This curriculum unit addresses the social studies standards of the New Haven School System by providing some understanding of Native American cultures and their history to our children. It integrates the art class with the study of the everyday life of Native Americans through the re-creation of various artifacts and their dwellings in the village. I intend to teach the students the concept that Native Americans (as all indigenous people close to the land) used all the resources available to them for their needs, and that the various environmental differences that characterize the North American landscape led to the great variety of crafts and shelters created by the diverse civilizations. This is accomplished by a sequential set of lessons aimed at first creating particular Native American Indian crafts and then working up to village dioramas of various tribes. As the art teacher in an elementary school, I offer this unit at a fifth grade level. The students will learn by creating. In recent years there has been a plethora of books published about Native Americans. Some of these books are suggested in the bibliography for language arts teachers and students wishing to extend any of these projects. Native American Indians believed that a Great Spirit dwelled in all things of nature, from rocks and wind to man and animals. That credo guided everything crafted with the intention of giving thanks and homage to the medium or material, whether it be a piece of wood or an entire animal hide. Native Americans created objects that embodied a kind of aesthetic reverence in addition to their utilitarian role. Everything was made knowing that a part of the Great Spirit was sacrificed for the Indian in order for the Indian to survive. The Great Spirit required in return some kind of recognition and appreciation manifested through the expression of the artifact.
In this unit I concentrate on four tribes that exemplify some of the diversity of the North American continent. The Inuits people of the Arctic region, the Iroquois of the Eastern Woodlands, the nomadic Plains Indians of the Sioux tribe and the Southwestern Hopi. For each of the above tribes I inform and demonstrate the creation of some artifact endemic to their culture. For instance, the Inuits crafted many masks to be used in rituals to ask for assistance in the hunt for arctic animals. The Iroquois used Wampum Beads in a wide variety of ways. The Sioux documented important events on buffalo hides, which were called winter counts. The Hopi had Kachina dolls that were the personification of spirit helpers.
Even though these items are particular to each of these tribes, the concepts behind them are not. All Native American created some type of mask that was used in rituals to ask the Spirit-that-moved-in-all-things for help or to give thanks. Likewise, many other tribes besides the Iroquois had items which had symbolic value for trading. The Sioux were certainly not the only people to come up with pictographic writing, and there are many other Native Americans that used some type of miniature spirit helper like a Kachina.
After the students have created their own interpretation of each of the above artifacts, they move on to learning about the shelters and the villages of each of these tribes. For the Inuits the class will construct a diorama of a typical snow covered igloo, the longhouse of the Iroquois, a tepee for the Sioux and a pueblo for the Hopi. In this unit I demonstrate what materials work well and suggest ways to develop those materials to construct entire village dioramas for maximum authenticity.
It is my hope that the students will start to get a grasp of the similarities and differences of some of the five hundred nations that inhabited this continent before Columbus left Europe. I also hope to leave the classes with the impression that they may also create a more personal environment with what they have around them. At a time when it seems that fewer and fewer people are hand crafting the objects and environments around them, I believe it is imperative to impress upon our students the possibilities for them to do just that, to satisfy the primal urge to create one’s own aesthetic.