I. Introductory Essay:
Having grown up in the Midwest region of the United States, it is interesting for us to consider and study the Native American people who inhabited this area long ago.Anthropologists have classified the original inhabitants of North American according to culture areas.“A culture area may be defined as a region in which the people share certain cultural traits by virtue of their backgrounds and the environment” (Force, 35).Thus, people living in a certain culture areas usually have related languages, and similar religious and social organizations.The environment of a region places limits on the type of activities people can engage in within it.The central grasslands of North America are referred to as the Plains region and were home to a particular culture area of Native Americans.
Geographically, the Plains region encompasses the central grasslands: bounded by the Rockies in the West and extending to include Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas.The region is predominately treeless prairie; vast, open country.The plains are laced with several broad rivers—the Missouri, Platte, Cheyenne, Niobrara, and White Rivers.Along these rivers are bluffs and trees that served as protection for the Native Americans against enemies and elements of the weather.The Plains region is marked by the four winds and an overwhelming sky.This region is also noted for its extreme weather—hot, humid summers and brutal winters.
Native American tribes of the Plains region “have come to represent the romanticized view of the Indian warriors and hunters as bronze-skinned horsemen, with their feathered head dresses streaming in the wind, galloping across the prairie in pursuit of buffalo or raiding enemy camps” (Force, 50).The Plains region was home to small nomadic bands of hunters and Native American tribes: the Sioux, Black feet, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, and Comanche.Village dwellers survived this environment by mixing agriculture with hunting and gathering.Many plains tribes became dependent almost entirely on the buffalo; requiring them to adopt a nomadic lifestyle, moving over the grasslands with the buffalo herds.Buffalo hides provided warm robes, storage bags, and tipi coverings.Even the buffalo hair, sinew, hooves, and bone were useful for other tools.Their lives followed a cycle of hunting necessities and weather conditions.
The Plains culture began to change dramatically when their trading expanded with the arrival of Europeans.Foreign goods, metal tools, woven cloth, glass beads, guns, and horses all affected the plains culture.The introduction of the horse allowed the Native Americans to travel more frequently and reduced the amount of time required for hunting.“This allowed opportunities for other activities, such as warfare, which Native Americans pursued to secure more horses and hunting territory” (Force, 52).
Although the Plains Native Americans accepted and used new materials, they were reluctant to give up their supernatural beliefs.“Their religions emphasized the powers of nature: the sun, sky, land, water, and animals” (Force, 52).They believed that wolves, bears, beavers, and elk were animals whose spirits were capable of conferring power.Cults were formed in honor of an animal’s spirit.An especially important Plains ceremony was the Sun Dance. “The Sun Dance was a complex ritual that involved great personal pain for the participant (Force, 53).They believed that suffering and endurance exhibited a link to the Great Spirit, affirming one’s identity.
Through researching the culture of the Plains Native Americans we were amazed to discover that art has an integral and functional presence in their lives.Consider the functional design and purpose of the tipi.The tipi made a very practical home for the nomadic Plains Native Americans.The tipi poles were strapped to a horse’s shoulders and the other end dragged on the ground.Over the poles could be carried the tipi hide covering and their belongings.The design of the tipi allowed people to remain cool in the summer and relatively warm in the winter.On hot days, the bottom edges could be rolled up to allow a breeze to cool through it.During the winter, rocks and soil were piled against the tipi to create an earthen wall for greater insulation.“Tipis also had a buffalo hide dew cloth hung on the inside walls to keep out moisture and create pockets of insulating air” (Bial, 39). Dew cloths were typically decorated with paintings of battles, dreams, and visions.Often, women would decorate the top of the entrance to the tipi with porcupine quills, feathers, and horsetails stitched into rawhide strips.
Typically, the Plains Native Americans did not make pottery because it could be broken on their frequent, long journeys.Rather, they used scraped, smoothed skins to make leather pouches called parfleches for transporting their belongings.Parfleches, while functional as a storage or carrying device, are beautiful in their varying designs and pictures colored on them.The objects these people used, and the clothing and accessories they made “represent their ultimate personal artistic expressions” (Hoover, 81).
Woman used tanned deer and elk hides to make clothing for their families—“Knee length dresses and leggings with buckskin fringes for the women, and sleeveless shirts, breechcloths, and leggings for the boys and men” (Bial, 59).Women would also decorate the clothing with porcupine quills that had been dyed many colors.These quills were hollow and could be cut into uniform length and sewn on like beads.“Women embroidered moccasins with quills as a token of love for their husbands, sons, and brothers.Quilling required many hours of painstaking work, and women were admired for the quality of their artistry” (Bial, 59).When the Native Americans later began trading with Europeans, they acquired glass beads, which quickly replaced quillwork as decorations.Beaded moccasins are beautiful in their color and geometric or natural designs.
