale. Viking Press, 1977. ISBN: 0140502114. Reading level: Ages 9-12.
  • Sekaquaptewa, Emory (Translator), Barbara Pepper (Editor), Herschel Talashoema. Coyote & Little Turtle: Iisaw Niqw Yongosonhoy: A Traditional Hopi Tale. Clear Light Pub., 1994. Paperback, 90 pages. ISBN: 0940666855. Reading level: Ages 4-8.
  • Anderson, Peter. Maria Martinez: Pueblo Potter (Picture-Story Biographies). Children's Press, 1992. ISBN: 0516041843. 31 pages. Reading level: Ages 9-12.
  • Keegan, Marcia. Pueblo Boy: Growing Up in Two Worlds. Puffin, 1997. ISBN: 0140369457. Paperback - 48 pages. Reading level: Ages 9-12.

Members of the Kwakwaka'wakw (pronounced kwah kwah kyuh WAH kwah), a group of loosely connected Native American tribes living along the northwestern coast of British Columbia just north of Washington State, were dubbed Kwakiutl (pronounced kwah kee OO tuhl) by Europeans who first encountered them late in the 18th century.

The Kwakiutl crafted intricately decorated houses and canoes. Theirs was a highly organized society in which inheritance and personal property were important in determining status. The potlach ceremony, in which gifts were exchanged and property was sometimes burned or thrown into the sea, was an important public demonstration of wealth and status. Status was signified by totem poles placed in front of the home.

Traditionally, Kwakiutl men fished and hunted, while the woman gathered. After encountering Europeans, Kwakiutl became fur traders, commercial fishermen and cannery workers. Though they adapted well to these economic changes, the Kwakiutl were greatly affected by European diseases.

According to the E-Museum at the Minnesota State University, which may be accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library: "The Kwakiutl population recovered after World War II (1939-1945), growing to more than 4,100 in 1991. Since the 1970s, traditional Kwakiutl culture has also experienced a dramatic revival."

More information about the Kwakiutl:

University of Washington Libraries: Digital Collections, available through the EDSITEment resource American Memory, including background information and photos of totem poles.

Recommended readings about the Kwakiutl (from the EDSITEment-reviewed NativeWeb):

Neel, David. The Great Canoes: Reviving a Northwest Coast Tradition. University of Washington Press, 1995. ISBN: 0295974826. Note: Though this book is not written for children, it is richly illustrated with excellent color photographs of traditional northwest coast canoes, native people, and native clothing. The author is a Kwakiutl artist and writer.

Native American Documents
In Lesson 2 in this unit, students will analyze the following primary source documents from three separate Native American groups:

Using Primary Source Documents:
Worksheets are available to use or adapt in helping students analyze primary source documents. If desired, download and/or adapt a worksheet from The Digital Classroom, available through EDSITEment, to help students analyze documents as they are reviewed. This site offers worksheets for artifact analysis, photograph analysis, and written document analysis that may be helpful in this unit.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the Background Information on Featured Native Groups—Abenaki, Hopi and Kwakiutl (pronounced kwah kee OO tuhl)—provided below.
  • Prepare sufficient copies of the First Primary Sources for student use.
  • Familiarize yourself with "Using Primary Source Documents".
  • Download and duplicate three complete sets of the archival documents you choose to use for Activity 3 (two sets for the class and one for the teacher). Obscure any Native group names in all documents.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Location, Location, Location

Discuss the influence of location on contemporary life. If members of the class have lived in more than one place, how did their clothing, food, shelter and lifestyle change as a result of their move? (In essential ways, probably very little!) What did change? How? Why? Let students know that in this unit, they will have an opportunity to explore the relationship between environment and way of life of some Native American groups.

The lesson begins with a discussion of the climate in three locations: Lewiston, Maine (Abenaki), Polacca, Arizona (Hopi Reservation, First Mesa, near Winslow) and Winter Harbour, British Columbia, Canada (Kwakiutl, just north of Washington's Olympic Peninsula).

If you want to provide climate information for the students, distribute the following, based on The United States Climate Page, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library:

About the weather in:

  • Lewiston, Maine -- The average daytime temperature varies from 30 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Yearly precipitation averages 42 inches; snowfall averages 76.1 inches.
  • Polacca, Arizona -- The average daytime temperature varies from 40 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Yearly precipitation averages 8 inches; snowfall averages 13.5 inches.
  • Winter Harbour, British Columbia, Canada -- The average daily daytime temperature varies from 45 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Yearly precipitation averages 103.5 inches; snowfall averages 14.8 inches.

