Bison and the Native American Experience Courtney Symons

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Bison and the Native American Experience

Courtney Symons, Lebanon High School,

510 Essex Dr. Lebanon, Indiana 46052

Lesson Description: Students will be looking at the history of bison as a part of Native American culture and what role they played throughout Native American literature. Students will be studying American literature throughout this year, and what better way to start than with the actual foundations. They will be looking at both past history and culture, what happened to the bison throughout history, and how current issues, such as Brucellosis, are playing a part in the role that bison have in today’s culture.

Introduction: For anyone to fully understand what he or she is reading, they must first understand why it was written. This is one of the first rules I explain to my students as I begin to teach them the concepts of analyzing literature. If a person does not take the time to understand the culture or the history of a people, then what they are reading is simply words. There is no heart or meaning behind it and there is no passion to what they are trying to understand.

As a connection to this, my students will begin their year by studying Native American culture and history in relation specifically to bison and their role in literature. First, they must understand what animals represent for Native Americans and how the bison have a large meaning for a variety of Native American cultures. We will also look at and spend a lot of time studying the concept of Oral Tradition as we move into the literature we will be connecting to our cultural study. We will look at a creation myth, a trickster tale, and a memoir, all of which will utilize the bison as a central figure within the literature. Once my students understand the culture and the connections to literature, we will make connections to present day by introducing the concepts of Brucellosis as well as the struggles that are happening as a result. They will be asked to ponder some big questions relating current struggles to the past struggles of the bison and of the Native Americans bringing the unit full circle. Throughout the unit, the students will write persuasive pieces and participate in Socratic seminars to help understand the main issues that are presented. They will read pieces of literature, connect to the cultures, and be able to look at the big questions throughout discussions and role playing activities. Each of these methods will help the students to understand the concept of advocacy and how to better promote and persuade someone to understand their side of an argument.

Key Concepts:

  • Native American Culture

  • History of Native American within United States and with Government

  • Role of Animals within Native American Culture

  • Connection of Culture to Literature

  • Oral Tradition

  • Creation Myths

  • Trickster Tales

  • Memoirs

  • Current Issues with Bison

  • Connection of Current Issues to Historic Issues

  • Advocacy and Persuasion


  • Students will be able to recognize and understand the cultural significance of the bison and other animals to the Native American Culture.

  • Students will be able to understand the history of the Native American.

  • Students will be able to connect history and culture of the Native Americans to the literature that they read.

  • Students will be able to recognize different styles of literature important to Native American Culture (specifically oral tradition, creation myths, trickster tales, and memoirs) and will be able to illustrate the characteristics of each.

  • Students will be able to illustrate through writing their understanding of the issues.

  • Students will be able to illustrate their ability to choose a side of an argument and persuade others through facts and connections to understand and consent with their side.

Content Standards:

English/Language Arts 11.1.1-3, 11.2.1-3, 11.3.1-8, 11.4.1-4, 11.6.1-4, 11.7.1, 11.7.2, 11.7.4, 11.7.6, 11.7.7, 11.7.8, 11.7.16, 11.7.17, 11.7.18

Resources and Materials:

  • Textbook

  • Handout of Creation Myth “Buffalo Woman”

  • Handout of Creation Myth “Buffalo and Eagle Wing”

  • “The Way to Rainy Mountain”

  • “They Coyote and the Buffalo”

  • Various Worksheets and assignment handouts

  • News article on Iroquois Lacrosse Team

  • Powerpoint – American Bison: Then and Now, by Curts, Shover, & Symons

  • Slideshow – Relevant photos from Yellowstone National Park are available at:

  • Computer

  • Projector

Time Required: This plan is for a comprehensive unit plan developing over a span of eleven class periods. The class periods are eighty-two minutes long and meet on alternating days. This plan culminates in a final project which will be due a week after the end of the unit.


Day 1 –

  1. Brain dump in partners of all the stories they know with animals as characters.

  2. Background information of animals and their meaning in Native American culture –Handouts on Totem animals (Native American Legends) and Animal Symbolism

  3. Worksheet on animals and influence in stories – do first two columns and revisit examples in literature after reading stories.

  4. Importance of bison to Native Americans.

HW: (on handout) #1 – Based on their characteristics discussed in class (or individual research) what is your totem animal and why? #2 – Why do you think the bison are so important to Native American Culture?

