Lesson Plans: Grades K-2

Traditions and Languages of Three Native Cultures: Tlingit, Lakota, & Cherokee


The Lesson


A segment of Sequoia’s Cherokee alphabet

A segment of Sequoia’s Cherokee alphabet

Long before the Europeans settled in North America, the natives living there had established a diversity of rich cultures and spoke over 2,000 language dialects. (Of these, about 300 are known today.) As the newcomers moved in, the Native Americans were gradually pushed off their lands into reservations and forced to assimilate into European cultures. In recent years, attitudes have changed, and Native Americans are now encouraged to maintain aspects of their own cultures and languages. In this lesson, students will learn about three distinct tribes and discover the importance of preserving their legacies.

Activity 1 will introduce the concept of traditions. In the second activity, students will learn about the environment and lifestyle of the Tlingit of the Pacific Northwest. They will hear a story based upon Tlingit folklore and make a list of words closely related to Tlingit culture. Then, by accessing an online dictionary, they will learn how to say the words in the language of the Tlingit. In the third activity, students will learn about the Lakota of the Great Plains and hear a story about this native culture. They will access an online dictionary of Lakota words and find the translations of a list of key English words, which they will record on a chart. They will then work together to make up their own sentences in Lakota.

The fourth activity focuses upon the Cherokee of the Southeast Woodlands. After learning about this culture and hearing a story relating to it, the students will access an online dictionary of Cherokee words. They will add the Cherokee equivalents of the English and Lakota words to their charts. They will then learn about Sequoyia, the inventer of the Cherokee alphabet. In the final activity, the students will compare the three native cultures they have studied and discuss why it is important to maintain their traditions and languages.

For a related EDSITEment lesson on American Indians for grades K-2, see Native American Cultures Across the U.S.

Guiding Questions

  • What are some of the traditions of the Lakota, Tlingit, and Cherokee?
  • How is a people's language tied to its traditions?
  • Why is it important to preserve the traditions and languages of native cultures?

Learning Objectives

After completing the activities in this lesson plan, students will

  • Understand the meaning of a tradition and know how it is maintained
  • Have a general knowledge of the environment, history and culture of the Tlingit, Lakota, and Cherokee
  • Be able to say a few words in the languages of these three tribes
  • Be aware of differences and similarities between the three tribal cultures
  • Understand the importance of maintaining the traditions and languages of native cultures

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 on a large screen to the whole class, or print out the pages and distribute copies to the students.

As you visit these EDSITEment reviewed websites, take notes that can be used when you present an overview of the cultures of the three tribes to your students.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Generation-to-Generation Show-and-Tell

The word "tradition" can be defined as the handing down of certain beliefs, customs, and legends from generation to generation, usually by word of mouth. Ask the students if they know the meaning of the word. Brainstorm with them until they come up with a short list of descriptive phrases. Write these on the chalkboard. Explain that every family has a few traditions of its own. These can include religious beliefs and practices and the celebration of particular holidays. Invite them to think about traditions they have in their own families. Instruct them to ask their parents, grandparents, or other relatives about these traditions and to bring to school something from home connected with it. For example, if they celebrate certain holidays unique to their culture or religion, they could bring in an object or picture connected with it. Or if they speak a second language at home, they should write out certain words and their translations to share with the class.

  • In part 2 of this activity, have the students share what they have learned at home about their traditions with their classmates in a "show and tell." After the sharing, ask them how their traditions will continue through the years or why they might not. Help them recognize that, for these to continue, they (the students) must pass them down to their own or their relatives' children and grandchildren.
  • Now tell the students that when Christopher Columbus came to America, the native peoples living here had their own customs and spoke many different languages. Point out that these customs and languages, like the family traditions of the students, were passed down from generation to generation. Explain that when Europeans began settling in America, many of the natives were forced to move off their lands and that, eventually, their descendants were told to give up their customs and languages. Ask the students how they would feel if they had to give up their language or their family traditions or celebrations. Invite them to express their views about how the Native Americans might have felt in this situation. After a brief discussion, explain that in more recent times the United States government has changed its policies and now encourages Native Americans to continue and maintain their traditions and languages.
  • Tell the students that they will be learning about the traditions and anguages of three Native American tribes -- the Tlingit, the Lakota, and the Cherokee. Access the "Tribes" page at the First Americans Website, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource NativeWeb. A map indicates where the Tlingit and Lakota once lived. The Cherokee inhabited the region just north of that assigned to the Creek on the map. Click on to "History" to see another map which shows the regions of the Northwest Coast (Tlingit), Great Plains (Lakota), and Southeast Woodlands (Cherokee).
Activity 2. Traditions and Language of the Tlingit

