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Plains Indians and Pictographs Lesson Plan

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Lesson Plan #: AELP-ARA0207
Submitted by: Laura Wolfram
Email: lauraw97@yahoo.com
Date: August 4, 2003

Grade Level: 2, 3, 4, 5


  • Arts/Visual Arts
  • Social Studies/US History

Duration: Two 45-minute sessions

Description: Students will learn about Native American pictographs and design their own pictograph stories on imitation buffalo hide.

Goals: Students will gain perspective on ways in which contemporary American culture and traditional Native American cultures communicate stories and ideas.


  • Students will be able to define the word pictograph and explain how a pictograph is different from a drawing.
  • Students will explain the relevance of pictographs to Native American tribes of the Plains region.
  • Students will be able to create their own pictographs.
  • Materials:

    • lunch-sized brown paper bags (You can buy a pack of 150 for less than a dollar!)
    • markers
    • crayons or colored pencils
    • glue

    At the beginning of the lesson, discuss the idea of communication with the class. Ask how people in our culture communicate ideas — let the students brainstorm ways. Explain that Native Americans did not communicate through writing; instead they told stories and created pictures. Many Plains tribes used special kinds of pictures called pictographs. Pictograph stories were often painted on tipis. Give the class a few examples of pictographs: a triangle for a tipi, a lightning zip to represent a storm, a spear to represent war, etc. Draw each on the board and prompt the class to guess what each pictograph represents. Have students explain the difference between a pictograph and normal picture. (Ask students to explain how a tipi picture would be different from a tipi pictograph, for example.) Ask the students to design their own pictographs for items or ideas that would be meaningful to them. For example: basketball, school, homework, pizza, happiness, anger, etc. Have students try drawing pictographs for these things on the board. Now introduce the day’s activity. Give each student a brown paper bag and instruct the class to *carefully* rip an approximately 8 x 8 square out of these bags. (You will probably want to demonstrate this first.) Next, have the students crumple their squares into a ball and then smooth them out again. Explain that their paper now resembles buffalo skin just after it has been cured. Then write a few sentences on the blackboard for the class to translate into pictographs. These sentences should be Native American themed, but please avoid using stereotypes. Some example sentences: Grandmother built this tipi. (Women in Plains tribe were responsible for the construction and care of the tipi. Many tribes held competitions between women for who could pitch a tipi the fastest. The winners were often able to do this job in less than three minutes.) Or the more complex, Father killed the buffalo on a stormy day. Tell the class that their job is to design their own pictographs to communicate the sentences written on the board. Students will draw these pictographs onto their buffalo paper using whatever art supplies are available. After students have finished their pictographs, they can mount their designs on construction paper. These projects make great wall decorations!

    Assessment: Students can be assessed on how clearly they have understood the concept of a pictograph. Neatness, attention to detail, and creativity can also be part of the evaluation.