If students have time and access to technology, they can retrieve weather and climate information on their own, using the following links from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library:

  • At the Weather Underground, students can access weather data for any U.S. location on any day in the last few years, using the zip code.
    • For Lewiston, Maine (Abenaki), use 04240.
    • For Polacca, Arizona (Hopi), use 86042.
    • For Winter Harbour (Kwakiutl), use 98350, the zip code for Quillayute, Washington (a United States location near and similar to Winter Harbour), or search for Canada weather and select Port Hardy, British Columbia.
  • The United States Climate Page offers a clickable United States map. Students can obtain climate information by selecting the following closest available locations:
    • Augusta, Maine, for the Abenaki
    • Winslow, Arizona, for the Hopi
    • Quillayute, Washington, for the Kwakiutl

Locate the three cities (Lewiston, Maine; Polacca, Arizona; Winter Harbour, British Columbia) on a map. Share climate information for these three cities, or have the students research the information and then share it with the class. What are the significant differences between climates? How might the climate affect the way people without modern technology would live? Encourage the students to begin making hypotheses about the lifestyle of Native Americans who lived in these areas before Europeans arrived.

Activity 2. First Primary Sources

What can one learn from primary documents about the way of life of a Native American group? Students will discover there is much to be garnered from, for example, traditional recipes and stories.

Begin by asking students to brainstorm what they think of when they hear the term "Indian" or the term "Native American." Write the list on chart paper and save it for the end of the lesson.

(Note: Make sure students understand that when reviewing a primary document from an unknown source, there are bound to be parts of the document that will not be understood. Students should concentrate on what they can gather from the document, rather than focusing on things they can't understand, such as Native American words.)

If practical, divide the class in half and split each half into three groups, each assigned one document. Ask the students to be detectives, looking very carefully for clues about where their assigned Native American tribe might have lived and what the group's lifestyle may have been.

Present students with the following three Native American documents, which are provided here in text format for ease of use in the classroom

Students can read the documents in their groups, or the documents can be read aloud for the entire class. Have students begin their analysis by listing observations about the text; students might divide their observations into categories as follows:

  • climate (e.g., the Abenaki story mentions a sled, implying snow)
  • plant life (e.g., the Kwakiutl recipe mentions cedar bark)
  • animal life (e.g., the Abenaki story mentions moose)
  • relationships within the group (e.g., the Kwakiutl recipe emphasizes sharing and politeness)
  • what the group considered important (e.g., the Hopi tale has a strong emphasis on corn)

Once the students have completed their observations, they can make hypotheses about the people from whom the tale or recipe derived. How did the people live? What can be hypothesized about their culture? What was important to them? Which of the three locations studied in Lesson 1 is most likely to be home for this group?

Have each student group share at least a brief summary of its document with the entire class and report any findings. Make sure students support conclusions with observations from the document. Finally, after all groups have reported, reveal which Native group lived in which location.

Activity 3. Students as Ecological Anthropologists

For this activity, retain the student groups formed in Lesson 2, if possible. Students will work together to solve the following problem: Five (use more or less if appropriate your group) documents from each of three Native tribes have been discovered, but unfortunately the documents have become mixed up. Which documents belong to which group? Students will use their knowledge of climate conditions where each Native group lived, plus what they learned about the groups' lifestyles in Lesson 2, to connect each of the new documents with the correct Native group.

(Note to the educator: These artifacts are from a variety of time periods up to the present, but each one embodies a long-standing tradition of the group dating back to the time of first contact with Europeans.)

Distribute any or all of the following primary source documents equally (but randomly) to each half of the class. Before distributing the documents, make sure that the name of the native group has been deleted or obscured. (All of the following documents are accessible through links from the EDSITEment-reviewed NativeWeb unless otherwise noted.)

Abenaki Documents

Hopi Documents (available through links from the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library)

Kwakiutl Documents

Students should keep any documents they think belong to their Native group, based on the map and data gleaned from Lessons 1 and 2. As cooperating scientists, they should give any other documents to the appropriate group. It's fine if a few documents remain unidentified after the trading session. Give those to the correct group. Discuss why it was difficult to assign those documents to a Native group.

Once the trading has ended, merge the two student groups that were assigned to each Native tribe. Have them compare documents. Make sure every group has a correct set. The combined student groups should now refine their hypotheses about their assigned Native group on the basis of observations made through the new set of documents. Share the new hypotheses with the class.

Activity 4. Coming to Conclusions

Now that students have looked at documents from the Abenaki, Hopi and Kwakiutl, they can make some comparisons between the three Native groups. In what ways are the Native groups similar to each other? How are they different? Are they more different or more similar? How different/similar are the environments in which they live(d)? Can some of the differences between the groups be explained by the environments in which they live(d)? Which differences between the groups cannot be explained by environment? Is it more useful to think of these three Native groups as one people (Native Americans) or as separate groups?

To assess student awareness of Native American diversity, make a new list of what students think of now when they hear the term "Indian" or the term "Native American." Write the list on chart paper. Compare it to the list created at the beginning of the lesson. If awareness of diversity has increased, the list should be quite different. Students may list more and different specific items (for example, if the students formerly said something like, "Indians hunt buffalo," they might now list whales, moose and/or muskrats) or they may include more generalizations (such as, "Native Americans live in many different kinds of houses") since one stereotypical view is no longer suitable.