The Tlingit lived in villages along the northwest coast. Their houses were made of cedar planks and faced the sea. Beside many of the dwellings stood tall wooden totem poles, carved with the faces of animals representing certain human characteristics and telling the family history. The Tlingit wove together strips of cedar to make clothing and multi-patterned blankets. Much of their food came from local rivers and the sea, most notably salmon, seals, and otters. The Tlingit also hunted whales in their large cedar canoes. The mischievous raven and a race of salmon people figured prominently in Tlingit folklore. Today, many Tlingit continue to live in coastal villages.

  • After sharing this information and the other data gathered during your preparation for this lesson with your students, access "Tlingit" at the First Americans Website, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource NativeWeb. Read aloud the description of the environment of the Tlingit villages, and have a student describe the accompanying photograph. Then click onto each of the other topics. Read aloud the descriptions on each page or call upon students to read aloud specific paragraphs. Discuss the material and the photographs as you proceed. After answering any questions that are posed about the Tlingit lifestyle, click on the "Story" tab to read aloud the traditional Tlingit story, Why Raven is BlackPoint out the various aspects of Tlingit life that are alluded to in the story.
  • For an additional reference, if possible, check out this book entitled How Raven Stole the Sun (2001) written by Maria Williams (Tlingit) and illustrated by Felix Vigil (Jicarilla Apache/Jemez Pueblo) from a series produced by the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian by Indian artists and writers. It was copublished by NMAI and Abbeville Press. At the back of the book you will find a description of Tlingit society, a glossary of Tlingit words, and period photographs of the Tlingit people.
  • Now that the students have a general idea of the traditional lifestyle of the Tlingit, ask them to suggest words (nouns) that describe it. Examples would be "salmon," "ocean," and "cedar." Make a list of 15 of these on the chalkboard. Hand out copies of the chart English to Tlingit Word Chart, provided in .pdf format, and have the students fill in the 15 words in the column titled "English Word." While they are doing this, write each word on a 4 x 6 note card, fold it in half, and drop it in a paper bag. (Use 15 words for a class of 30. If you have a smaller class, use fewer words, or half the number of the class.)
  • Tell the students that they will now find out how to say these words in the language of the Tlingit. Access "Vocabulary in Native American Languages: Tlingit Words" (see additional Tlingit Language Resources, if more word options are needed) to find and copy down Tlingit translations of the English words on your copy of the "English to Tlingit" word chart (Traditions and Languages of Three Native Cultures: Tlingit, Lakota, & Cherokee: Worksheet 1). Write the Tlingit words on the board next to their English equivalents. Have the students write the words in the right column (under "Tlingit Translation") of their charts opposite the appropriate English words. While they are completing this task, copy each of the 15 Tlingit words on a 4 x 6 note card, fold it in half, and put it in the paper bag with the English word cards.
  • After a short break, play the Tlingit Matching Game. Take the paper bag filled with the note cards. Have each student reach into the bag and grab one folded note card. After they unfold the note cards, have them attach them to their shirts with masking tape. Using their "English to Tlingit" chart as a guide, have each student find his or her match. Once all partners have connected, have them assemble in the front of the classroom. After one partner says his or her word in English, the other says it in Tlingit. When the lesson is done, collect the "English to Tlingit" charts for future use.
Activity 3. Traditions and Language of the Lakota

The Lakota (also known as the Sioux) once roamed the Great Plains. They hunted buffalo and used the hides to make clothing, tipis, and traveling bags. Buffalo meat was the staple of their diet. After Spanish explorers brought the horse to America, the Lakota found the animal invaluable for hunting, travel, and warfare. The tribe worshiped an omnipotent spirit called Waka Tanka. An important tradition was smoking the peace pipe. According to legend, the first pipe was brought to the Lakota ancestors by a mysterious woman (White Buffalo Woman). Today, many Lakota live on reservations in North and South Dakota.

