School Projects - Native Americans
Elementary School Projects
How many school projects have you helped with? I’ve certainly helped with my share. Now I know what you’re probably thinking. You’re thinking that the projects are for the kids, not the parents, to work on. In a perfect world, you’d be exactly right, but this is far from a perfect or fair world. We knew that other parents would be helping their kids, and we didn’t want to turn in an inferior project in comparison. As a high school teacher, I received lots of projects that were obviously completed with parental assistance – and I taught high school seniors. My nine-year-old grandson, Jonathan, recently brought home an assignment for elementary school projects based on Native Americans, and the requirements were pretty stringent. Jonathan is a bright boy, but there’s no way he could accomplish the assignment all by himself. What’s a retired Nana to do? I’m sure you can guess. Yes, I jumped in with both feet and offered my assistance. He has to complete two school projects in just five days, so I’m helping him with both.
Native American Tribes
It seems like every fall, school teachers teach a unit on Native Americans. Actually, I believe the assignment used the term Native American Indians. I guess that’s an acceptable combination of the proper term and the ones most kids understand – Indians. The students were given a list of several Native American tribes. The students had to choose a tribe and complete two school projects based on their choice. Jonathan and his mom, my daughter Melissa, know that I’m “into” Native Americans, especially the horse tribes of the Plains and Plateau. With this in mind, the mother and son had me peruse the list to offer some advice.
At first, they had thought about doing the history projects on the Seminole because they lived near us at one time. I’ll admit, though, that I don’t know a lot about this tribe – at least, not when compared to the Native American tribes that hunted buffalo on horseback. You see, much of my fascination with the Plains tribes stems from my love and interest in horses and how the horse changed the lives of these people. When they asked me for another suggestion, I chose the Nez Perce.
I’ve read extensively about the Nez Perce. My interest in the tribe began when I became an enthusiast of the Appaloosa, a horse breed developed by these people. I owned, bred, and trained Appaloosas. As you probably know, North America had horses millions of years ago, but they disappeared around 10,000 years back. Equines weren’t seen here again until the Spanish explorers brought the animals with them in the sixteenth century.
The horse was an amazing windfall for the Native American tribes who were able to procure them. Previously, the only beast of burden they had was the dog, and canines aren’t anywhere near as strong as equines. You can’t ride a dog, either. Well, actually, I‘ll have to take that back. The tiny grandkids occasionally ride my two Great Danes, but you get what I’m saying. Horses could be ridden by adults, and a mounted team was swift enough to chase down buffalo.
Most Native American tribes were so desperate for horses that they bred the animals indiscriminately, in order to get more mounts as quickly and as cheaply as possible. If you know much about genetics or have ever had any experience breeding animals, you know what a bad practice that is. Old eyewitness reports and photographs describe many problems with most of the herds kept by the Native Americans. These included widespread ewe neck, sickle hock, cow hock, straight pasterns, parrot mouth, and other negative traits. Many of the equines were small, too. The term Indian “pony” was actually accurate, in many cases.
The Nez Perce were different, however. They followed a selective breeding program, gelding young stallions of inferior quality. Oftentimes, horses that didn’t meet the tribe’s quality guidelines were sold or traded to other tribes. At first, the Appaloosa represented only a fraction of all the equines held by the Nez Perce, but by the early nineteenth century, they began to focus on breeding spotted horses.
School Project Ideas
Jonathan, my daughter, and I all brainstormed for some school project ideas. At first, Jonathan wanted to make a life-size teepee – also spelled tipi. I really didn’t think this was a feasible option. Buffalo hides are pretty hard to find these days. Melissa was willing to settle for a standard small diorama for one of the projects, but we discovered that just about every kid in the class was doing that. Whatever we decided on, I knew that I wanted one of the projects to include the colorful Appaloosa horses. If we’d been doing this several years ago, I could have taken one of my Appaloosas to school, but I’m, “horseless” at the moment.
