Native American Pottery Project: Exploring Archeology
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
One of the hardest units to teach my students is Native American cultures. Students have a hard time dismissing their preconceived ideas about “Indians” and understanding the different cultures of different tribes. Luckily, our history unit falls right around Thanksgiving, which is the perfect time to discuss Native Americans and their contributions to our culture while ridding students of their stereotypes. Other objectives include understanding the job of an archeologist and identifying natural tools used by various tribes. I always look for a way to tie in art and hands-on projects, so this is when we break out the clay for Native American pottery.
After learning about the tribes and the various natural tools that they had at their disposal, we take a quick trip outside and students select anything natural that appeals to them. Students usually pick up sticks, acorns, or interesting leaves. There is one kid in every class that tries to pick up plastic or metal trash, and we have to stop and talk about why these things weren’t available to the Native Americans.
I give each student a sheet of Indian Nation symbols. We discuss the symbolism in Native American cultures and how and why each symbol might be used. Then students get a lump of clay to mold into a bowl or plate. They can use any of the natural tools they have available. I was overjoyed to hear one of my boys exclaim, “Our hands are tools!” I love when they discover that they have everything they need already! It never fails that the students begin to realize how difficult life must have been for the Native Americans and how hard it is to make something as simple as a bowl.
When I’m trying to save money, I make clay from a simple flour recipe that can be baked. Each student works on aluminum foil that I can bake the bowls right on top of. This year, I purchased air-dry clay. With one large $10 tub, I was able to give all 24 students enough clay to make a small bowl or plate. Some of my students used tools as drawing implements, rolling pins, or even natural decorations. Students can stamp leaves to make imprints on the clay. This year, for the first time, a few students made their own tools from clay and sticks combined. It was fun to see their imaginations at work.
While students work, I make an extra plate or two with symbols. I intentionally break my work when it is dry. Students become archeologists and try to figure out what I made and what my symbols meant. It is a hands-on glimpse at the work that archeologists do and how we preserve past cultures.
Once everyone has tried their hand at pottery making, I show students true pottery artwork and artifacts. Their level of appreciation skyrockets when they know how difficult working with crude tools and clay can be. Students are proud of their final work, which they can take home and display. My favorite parts of this project are the appreciation for the Native American lifestyle and the fact that every single child in my class can be successful. That’s something to be thankful for!