  • Introduce your students to the Lakota by sharing the above information and the other materials you gathered while preparing this lesson. Then visit "Lakota (Sioux)" at the First Americans Website, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource NativeWeb. Read aloud the text describing the environment of the Great Plains. Then click on to the other pages, which describe various aspects of Lakota culture. Within the pages is a description of the origin of the peace pipe. Call upon students to read aloud portions of the text on each page. Draw their attention to the accompanying photographs, and have them describe what they see.
  • Native Languages of the Americas: Lakota and Dakota Sioux Legends, Myths, and Stories provides a list of traditional narratives that teachers may want to read aloud to students. They can be used as a means to introduce tribal trickster characters and other mythic figures.   
  • After discussing these materials, for additional reference if possible, check out and read aloud The Gift Horse: A Lakota Story (1999) by S.D. Nelson. Show the illustrations on each page as you proceed. When you finish the story, discuss the importance of the vision quest in Lakota society. Point out other aspects of Lakota culture that were highlighted in the story.
  • Tell the students that they will now learn about the language of the Lakota. Access "Vocabulary in Native American Languages: Lakota Sioux Words" (see additional Dakota-Lakota Sioux Language resources, if more Lakota word options are needed) for an general introduction to the language.
  • Access the Lakota-English online dictionary to find the Lakota translations of the English words on your copy of the "English to Lakota and Cherokee" word chart (Traditions and Languages of Three Native Cultures: Tlingit, Lakota, & Cherokee: Worksheet 2). The list of English words on the chart will be followed by Lakota translations. Hand out copies of the From English to Lakota and Cherokee chart, provided in .pdf format. Have a student read aloud the English words in the first column of the chart. Then, working together in twos, have the students look up the words in the Lakota dictionary and fill in the column under "Lakota Word" on the chart. With younger students this activity should be done as a class, one word accessed and written down at a time.
  • When the second column has been filled in, have the partners work together to make up five sentences in Lakota. When they are ready, have them read their sentences aloud very slowly. Instruct the other students to raise their hands when they think they can translate a sentence. The student reading a sentence should call on a classmate to translate. With younger children, the class can make up sentences as a group. These can be written on the board. Once there are several sentences on the board, call on students to translate them.
  • As an optional activity, teachers may want to have students listen to the sounds of the Lakota language. You might try to download and access Lakota Speakster (the free program is available online through developer Code-it Software, Inc. The common filename for the program's installer is Lakhota Speakster.exe. The most popular versions among the software users are 5.0 and 2.0.)  
Activity 4. Traditions and Language of the Cherokee

The Cherokee (also called the Tsalagi) originally lived in the woodlands of the southeastern United States. They hunted deer, fished in the local rivers, and grew corn. They made their homes from saplings and wore clothes made from buckskin. The Cherokee worshiped many nature spirits as well as a powerful god named Yowa. In the early 19th century, the Cherokee were forced to leave their homes and move to a reservation in Oklahoma. The long trek to their new home is known as the Trail of Tears because so many natives died from starvation and the cold along the way.