Some other school project ideas we bounced around included posters, power point presentations, a dreamcatcher, and puppet shows about Chief Joseph, perhaps the most famous of all the Nez Perce. For one reason or another, all these ideas were shot down. Remember – I just had to fit in the Appaloosa somehow. We finally decided on a model of a Native American village, complete with horses. Of course, Jonathan wanted several tepees in the village, so we had to figure out how to make a tipi model or two…or more. The display would be larger than the typical diorama used in most elementary school projects. Okay, project number one was decided, but we still had to come up with some other school project ideas for project number two. We decided on a Native American costume based on depictions and descriptions of Nez Perce dress.
Native American Village
Ah, our Native American village. How to begin? I wanted the display to be fairly large, so I chose a piece of foamboard for the base. I’d partially surround the board with a tri-fold for background scenery. I wanted to make the Native American village beside a river, with just a corner of wooded area. Jonathan also liked the idea of including a small waterfall.
We did the tri-fold first. We used blue posterboard for the sky. We cut out peaks of the Rockies from white posterboard and spray painted it gray. We glued it over the sky and added a few blacklines with a marker to indicate crags. Next, we glued some green rolling hills over and below the mountains. The tri-fold was done – now for the hard part.
The first thing we did was to glue a strip of blue posterboard on the right side of the base to indicate a river. We began working on the waterfall. To do this, we glued together sections of two small boxes of different heights. We covered the boxes with play-do. I bought some cheap dough, but we needed LOTS more, so we made it ourselves. Jonathan made the play-do, by the way, from flour, salt, and water. We also applied the dough to the rest of the surface of the foamboard. After it firmed a bit, we painted the entire surface with brown and reddish brown craft paint. While the paint was still wet, we sprinkled on some dried basil to indicate patchy grass. We stuck in a few small shrubbery cuttings to indicate trees.
For water on the waterfall and for the river, we glued strips of plastic wrap. We piled up a few rocks at the bottom of the falls and glued a couple more in the river. I wasn’t happy with the look of the water, so we added some Elmer’s glue. It dried clear and made the water look more realistic.
At a craft store, we found miniature plastic horses and Native American figures. We painted most of the horses to look like Appaloosas. The figures included a kneeling squaw, a squaw with a basket, and several braves, along with a fire, an animal skin stretched on a frame, a canoe, a bear, and a deer. We stuck all these into the damp dough so that they’d be held firmly in place. Next, we added a few rocks and smooth stones here and there, attaching them with glue. We used E6000 glue for most of the project.
Tipis – Teepees
What’s an Indian village without tipis? That’s also spelled teepees, or tepees, by the way. When Jonathan first found out about this assignment, his first thoughts were of teepees. He couldn’t wait to make a few. Yes, the Nez Perce lived in tipis – after they got horses. Before that, they lived in structures of wood and stone and subsisted mostly by farming and fishing. The horse changed that. The tribes were now able to follow the animal herds, so they needed portable housing that could be taken down and set up quickly – hence the tipi or teepee.
Since Jonathan was so fascinated by teepees, I took advantage of a great learning opportunity. Yes, I’m still and always will be a teacher at heart. We looked at photos of tipis on the internet, and I explained to him how and why the Native American Indians chose this type of housing. I think this is something he’ll always remember.
We needed some teepee poles. In real life, a teepee was made by stretching buffalo hides over long wooden poles. Historically, pine saplings were often used as teepee poles. Their natural tapering shapes worked well for the purpose. Good poles weren’t always easy to acquire on the Plains, so they were valuable commodities and were common trade items. Five or so high quality poles were often worth a horse. The saplings were sometimes as long as twenty-five feet. Depending on the size of the tent, it might take as many as twenty hides for the covering. These skins were sewn together with sinew.
Most teepees began with three long poles, forming a triangle at the base. More poles – usually twelve – were fastened to the first three. Teepee poles pulled double duty. Not only did they serve as the framework for the dwellings, but they were also used to form travois that could be pulled by large dogs or horses once the tipis were dismantled for travel.