Men were also involved in using dyes to paint designs on their clothing.Men and women often wore necklaces and armbands made of beads and bone.They would braid their hair in two braids weaving in colorful beads or cloth.Spectacular “war bonnets” or headdresses were made from eagle feathers.“Notches were clipped in the feathers to indicate the exact deed of the warrior” (Bial, 59).They also used feathers to decorate spears, quivers, shields, and pipes.Even their bodies became part of their artistic expression as they painted their faces and horses with bright colors before going to battle.These colors on their skin were meant to encourage the spirits to protect them in warfare.
Artistic designs, colors, and symbols were central in the Native American religious beliefs.A war shield, for example, would be ornately designed from an eagle head and feathers to draw upon the “spiritual power of the bird” (Bial, 75).Medicine circles were used in sacred ceremonies and held by the person who fasts.The circle represents the continuity of life in all directions and the color black used on it refers to healing.The plains Native Americans are noted for their exquisite beadwork.A beaded staff, drumbeater, rattle, feather fan, or medallion all serve specific functions at spiritual ceremonies.
Yet, we were also curious about how the Native Americans of the plains
are represented and remembered in art today.Oscar
Howe (Yanktonai Sioux, 1915-1983) was the foremost of the new Indian painters.
Howe studied at the Santa Fe Indian School and also at the University of
Oklahoma.He developed a personal
artistic style that includes a more modern sense of cubism combined with
traditional Sioux religious expression.He
used his art to express truths that were at once universal and deeply personal.In
1969, he wrote, "What I hope to accomplish in my painting is satisfaction
in content and form with completeness and clarity of expression, and to
objectify the "truths" in Dakota culture and present them in an artistic
The buffalo was considered a sacred animal, and the whole community of Native Americans took part in the hunt. This book describes the hunt, how the animal was used, and the decimation of the buffalo. This would also be great to use for the artwork; there are many great paintings of buffalo and buffalo hunting.
Freedman, Russell. An Indian Winter. New York: Holiday House, 1992.
Story of two European’s adventures and the Native Americans who befriended them: family life, dances, hunting, and farming. A detailed and illustrated journal of an early expedition into the Plains region.
Hoover, Herbert T. The Yankton Sioux. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
Describes the history and culture of the Native American people, and focuses on the Yankton Sioux tribes of the Plains region.
Left Hand Bull, Jacqueline and Haldane, Suzanne. 1999. Lakota Hoop Dancer. NY: Dutton
This story is about Kevin Locke, a hoop dancer who keeps tradition alive, making his own hoops and dancing. It also describes the clothing he wears, the dance, and the training he needed.
1987. Legends of the Mighty Sioux. Compiled by Workers of the South Dakota Writers’ Project Work Projects Administration. Illus. by Oscar Howe. SD: Badlands Natural History Association.
Background to the Sioux, Traditional folklore, Campfire tales, Legends of places, and Hunting and battle stories. These are illustrated with traditional American Indian artworks by the well-known Sioux artist, Oscar Howe.
Nelson, S.D. 1999. Gift Horse: A Lakota Story. NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers.
Picture book A boy gets a horse as a gift, and they become inseparable. Flying Cloud, the boy, becomes a warrior and rescues horses from the enemy.
O’Connor, Richard. 1968. Sitting Bull: War Chief of the Sioux. NY: McGraw-Hill Book
Biography of Sitting Bull who defeated Custer in battle: “Custer’s Last Stand”
1999. Poems by Young Native Americans. When the Rain Sings. Simon & Schuster
Books for Young Readers, New York.
Rapada, Kimberly Kai. Rising Voices: Writings of Young Native Americans.
Hirschfelder, Arlene B., and Singer, Beverly R. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York.1992.
St. George, Judith. 1996. To See With the Heart: The Life of Sitting Bull. NY: G.P. Putnam’s
Tillett, Leslie. 1989. Wind on the Buffalo Grass: Native American Artist-Historians. NY: De Capo Press, Inc.
Based around the Battle of Little Big Horn,
this book is a collection of drawings and paintings that portray the daily
life of the Plains Indians, the battle, and the aftermath. It also
contains descriptions of the artwork and accounts of the battle from a
variety of perspectives.
1. Cowell, Henry. 1956. Ethnic Folkways Library Vol. II and III. NY: Folkway Records and Service Corp. Sioux Courting Melody and Washington Coast Indians Bone Game.