  • Introduce the students to the Cherokee tribal culture by indicating their southeastern woodlands habitat on the map at First Americans website, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource NativeWeb. Share the information above with them as well as other material you gathered while preparing for this lesson.
  • Native Languages of the Americas: Tsalagi/Cherokee Legends, Myths, and Stories offers narratives of traditional tribal stories that may be read aloud to students. They provide an introduction to the mythology of the tribe.
  • For an additional reference, if possible check out and read aloud The First Strawberries -- A Cherokee Story (1999) by Joseph Bruchac. Discuss the various aspects of Cherokee culture that are mentioned and share the illustrations as you go along.
  • Tell the students that they will now learn about the Cherokee language. Explain that the Cherokee people have their own unique alphabet made up of 85 symbols. Each symbol stands for a syllable, which is why this type of alphabet is called a syllabary. Share with students the story of Sequoyah the inventor of the Cherokee Syllabary. Read aloud from one or more of the following resources and discuss the significance of Sequoyah's invention with the students. Point out that the written word is even more effective than an oral tradition for maintaining cultural traditions. A brief overview of Sequoyah is available from the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture. Supplementary information about Sequoyah and the Cherokee alphabet is available at Sequoyah, Inventor of the Cherokee Syllabary, and "Sequoyah's Talking Leaves." A more detailed study of this figure for teachers and older students can be found in the Oklahoma Historical Society's Chronicles of Oklahoma: "The Life and Work of Sequoyah."
  • You might begin your language study with a brief introduction to "The Cherokee Alphabet And How To Use It". Read aloud the text about the syllabary and show students the symbol chart. An optional introductory activity would be for teachers to model writing a proper name using the syllabary (or have the students try to write their own names.) Go to "Translating Cherokee Names" and follow the step by step instructions.
  • Now access  the English-Cherokee lexicon. Have the students, working in groups of two or three, find the Cherokee translations for the English words listed on the From English to Lakota and Cherokee Word Chart, provided in .pdf format, by entering the English word. With younger students, the words can be accessed one at a time as a group activity.
Activity 5. Making Connections

In this activity students will review what they have learned and compare the three tribal cultures. Write the three names - Tlingit, Lakota, and Cherokee - on the chalkboard. Divide the class into three groups. Assign to each group the name of one of the tribes. Give each group the following list of topics: 1.) Habitat; 2) Clothing; 3) Homes; 4) Food; 5) Beliefs; and 6) Unique Feature. Have the groups meet together for about five minutes to discuss their tribes in terms of these six categories. Reassemble the class. Ask for individual members of the Tlingit group to present information about each category. While they do so, write the key words on the board under the Tlingit heading. Do the same for the other two groups. Using the words on the board as a guide, call upon students to describe the major differences among the tribes. Then ask for similarities. One similarity would be that the lifestyle of each tribe was dependent upon the natural environment. After several similarities have been mentioned, point out that each culture survived for a long time because its traditions and way of life were passed down from one generation to another.

Now place two charts - an "English to Tlingit Word Chart" made by one of the students and your copy of "From English to Lakota and Cherokee" -- in view of the students in the front of the room. Explain that they come from three language families (Salishan, Siouan, and Iroquoian). Point out that although the languages are quite different, they clearly expressed the ideas of the natives who used them. Suggest that maintaining the language is one way to keep the native culture alive.

Extending The Lesson

  • Play a memory game in which students create a set of matching cards using words from the Tlingit, Lakota, or Cherokee languages. To do this, they should write an English word (or draw an illustration of the word) on one card and, on the matching card, write the translation of the word in one of the three Native American languages. When the set of cards is complete, they should be placed face down on a table. Each student turns over one card and then another. If the cards match, the student keeps them. If they don't match, they are turned face down again. Everyone tries to remember what the cards are. The play continues until all the cards have been picked up. Whoever makes the most matches wins the game.
  • Make Bingo boards with words the students have learned from the Tlingit, Lakota and Cherokee languages. Then call out definitions, such as "It means butterfly in Cherokee." Students who have that word mark it with a plastic disk or other convenient marker. The first to mark all the words in a row -- up and down, across, or on a diagonal -- wins the game.
  • Select from the following books for a read-aloud. The Story of the Milky Way (a Cherokee story) by Joseph Bruchac and Gayle Ross, If You Lived With The Cherokee by Anne Kamma and Connie Roop, If You Lived With The Sioux by Ann McGovern, Grandchildren of the Lakota by Lavera Rose, How the Turtle's Back Was Cracked (a Cherokee story) by Gayle Ross, The Lakota Sioux by Andrew Saniella, and The Wave and the Sea Wolf (a Tlingit story) by David Wisniewski.
  • Older students can do research projects on particular aspects of the cultures of the three tribes studied. Suggested topics are the Trail of Tears, the life of Sequoyah, the totem poles of the Tlingit, and the uses of the buffalo.

The Basics

Time Required

8-9 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • History and Social Studies > People > Native American
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Problem-solving
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing