American Indians and their Environment

In this lesson, students will analyze primary source images of Native Americans interacting with the environment. The images show different aspects of how Native Americans dressed, hunted, and lived.

Historical Background

The kinds of food the Native Americans ate, the clothing they wore, and the shelters they had depended upon the seasons. Their foods changed with the seasons. In winter, they hunted birds and animals and lived on stored foods from the previous fall. In spring, they hunted, fished and picked berries. In summer, they grew crops (beans, corn, and squash). In fall, they harvested crops and hunted for foods to preserve and keep for the winter.

The Native Americans used natural resources in every aspect of their lives. They used animal skins (deerskin) as clothing. Shelter was made from the material around them (saplings, leaves, small branches, animal fur). Native peoples of the past farmed, hunted, and fished. They used natural resources such as rock, twine, bark, and oyster shell to farm, hunt, and fish.

Indian men had the primary tasks of fishing and hunting. Each winter men from different tribes would join together for hunting expeditions. Deer meat, or venison, served as a supplement to the mostly agricultural diet. The Indians used other parts of the deer such as skin for clothing and bones for tools. The men also protected their village.

The Powhatan Indians were primarily farmers planting fields that averaged one hundred acres in size. The women were responsible for working the fields and did so using various tools made from such materials as deer antlers. They grew corn, squash, pumpkins, beans and sunflowers. They also gathered wild foods from the land around them such as nuts, berries and roots. The women were responsible for making meals of these foods. Corn (maize) was the staple crop, and from it women produced such foods as corn cakes and hominy.

Since the Powhatans were farmers, they did not move around like Indians of the western plains who had to follow the herds of buffalo. As a result, they built semi-permanent houses that were framed with saplings and covered with woven reeds or bark. Constructed by the women, these “yehakin” provided good protection from all the extremes of weather, sometimes for as many as sixteen to twenty members of an extended family. The fire in the center of the lodge was kept burning at all times which kept the house warm and dry.

Each tribe had a chief or “werowance” who ruled over the tribe. All the tribal chiefs were subject to Powhatan. They supported him in war and paid an allowance to him from their tribe. Status was determined by achievement, often in warfare, and by the inheritance of luxury goods like copper, shell beads and furs. Those of higher status had larger homes, more wives and elaborate dress.

Lesson Objective

VS.2e The student will demonstrate knowledge of the physical geography and native peoples, past and present, of Virginia by describing how American Indians related to the climate and their environment to secure food, clothing, and shelter.



  1. Begin with a Hook/Preview by discussing natural resources and how we use them in OUR lives. Ask students to begin by reviewing what they have previously learned about natural resources. Discuss the definition and different natural resources that they use in their lives and make a connection from our natural resources, to what natural resources Native Americans may have used many, many years ago.
  2. Pre-make and hand out the primary source flipbooks. To make the flip books, use a large piece of construction paper, folded long-ways. Cut three slits on the top flap and glue the primary source images onto the four squares. Next, paste the questions on the flap behind each image. Questions include: What do you see? What natural resource(s) is it made of? What is its use? Could it be used all year long? Each flapbook should include four images, you may allow students to choose from a set of 5 or 6 primary source images or choose four images to assign.
  3. Students will work in partners to answer questions about the natural resources seen in their primary source pictures.
  4. Ask students to share with their table partners to check answers.
  5. As a class, discuss students’ answers using the ActivStudio flipchart. Go over each photo, answer the questions together, and discuss how the resource was adapted through the seasons.
  6. Show a brief (four minute) YouTube video on the Powhatan use of natural resources. The students will then do a word/picture splash assessment.


The students will create a word/picture splash in order to display what they have learned about the Native American use of natural resources. Their rubric will be based on the design, spelling, # of pictures, and # of new vocabulary terms used in their project.


“A Powhatan Man Ready to Hunt.” Image. From The National Park Service: Historic Jamestowne. (accessed November 4, 2011).

De Bry, Theodor. “Their Manner of Making Boats.” Engraving. In “Powhatan Indian Period Images,” Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. (accessed November 4, 2011).

“Bow and Arrow.” Image. Alabama Archaeology: Prehistoric Alabama. (accessed November 4, 2011).

“Powhatan Indian Village.” Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. (accessed November 8, 2011).

Image ID: 2245.257. Photograph. Indian Peoples of the Northern Great Plains – Online Image Database. (accessed November 9, 2011).