Native American Indians of the Potomac



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Native American Indians of the Potomac



Park Visit
The Potomac River and Great Falls had great importance to the Native American peoples of this region. Archaeological evidence suggests that Great Falls was being used from Paleo times through the Woodland periods, affecting humans for thousands of years. Great Falls Park provides a unique setting to explore the life ways of America’s early people in the region of our nation’s capital.
At their visit to Great Falls Park, students will hike an area in the park to observe the environment with an eye on the natural resources utilized by the Indians; and have the opportunity to look hands-on at Indian artifact replicas and their relevance to the lives of native peoples of the Potomac. The visit is designed to accommodate one class at a time (30 students) and last for three to four hours including a picnic lunch at the park and visit to see the waterfalls. The park visit will encompass aspects of the three following outlined activities.

Part 1

Living Off the Land:

Hike to see the natural resources of the land

This activity allows time for students to explore the natural environment at Great Falls Park and relate the importance of natural resources to the culture of early peoples in this region. Park Rangers will lead 1-3 groups along less traveled trails of the park to various points where particular aspects of the natural environment provides an opportunity for small group discussion. The area around the Stout Site, an archaeological site in the park, will be used to explore different environments, including stream, wetland, and the forest. Some of the resources may include: Trees for their many uses, wildlife and plant foods, water, soil, rocks, clay, animal and plant fibers, and more.


Students will use their imagination to look into the past and imagine the land as it was for the Native American Indians along the Potomac. Students should have the opportunity to see the world as the Indian may have seen it. Their world was closely tied to the natural world in the environment where they lived. Natural resources had value – they could be utilized for the purpose of survival. (Food, water, shelter, and space are basic needs that all humans, past and present, share.) In the world of the Indians, survival was dependent on the natural resources available to us, and the way we were able to use them to improve our lives. Students will have opportunity to compare the human condition of today with that of Stone Age people, and realize that no matter what background, what culture, or what country, we all evolved from Stone Age man at some point in the history of the world.


Part 2

Artifact Analysis – Early life ways Investigation

Park Visit
Students will work in small groups of 4 or 5, examining and evaluating hand-made replica artifacts typical of use by early peoples. Students use an artifact analysis sheet to record information. This is followed by a brief presentation to the whole group in which students share their artifacts, observations, and conclusions. A variety of artifacts that suggest ways in which native people used the resources of the Great Falls area to survive will be provided. Artifacts will also demonstrate a variety of raw materials and the way they were crafted into utilitarian objects necessary in daily life and survival.
The artifacts would have been used by early peoples of the Potomac region. The task for the group is to observe the physical characteristics and human use of the object. Each group will work in a separate location.

Even replica artifacts are fragile. Students will have to understand that they are to treat them with the greatest of care. When handled, the person is to use both hands when holding the object.


Students will be asked to reflect briefly on some of the main observations of the natural resource hike, and try to identify some which are connected to their object in some way, either by its manufacture, or in its use, or both. Explain how the artifacts that the students will be working with not only should reflect in some way the natural resource, but should reflect a piece of their culture, or way of life. These things the students will work out amongst themselves in their small groups. They may want to compare it to similar things they know in their own lives. Rangers, teachers, and chaperones will assist student groups as needed.


During the activity students should have the opportunity to understand the significance of an archaeological site and the artifact. An artifact can reveal information about our human heritage, tell a story about people and culture, or even a tale about a single person. This is part of preservation of national parks, and everybody plays a role or shares a responsibility in the protection of the resource. Students should understand that it is forbidden to hunt or remove artifacts from a park, and that Park Rangers should be notified of any such finding.


Part 3

Making Camp
Students, rangers, and teachers will make camp in the picnic area and enjoy a time of sharing thoughts and ideas, much the same as what occurred at the night campfire for early peoples. Rangers may choose to pick out certain objects from the previous activity to lead discussions and open up ideas to share as a group. During this time students will be allowed to freely ask questions. At some point, the discussion should emphasize the idea of place and why the Potomac and Great Falls were important in the scheme of Native American Indian history.
During making camp, time will be provided for the students to role play using several pre-written scenarios. Survival game cards allow students to think as chiefs. Thinking for their tribe, they will play out a scenario that represents a typical situation that may have occurred in the lives of the early American people of this region. The game can be played in two ways. The answers that the chiefs supply can be open ended or they can be yes or no answers offering consequences for each. Enough time will be allowed for as many students as possible to participate. After each game of survival between two chiefs, you may wish to elaborate on the concept or idea, placing it in the context of their studies, archaeological information, or other historical data that brings light to real life situations that relate to the idea.
Students should be given the opportunity to discuss and dispel any preconceived myths about American Indians. For instance the image of Indians in movies and television does not capture the culture of native peoples, but usually focuses on a few aspects that often have negative meanings.
We can begin by understanding that these early peoples were advanced in their world. They had political and economic systems that included extensive trading, and they had a sophisticated social order. They understood the abundant natural resources of their environment and how to utilize them for their benefit. They lived in harmony with the environment because they depended on it for their survival. They were skilled in many ways, including agriculture, stone tool making, hunting, fishing, trapping, living in communities, plant identification and uses, and more. They had a savage side to them as well. Some stories are gruesome, especially in manners of dealing with defeated enemies. Many societies throughout hislkjtory But these are no more different than other societies in history.




The students’ study of Native American peoples should not end with the day’s program. Students should consider the program as a good starting point for further exploration of the many peoples that are often referred to as the first peoples of the Americas. Many National Parks preserve ancient cultures through stories and remains, and offer programs and learning opportunities of interest to everyone.


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