Day 2 –

  1. Discuss Bison in literature – pictures, history, and examples.

  2. Importance of bison – show first part of slideshow through buffalo in literature slide.

  3. Discuss Oral Tradition

  4. Small group activity – discuss Why bison?

  5. Transition to Creation myths.

    1. Different nations.

    2. Different traditions.

    3. This is their religious beginning.

  6. Notes on different types of Creation Myths and characteristics.

  7. Begin reading creation myth

HW: Read “Buffalo Woman” and “Buffalo and Eagle Wing.” Answer comprehension questions.

Day 3 –

  1. Discuss story and big questions – what is the role of Buffalo in the story.

  2. Creation Myth Worksheet – which type of creation myth is this? What characteristics does this include?

  3. Creation Myth Writing prompt – Why are stories like this creation myth so difficult for modern generations to understand? Begin brainstorming and pre-writing in class. Discuss ideas together.

HW: Finish writing prompt as homework.

Day 4 –

  1. Think-Pair-Share- Discuss writing prompt from night before.

  2. Wrap-up creation myth lesson.

  3. Transition into trickster tales (share Journal from beginning of class).

  4. Background of Trickster tale and archetypal Trickster character.

  5. Activity – Modern day tricksters – based on characteristics of tricksters, TPS the ultimate trickster character and trickster tale.

  6. Exit slip – What role do you expect the buffalo to play in “The Coyote and the Buffalo”?

HW: Read “The Coyote and the Buffalo;” do comprehension questions

Day 5 –

  1. Writing quiz – compare/contrast the role you expected the buffalo to play with the role he actually played in the story. Does this fit with the role of buffalo in Native American culture? Why?

  2. Discuss story – timeline out on board – class activity

  3. Handout long-term writing assignment – compare the role of Buffalo in these two pieces. What does it say about the values of the Native American Culture? What are the similarities and differences and what do you think these show?

  4. Brainstorm writing prompt ideas as a class – assignment due in 2 classes.

HW: Work on paper. Read background information in book.

Day 6 –

  1. Background information of Native Americans and struggles with US Government.

    1. Tensions

    2. Bison issue and bison killed.

    3. Reservations.

    4. Motivations

  2. Finish Powerpoint presentation.

HW: Paper due next class.

Day 7 –

  1. Group activity – Students will be divided into groups (tribes). Each tribe member will be given a role within the group. There will be a chief, warriors, and regular tribes members. They will be given a specific area of the classroom and a quantity of “property” that they must protect from the encroaching and invading American government. They must decide, as a tribe, what they will do when faced with the situation of their livelihoods being at risk. Do they fight for everything or try to make a deal with the government. The teacher will play the role of government. Students will then come together as a class and discuss with everyone their decisions and how each tribe reacts to said decisions.

  2. Writing wrap-up: What did you think of this activity? What did you think of your rival tribes’ decisions?

HW: Read article on the Iroquois Nation not being allowed to enter England and do corresponding handout. Should they be required to obtain American or Canadian passports? Can they be kept out? Be prepared to discuss in class next period.

Day 8 –

  1. Journal – after pondering yesterday, how do you feel about it now?

  2. Socratic seminar – Should the Iroquois be kept out of England and required different passports? Why or why not?

  3. Check understanding of Native American background information.

  4. Introduce concept of memoir – what is it? Why is it an important style of writing?

  5. TPS other popular memoirs.

  6. N. Scot Momoday Background information.

HW: Read “The Way to Rainy Mountain.” Comprehension questions

Day 9 –

  1. Slideshow on my “Rainy Mountain.”

  2. Heritage and tradition activity.

  3. Discuss “Rainy Mountain.”

  4. Small group worksheet over “The Way to Rainy Mountain.”

HW: Write 3 paragraphs on connecting the story and the background information. Include 3 examples

Day 10 –

  1. Bison now – Brucellosis

  2. Powerpoint presentation

  3. Big Question – Is what is happening now, killing and slaughtering of bison for economic benefits of others, similar to what happened originally between the Native Americans and the American government?

HW: Write two paragraph comparing current issues with past issues.

Day 11 –

  1. Quiz

  2. Socratic Seminar over big question from previous class period.

  3. Introduce final project – Bridging the gap.

Final Assessment: For the final assessment, students will produce a project based on the concept of bridging the gap between their heritage and Native American heritage. Students will be asked to investigate their own heritage and traditions. They will then be required connect these findings to the Native American traditions and culture that we have studied both through a writing project and through a visual presentation.


Each class period is an extension of the previous class period.

The final assessment is an extension of the unit itself.

As the students progress throughout the semester, they will discover that all Early American Literature has foundations in Native American and will therefore connect.

