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Beyond the Buffalo: Background

This unit study of Native Americans in North America will cover the history and culture of peoples who inhabited what is now the United States and Canada. In this unit, students will define and examine the culture of Native North Americans. They will then identify the main regions and cultures affiliated with each region. After that, they will examine significant historical events pertaining to Native American culture, both pre- and post-European exploration and colonization, and they will evaluate the current status of Native Americans in the United States.

SpicyNodes is an interactive tool that provides teachers with an innovative way to visually introduce the ideas, themes, and related concepts of Native American history and culture, making internalization of the concept more significant. Teachers can present multiple facets of study in the area of Native American history and culture so students can grasp how the topic links and contributes to multiple topic areas, creating a circular and interrelated “map” of the topic.

During the course of this unit, students will be able to describe the origins of indigenous people. Students will also be able to describe the beliefs, customs, lifestyles, artifacts, and places of origin of the native peoples of various regions of the continent. In addition, students will research and explore the Native Americans’ contact with European explorers and the effects of these interactions. This unit will lead students to higher level thinking skills and appreciation for Native Americans.

Standards and Benchmarks

This lesson plan fulfills several Social Science/History standards for United States history, culture, and geography education.

History: United States History

Standard 1.5 (Level II)
Compares political, social, economic, and religious systems of Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans who converged in the western hemisphere after 1492 (e.g., concepts of political authority, civic values, and the organization and practice of government; population levels, urbanization, family structure, and modes of communication; systems of labor, trade, concepts of property, and exploitation of natural resources; dominant ideas and values including religious beliefs and practices, gender roles, and attitudes toward nature)

Standard 1.6 (Level IV)
Understands different European perceptions of Native American societies during the years of exploration

Understands federal Indian policy and United States foreign policy after the Civil War.


Understands interaction between Native Americans and white society in the late 19th century (e.g., the attitudes and policies of government officials, the Army, missionaries, settlers, and the general public toward Native Americans; Native American responses to increased white settlement; mining activities, and railroad construction).

NCSS-G K-12.1; The World in Spatial Terms
  • Understand how to use maps and other geographic representations, tools, and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective.
  • Understand how to use mental maps to organize information about people, places, and environments in a spatial context.
  • Understand how to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth’s surface.
NCSS-G K-12.2; Places and Regions
  • Understand the physical and human characteristics of places.
  • Understand that people create regions to interpret Earth’s complexity.
  • Understand how culture and experience influence people’s perceptions of places and regions.
NCSS-G – 12.4; Human Systems
  • Understand the characteristics, distribution, and migration of human populations on Earth’s surface.
  • Understand the characteristics, distribution, and complexity of Earth’s cultural mosaics.
  • Understand the patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth’s surface.
  • Understand the processes, patterns, and functions of human settlement.
  • Understand how the forces of cooperation and conflict among people influence the division and control of Earth’s surface.
NCSS-G 12.6; The Uses of Geography
  • Understand how to apply geography to interpret the past.
NSS – USH.5-12.1; Era 1 (Beginnings to 1620)
  • Understands comparative characteristics of societies in the Americas, Western Europe, and Western Africa that increasingly interacted after 1450
  • Understands how early European exploration and colonization resulted in cultural and ecological interactions among previously unconnected peoples
NSS – USH.5 – 12.4; Era 4 (Expansion and Reform)
  • Understands United States territorial expansion between 1801 and 1861, and how it affected relations with external powers and Native Americans

Content Knowledge for Teachers

Native people inhabited the continents of North and South America thousands of years before European explorers touched their shores. This unit focuses on the regions covering current day United States and Canada and their respective peoples and cultures.

Anthropologists have studied the ancient peoples of North America, and although research is ongoing and new theories continue to emerge (as well as challenge the land bridge theory), the most common theory is that the first Americans migrated from Eurasia between 12,000 and 20,000 years ago by crossing the land bridge that existed between Asia and what is now Alaska prior to the last Ice Age. The people were nomadic hunters who migrated onto North America and then, over the course of thousands of years, moved all over the continent and into Central and South America.

Many diverse cultures were established in every region as a result. Some tribes’ lifestyles continued to be nomadic, while others settled into more permanent locations as hunter-gatherer tribes. The Natives made significant advances in agriculture, aquaculture, and craftsmanship, and they had rich cultures consisting of distinct languages, dress, architecture, art, music, and games.

In the 15th century, the native peoples of North America first interacted with Vikings and other European explorers. By the 1600s, settlers established colonies and interacted with the Natives, including what Americans celebrate as the first Thanksgiving. The European interaction, however, brought infectious diseases that took a drastic toll on the population of Natives in the New England area.

As European settlers dispersed and contact increased through the 16th and 17th centuries, more diseases spread and conflicts arose. Some Natives joined with Europeans and participated in conflicts like the French and Indian War. Similarly, Native Americans had a role in and were affected by the American Revolution. The 19th century brought westward expansion for the Americans, but this meant removal, reservations, and forced assimilation for the Native people. The United States government played a harsh role in this drastic and cruel change in lifestyle for the Native Americans, and as a result, the 1800s were littered with conflicts along the frontier – with settlers, with other tribes, and with the United States government.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, attempts to “civilize” and further “assimilate” Native people into the American culture resulted in less violent, but nonetheless still degrading, cruelties toward Native Americans. Today, there are over 500 tribal governments recognized by the United States government. Activists work to improve the living conditions on Native American reservations, as well as increase employment opportunities and industry.

For additional information on standards, benchmarks, definitions, and expansions upon this lesson, refer to the links in the Resource section at the end of the unit plan.


Assimilation: The idea of absorbing one group into another. In this context, the Native Americans were expected to assimilate into White American culture. (

Cradleboard: A small wooden board used to carry a baby.

Gatherers: People who pick and find their food.

Genocide: Deliberate and systematic destruction of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.

Hogan: A Navajo dwelling usually made of logs, with a door traditionally facing east.

Longhouse: A long, communal dwelling popular with the Iroquois, usually built with poles and bark and having a central corridor with family compartments on each side.

Maize: A synonym for corn.

Reservation: Land set aside by the United States Government for the Native Americans.

Parfleche: An untanned animal hide used by the Plains Indians to carry their possessions.

Pueblo: The communal dwelling of Native American villages in the Southwest, consisting of flat-roofed stone adobe houses.

Teepee: A Native American tent used by Native Americans in the Plains and Great Lakes regions, usually cone-shaped and made of poles covered with bark or animal skins.

Toboggan: A long narrow sled.

Tribe: A racial, political, or social group comprising numerous families or villages, and having a common language, culture, and, often, ancestry.

Wampum: White and dark cylindrical beads made from polished shells, formerly used by North American Indians as money and ornaments.

Beyond the Buffalo: Resources

Sample Rubric

See ideas for assessing this lesson, and also a you can adapt.

For additional information on standards, benchmarks, definitions, and expansions upon this lesson, refer to the resource links below.

Resources and

Enrichment Extension:

  • Think about current controversies regarding Native Americans being depicted in an offensive manner (e.g., school mascots, Halloween costumes, “cowboy and Indian” birthday party themes, and so forth). Use research, persuasive techniques, or other methods to inform people about the inappropriateness of such involvement. Create a campaign to raise local awareness and increase positive perceptions of Native Americans.

Fun Activities:

  1. Recreate a Native American cultural craft or recipe to share with the class.
  2. Write your own Native American folklore or legend.
  3. Create a pamphlet to raise awareness about Native Americans.
  4. Interview a local Native American to learn more about his or her history and culture.
  5. Build a miniature replica of a Native American home or dwelling.


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