To assess student learning about using an artifact to hypothesize about lifestyle, show an image of Plains tipis, available through a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory. Ask students to hypothesize about the lifestyle of the Native Americans shown in the photograph. Think about the Kwakiutl homes, for example. They are quite different from the tipis shown in the photo. What differences in lifestyle might be reflected? Think about the Hopi dependence on corn. What difference in lifestyle is reflected by this photograph? It is impossible, on the basis of one photo, to correctly characterize a Native group. Instead, look for students to come up with many observations. When they make hypotheses, these should be supported by observations.

In this unit, the students have seen how one environmental factor, climate, affects lifestyle. Do the students hypothesize that environmental changes would have had a profound effect on Native Americans? To assess student learning about the relationship between environment and lifestyle, pose a hypothetical scenario to students and encourage discussion: If whales and fish became scarce, how might that change have affected the Kwakiutl? If a group like the Abenaki were forced to move to the Great Plains, how might that affect their lifestyle? Remind the class of the near extinction of the buffalo. How must that have affected any tribe dependent on them? See if students can move from conclusions to new hypotheses (for example: If the Abenaki moved to the Plains, they would no longer be able to hunt moose or fish. If they couldn't hunt moose, then they would need to find new sources for their clothing….) If you wish, present additional hypothetical scenarios to students about changes in environment/resources that may have affected Native groups, or ask students to devise their own hypothetical scenarios for discussion.

Activity 5. Invite All Your Friends, Relatives and Local Dignitaries"

To culminate the unit, students can create a classroom museum made up of downloaded items such as maps, photographs and images of artifacts. They can start with the artifacts used in this lesson, and expand through their own research. If desired, students can be assigned new Native groups to research. Many more artifacts can be located using the EDSITEment resources listed in this unit. American Memory and NativeWeb are searchable. The Internet Public Library has an index of tribes.

Students should create explanatory labels for every item on display. Each label should describe the item and make connections between it and the lifestyle and environment of the tribe. Labels might indicate the date of the artifact and the location of its origin. Students should be prepared to talk about each object on display. Displays should be organized, readable and accessible to visitors. Students should look for ways to enhance their presentations with readings from traditional stories, sound recordings, hand-outs and even authentic food samples from Native American recipes.

Students can open the exhibit to their families and other classes. Acting as docents, they explain the different areas of the exhibit and answer questions about the artifacts and the relationship of culture to environment. This will give students an ideal opportunity to showcase their understanding of the Native cultures they studied.

Extending The Lesson

  • If the class has sufficient access to technology, students can research other Native groups appropriate to their course of study. Begin by gathering data about the Native group's location. Then use the sites listed in the Resource Links section, most of which offer a search function.
  • Students can research how European presence altered the environment (e.g., near extinction of the buffalo, removal of tribes to distant locations) and thus the lifestyle of particular Native groups.

    The Cherokee tribe is a fruitful subject here. The Cherokee environment was changed by the U.S. government—after living primarily in northern Georgia, the Cherokee people were removed to Indian Territory in the 1830s, a significant change in climate and terrain. How did this move affect the Cherokee lifestyle? Students should look at changes in food, shelter, clothing, hunting, celebration and other practices. An introduction to this incident may be found in America's Library of the Library of Congress, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory.
  • Try some recipes from the Native Way Cookbook, which features recipes from many tribes indexed by tribe, type of dish, and traditional or contemporary recipes. Examples include Mikodissimin Opinabo, a traditional Abenaki bean/pea soup, and Pueblo Bread, Santa Ana, a simple, contemporary recipe. There are many others available on this site, a link from the EDSITEment resource NativeWeb.
  • Conduct research on Native Americans in contemporary society and the movement to preserve traditions. An intriguing starting point for such research might be the controversial Makah Indian whale hunt conducted in May 1999. The EDSITEment resource NativeWeb provides information on this subject.


Selected EDSITEment Websites
American Memory
A vast archive of primary documents of all kinds, American Memory has a search tool that is simple to use. From the home page, select "Search." Search by tribe/nation name; add words as desired.
The American Indians of the Pacific Northwest collection may be particularly useful within the context of this unit, or any study of Native groups.
Useful links from American Memory:
Digital Classroom
Document Analysis Worksheets
The Internet Public Library
Useful links:
This site is searchable and also has an "Index of Nations."
Useful links:
Native Tech

The Basics

Time Required

5 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • History and Social Studies
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Archaeology
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Folklore
  • History and Social Studies > People > Native American
  • Art and Culture
  • Analysis
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Data analysis
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Map Skills
  • Research
  • Textual analysis


Activity Worksheets