Interdisciplinary connections:

Social studies connections with Native American background and history.

Environmental science connections with current and past bison issues.


NATIVE AMERICAN LEGENDSnative american icon

Native American Totems & Their Meanings


A totem can be the symbol of a tribe, clan, family or individual. Native American tradition provides that each individual is connected with nine different animals that will accompany each person through life, acting as guides. Different animal guides come in and out of our lives depending on the direction that we are headed and the tasks that need to be completed along our journey.


Native beliefs further explain that a totem animal is one that is with you for life, both in the physical and spiritual world. Though people may identify with different animal guides throughout their lifetimes, it is this one totem animal that acts as the main guardian spirit.


With this one animal a connection is shared, either through interest in the animal, characteristics, dreams, or other interaction.

This Animal Guide offers power and wisdom to the individual when they "communicate” with it, conveying their respect and trust. This does not necessarily mean that you actually pet or spend time with this animal, more that you are open to learning its lessons.


totem pole at pioneer square in seattle washington

Totem Pole at Pioneer Square in Seattle,

Washington , vintage postcard.

For some, knowing what is their totem animal is almost an innate process. It’s as if they’ve always known, inexplicably drawn to the animal or having a special feeling for the animal’s energy. For others, they wonder how to tell what their animal totem is.

Here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re wondering what your animal totem is:

  • Have you ever felt drawn to one animal or another without being able to explain why? This could be animal, including birds and insects.

  • Does a certain kind of animal consistently appear in your life? This doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical appearance, it could be represented in other ways such as receiving card and letters with the same animal pictured over and over, unexplainable dreams of a particular animal, watching television and seeing the same animal featured time and time again, or, actually having the animal show up.

  • When you go to the zoo, a park, wildlife area, or forest, what are you most interested in seeing?

  • Are there any animals that you find to be extremely frightening or intriguing?

  • Is there a particular animal that you see frequently when you’re out in nature?

  • Have you ever been bitten or attacked by an animal?

  • Have you ever had a recurring dream about a certain animal, or a dream from childhood that you have never been able to forget?

  • Are you drawn to figurines or paintings of a specific animal?

The totem itself is a symbol that represents this animal.  This could be any number of items - a crest, a totem pole, an emblem, a small figurine or anything else that depicts your animal guide.



Note:  Native American totems did not include all of the animals listed below, as many of these creatures did not existed in North America. However; the concept of "totems," by whatever name they were called, have been known throughout the world since the earliest days of Greek Mythology. Though the unicorn is generally accepted as a centuries old mythical creature of Europeans, pictures of this fabled animal have been found in Native American tapestries and pictographs



Animal Characteristics & Meaning


Maternal, revenge oriented, quickness, aggression, and basic survival instincts.


Group minded, determination, patient, active, and industrious


Lethargy, curiosity, nosiness.


Active, agile, jumpiness, and willing to sacrifice


Safety oriented, grounded, and has boundaries


Courage, aggressive, healer, having problems relating to others, and energy conduit


Rebirth, longevity, secrecy, initiation, good listener, and long life


Industrious, instinctive, healing, power, sovereignty, guardian of the world, watcher, courage, will power, self-preservation, introspection, and great strength.


Determined, strong-willed, builder, overseer, and protector


Organized, industrial, productive, wise, community, celebration, fertility, defensiveness, obsessive nature, and enjoys life


A very powerful totem - prosperity, spiritual strength, organized, self-reliant, fearless.


Sacredness, life, great strength, abundance, gratitude.


Insight into the past, fertility, rushing into things without proper preparation.


Metamorphosis, transformation, balnace, grace, ability to accept change


Survival, positive, accomplishments


Traveler, mobility, preference to be nomadic, adaptability to adversity


Guardianship, detachment, sensuality, mystery, magic, and independence


Swiftness, insight, focus


Leadership, loyalty, courage, taking responsibility, foresight


Swift, insightful, and focused


Trickster, intelligence, stealth, wisdom and folley, guile and innocence


Swift and decisive


Good luck, protection and success


Solitude, justice, longevity, independent, intelligent, and vigilant


Ensuring your emotions are displayed accurately/appropriately


Justice, shape shifting, change, creativity, spiritual strength, energy, community sharing, and balance


Compassion, peace, intellectual, gentle, caring, kind, subtlety, gracefulness, femininity, gentleness, innocence, and seller of adventure


Noble, faithful, loyal, teaching, protection, and guidance

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