2. 1976. Songs of Earth, Water, Fire and Sky: Music of the American Indians. NY: New World Records. Dance music of various tribes, including the Butterfly dance, Eagle dance, and Rabbit dance, etc. This album is part of a set of theRecorded Anthology of American Music, Inc.
by Arthur Farwell, Preston Ware Orem, Charles Wakefield Cadman. NY:
New World Records. Voice and piano works composed by Americans based
on the Native American tradition.
D. Literature: Poems
If I Were a Pony by students at Tohatchi School in New Mexico
My Role as a Native American by Kimberly Kai Rapada
I Look at You by Kelly Hill
The Fight by Danielle Dull Knife (Oglala
E. Bulletin Board Pictures or ideas
Chiefs Pockets: Quotes by Native American Chiefs: http://www.indians.org/welker/leaders.htm
Students can read these quotes
and begin to understand what these Native American chiefs said for their
people. Students can then choose one chief and research more about
his life, nation, and influence.
Story skin: This is a fun activity
where students get to use Native American symbols to write their own story
on “skins.” We placed a sample in the appendix. Making a skin
story: Thematic Unit: Native Americans, Huntington Beach, CA: Teacher
Created Materials Inc., 1991. pp. 32-34
Oscar Howe: Write a short, informational
Biography about his life and works. Post some of his paintings and
Student Art work: Display students’
projects that portray Native American culture and life.
F. Optional Materials
Film: Wacipi PowWow Barbra Weiner. 1995 ST. Paul, MN: Twin Cities Public Television, Inc.
60 min. PowWow of Mdewankanton Dakota Community—drums
- stamp printing: Native Americans decorated with natural objects. Twigs, seeds, animal claws and bones, feathers, and leather were rolled or bound together and then dipped in dye before printing.
- make stencils of animal tracks and create a trail/design using them
- Arrowhead activity: see Appendix
- Create wire person doing some sort of native American activity, paper mache, paint, and dress sculpture
- Natural dyes: see Appendix
- Have students look at parfleches created by Plains Native Americans and then design and
decorate parfleches following this style.
g) Art History:
Lesson on Oscar Howe found in Appendix
6. Go to http://curtis?collection.com/hopiraindance.htmlfor a description of a rain (snake) dance and share it with students.
7. Whole class participates in a Rain Dance which is teacher led.
- Students stand in a circle, still and quiet.
- Teacher begins by rubbing his thumb and two fingers back and forth to make a "mist."
- He/she turns toward the person to their right, who then begins rubbing his thumb and two fingers.
- Each person passes the mist until all children are making the mist.
process continues with patting thighs-rain and stomping feet-downpour.
The storm is ended with the mist.
Using Song of the Sky
by Brian Swann, shows students some examples of Native Americans song poems.
Many of them would work wonderfully for combining art and music.
Have the students choose a poem and draw a picture to illustrate it.
In the book Dance Down
the Rain Sing Up the Corn, games are described for using lummi sticks.
There is a simple melody and pattern games (partners or in a circle) with
a number of patterns increasing in difficulty. This activity would
allow students to develop a sense of rhythm and challenge them. See
Native Americans especially
used a variety of drums, rattles, percussion, and the flute. Find
out about the different drums (including small, hand-held drums, drums
large enough for many people to sit around, and the water drum) and what
they were made of (wood, pottery, baskets). Have students research
the importance of these instruments to the rituals and dances. For
example, rhythms were associated with the supernatural, and rattles had
magical significance because they were a symbol of this belief. Some
tribes thought drumsticks were sacred, and they were decorated with symbols
related to the songs for which it was used. Flutes were usually associated
with love songs.
Listening to Native American Music
Be sure to give students
an opportunity to listen to Native American music.
After reading the short essay, My Role as a Native American, think about some roles in our society that need to be changed or reversed.Write a short essay or a poem involving responses to the following questions:
What are some roles that you disagree with or that you don’t fit?
How would you change the roles?
Is there a stereotype that you would like to fight?
How would you fight it?
Read the poem If I Were a Pony.Then, either alone or with two or three other people, write your own poem following a similar format:
Line 1: If I (were a . . ., could . . ., had a . . ., etc.) _____________,
Line 2: (description)
Line 3: (description)
Line 4: I would ____________________________.
Line 5: And I’d____________________________,
Line 6: And I’d____________________________,
Line 7: And I’d____________________________,
Line 8: And I’d____________________________.
(Line 8 should be related to line 4, and should conclude the poem.)
- learn about the ecosystem and characteristics of
- compare and contrast
the religions of the plain Indians to the Christian faith.