How to Make a Teepee for School Project
Obviously, we weren’t going to make our teepees from saplings and animal hides. So…how to make a tipi for school project? I had a couple of ideas. My first was to stretch and glue some fake suede or thin vinyl “pleather” to wooden dowels, but I’d need some sort of support as a base to help make the conical shape more easily. On second thought, I thought felt squares would be easier to work with for the coverings, but I couldn’t find any felt in the right color. Aha! A light bulb went off in my head. I’d use paper birthday hats and glue the suede on them. I’d glue the wooden dowels to the outside of the hats and then attach the suede fabric around the structure. Based on the size of our plastic figures, the party hats would be just the right size.
Then I came up with another idea of how to make a tipi model. Jonathan and I would forego the suede and just paint the outside of the hats with acrylic paint. I combined off white acrylic paint with just a few drops of brown and applied the paint with a soft foam brush. When that dried, I added a second coat. For teepee poles, we’d push wooden grilling skewers inside the hats and out through the opening at the top. We decided to experiment with both options to see which we liked the best. Either way, we’d use craft cording that looked like leather to lash the teepee poles together at the top. I have photos of both examples below. Which one do you like best?
Jonathan preferred the painted versions, and I agreed. They’re a lot easier to make, and Jonathan can do more of the work himself. He painted the other two teepees himself. Actually, I think they even look better, and it’s easy to add designs and decorations to the exteriors. I showed Jonathan examples of some tipi designs, and he used colored markers to draw them on his little tents.
The second project we decided on was an Indian costume, or to be politically correct, a Native American costume. Let me say right up front that I do very little sewing, and I don’t even own a sewing machine. None of my daughters or close friends sew, either. Well, one does, but she lives over 100 miles away. We were going to have to make an easy Native American costume.
If you’re wondering how to make an Indian costume without sewing, I’ll tell you, and I’ve included some photos, too. We found a pair of cheap khaki pants at Walmart, but you might be able to find a pair in a thrift store. Of course, if you have an old pair of khakis that aren’t suitable to wear to school anymore, you might want to use those in the costume. For the top, or tunic, I used faux suede. It took about two yards for the costume top, but I bought extra to cover the tipis with. As it turned out, I covered only one with the suede, however. We liked the painted teepees better.
I just tried the costume on Jonathan, and he loves it! He's decided he wants to use it for his Halloween costume this year. Now I might have to make one for his younger brother, too.
How to Make an Indian Costume
What you’ll need:
2 yards faux suede
Strip of fabric for sash
Pair of moccasins
One willing child
Wooden or turquoise beads, fabric paint (optional)
Directions: Fold suede fabric in half, lengthwise. Cut a hole in the center for the head to go through. Drape fabric over child and trim suede to desired length. Cut “fringe” into fabric at end of tunic. Glue fringe trim around neck, if desired. Tie with a sash OR glue side seems together. If you sew, of course, you can stitch the side seams. Add decorations to tunic if you like.
For the pants, glue suede trim down side seams with fabric glue. The pants we used were a little too long for Jonathan, so I cut off the bottoms and fringed the edges with scissors.
Make a small hole in the headband and insert feather. Decorate the headband, if you like.
Bedroom moccasins can serve as shoes.
We also added a long black Halloween wig and parted it into two pigtails. We looked at old photos of how the Nez Perce wore their hair and tried to emulate that.
With many school projects, parents (and grandparents) sometimes find it’s easier to just do all the work themselves. I completely understand this sentiment, but try to avoid this. It’s the kid’s assignment, after all, so let them do as much of the work as possible. Let them in on the planning and decision-making process, too. For a really involved project, you’ll have to be in charge of the hard parts, but even there, allow your child to help. Jonathan was in on all the choices. He also made the play-do, patted it onto the foamboard, helped paint the horses, placed the rocks, painted the play-do, drew the trees into the background, and added most of the glue to the river and waterfall. He also painted and decorated the teepees once I showed him how. Of course, he placed all the miniature figures where he wanted, them, too. Admittedly, he wasn’t able to help much with his Native American costume, however. When you’re trying to come up with school project ideas, make sure the ones you’re considering are child-friendly. Kids can do a lot of things with a little help and guidance, and they often have some great ideas that you might never even think of. Teach as you go. School projects should be educational and fun!
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