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From 1803 until 1805, explorers Lewis and Clark set out to map and explore land obtained through the Louisiana Purchase. Sacagawea, a Shoshone Native American, served as an interpreter and guide on the expedition. One of her prized possessions was her wampum belt, or girdle. Although wampum were used as currency by the Europeans, Native Americans used wampum belts to record history and tell stories. In this lesson, students explore this Native American craft and design and create their own belts.
Learn about Sacagawea and her importance to the success of the Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery expedition.
Define wampum and its use in European economy.
Recognize that wampum belts are used as a method of Native American communication.
Write a description of a prized possession and what its loss would mean.
Create a simple wampum pattern using computer technology.
Create a group pattern using a mathematical grid system. Teaching Approach
Group or Individual Instruction
What You'll Need
Review the history of Lewis, Clark, and the Corps of Discovery. Possible resources include:
Prior Student Knowledge
Students should be familiar with:
Explorers Lewis and Clark (which can be taught as part of this lesson)
Large Group Instruction
Obtain or print ¼-inch graph paper. Test virtual wampum belt maker.
Resources in Reach
Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.
1. Show of Native American and wampum photograph belts located under 'Resources in Reach'.
2. Ask follow-up questions about the photograph.
What do you see in this photograph?
Who might this individual be? (
The individual is a Mohawk Indian in Canada displaying his wampum belts.)
What is on display?
What are they made of?
What are the predominant colors?
How do you think they were made?
What do you think they represent?
3. Read excerpt from . The Indian girl who led them, Sacajawea by Amy Jane Maguire Focus specifically on page 69 as it relates to Sacagawea and her wampum belt or girdle. (Start at “One of Bird-woman's best cherished” … end at “so much as giving up her girdle.”)
4. Ask follow-up questions about the excerpt.
Who was Bird-woman?
What is a girdle (in this context)?
How do you think she felt when she gave up something that meant so much to her?
What is a prized possession?
What do you have that you consider to be a prized possession?
5. Have students write a short essay on a personal prized possession. The essay should contain two paragraphs. The first should discuss the prized possession and why it is important to the writer; the second should describe how the writer might feel if he/she had to give up the prized possession.
1. Introduce or review Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, and the Corps of Discovery. Explain that Sacagawea was critical to the Corps’ success in traveling through new lands. She communicated with Native American tribes along the way, introduced the Corps to native plants for food and medicine, and guided the explorers over land she was familiar with but that was new to them. (The level of detail for this part of the lesson will depend on curriculum objectives for this age/grade level.)
2. Introduce the making of wampum beads and their origin. Wampum (wampumpeage) are white shell beads made from the whelk shell and blue/purple shell beads made from the quahog shell. Show photos of the two shells in the gallery named Shells Gallery located under 'Resources in Reach'.
3. Introduce use of wampum as currency for Europeans. The Europeans who had come to current-day United States used wampum in place of coins. The blue beads were twice as valuable as the white beads. The Native Americans, however, did not use them as currency between tribes. They only used them to trade with the Europeans.
4. Introduce use of wampum belts as a means of communication for Native Americans. Native Americans used wampum belts to record history, tell stories, and communicate information. They were prized possessions among Native Tribes and often used in ceremony. (Show photograph of Mohawk Native American and wampum belts again.) Wampum belts were made on a weaving loom. Show illustration of Native American weaving loom located under 'Resources in Reach'.
1. Make a virtual wampum belt with a geometric pattern. Have each student weave a virtual wampum belt using one type of blue bead and one type of white bead. Print the designs. (Note to teacher: the virtual wampum belt maker limits students to a design that is 8 beads wide by 50 beads long.)
2. Have students determine the monetary value of their wampum belts. Each student should determine the value of his or her belt using the following ratio:
6 white beads : 3 blue beads : 1 penny
Count the blue beads. Count the white beads. Use the ratio to determine the monetary value of each color. Add them together.
For example, if the student’s belt contains 200 white beads and 200 blue beads, the value would be:
200 blue beads = 200 / 3 = 66.7 pennies = 67 pennies
200 white beads = 200 / 6 = 33.3 pennies = 33 pennies
(Calculations that end with a .5 of higher should round up. Calculations that end with a .4 or lower should round down.)
Total = 67 + 33 pennies = 100 pennies = $1.00
Have each student exchange his or her belt with another student to double-check the calculated value.
Arrange the class’s belts from lowest value (more white) to highest value (more blue). Remind students that blue beads were rarer and had more value to the Europeans.
3. Explain that these patterns can tell stories or communicate messages. Show students the Iroquois Flag located under 'Resources in Reach', which is based on a wampum belt weaving. Ask students: What does the flag symbolize? What was the designer trying to communicate?
4. Create a wampum belt that communicates information or tells a story. Divide the class into teams. Each team should design a blue and white wampum belt using graph paper. Suggest that the design use an odd-number of beads for the width and length so that the design will have a center. The design must fit on one sheet of graph paper.
1. Create a wampum belt exhibit. Display the wampum belts designs in the classroom.
2. Have students write a story based on a wampum belt design. Assign each student to one of the designs (not his or her group’s design). Students should write a story inspired by the design. (There is no right or wrong story.) Post the stories near the original designs.
3. Reflect on the stories. Have each group read and discuss the stories that were inspired by its design. Were they successful in communicating the information they wanted to communicate? What could they have done differently?
4. Present each wampum belt and the story behind it. The group should present its original design and the story to the class.
Assessment Rubric to assess your students work. You may find this rubric under 'Resources in Reach'.
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The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the
National Core Arts Standards ( http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.
Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.
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