Native Americans


When studying American history, the temptation for students is often to think of our nation’s beginnings as coinciding with the arrival of European colonists. While these and subsequent events throughout the colonial and revolutionary periods were undoubtedly crucial in establishing our society, it is critical that students understand the significance of the Native American nations already in existence. For primary students in particular, the concept of whole societies occupying land before it became known as the United States can be quite difficult, and this is only compounded by inaccuracies or misrepresentations that may have been viewed in children’s books, movies, or television shows.

Understanding that European colonists were not the originators but rather the next chapter in our nation’s story is the first step to a more accurate picture of Native American culture and society; the second step involves guiding students to understand why grouping all Native American nations together under one idea or stereotype is inaccurate. When students begin examining elements of culture in Native American societies, many of these can only be explained in the context of climate and geography. Not only should primary students know that variations existed among Native American nations in clothing, food, daily life, religion, and shelter, but they should be able to explain how these elements were affected by where these groups of Native Americans lived. To this end, students working with this documentary kit will examine the question:

Why do Sioux eat buffalo and Nunivak eat beluga?


Introduction to Kit:


Note: Finding documents that were age- and reading level-appropriate for this subject matter was difficult, therefore teachers are responsible for obtaining print resources to supplement instruction. A list of recommended print resources can be found on the Native Languages of the Americas website, linked with permission below:

While students may need to rely on additional age-appropriate print resources found outside of this collection, the three primary source documents included are designed to provide a geographic and illustrative context for the groups of selected images. Because the documents were created in the 19th century, some of the vocabulary and language referring to Native Americans is no longer considered appropriate. Therefore, it may be helpful to view these documents with students to clarify the information presented and discuss the reasons for linguistic variations.


Drawn primarily from the Edward S. Curtis collection and also from the Walter McClintock papers found in the Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, photos in this kit depict Native American life viewed through a westernized, European perspective. Edward S. Curtis’s work, The North American Indian, connected from the Library of Congress “Themed Resources: Native Americans” to Northwestern University, was released from 1907 – 1930 and contains 20 volumes and 2226 images of Native Americans from nearly every region of North America.

Walter McClintock was a Yale graduate who was commissioned by a federal initiative in 1896 to travel west and explore forested regions. On his expedition, he befriended his scout, a member of the Blackfoot nation. Upon concluding his assignment, he traveled to Montana to visit the home of his scout and ended up spending the next twenty years taking thousands of images documenting Blackfoot life. Both Curtis and McClintock felt that the Native American way of life they were witnessing was in danger of disappearing and fought to capture the essence of their culture.

At first glance, differences between the Arctic and Plains cultures may not be obvious. Perhaps the best starting point in this kit is a comparison of the two kinds of shelter. From there, supplemented with continuing discussions of geography and climate, the more subtle differences in food, clothing, religion, and social conventions can be seen when images are carefully examined.



A partnership between the College of William & Mary School of Education, the University of Kentucky College of Education,
and the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Program