Using Material Culture to Explore American Indian History


Using Material Culture to Explore American Indian History

American Indians have a long history and deep connection with the land we now call Ohio. In fact, they lived here thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Today, much of what we know about the history of American Indian peoples comes from the work of non-Native historians and anthropologists.

While there are Native experts and scholars who add to our understanding of these histories, the first-person voices of American Indian peoples are mostly missing from written history. In part because tribes have their own customs and ways of sharing their history and what is important to their communities.

Many museums, including the Ohio History Connection and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), have collections of American Indian art, objects, oral histories, and photographs that represent over 12,000 years of history and culture.

One of the ways we can study American Indian history is by looking at material culture. Material culture is anything created by humans, such as food, tools, weapons, utensils, machines, decorations, art, buildings, monuments, and clothing.  These objects helps us understand how people lived, traveled, and communicated with one another – deepening our understanding of the culture and history of the many American Indian tribes who call Ohio home.  To help your students analyze material culture and objects, practice these steps below.

Steps for Analyzing Material Culture
When using a piece of material culture as a primary source, follow these simple steps:

  1. Look: Examine the object closely and draw it to focus on the details of an object.
  2. Notice: What is the object made from? How is it built? Are there images on the object? If so, what do they represent?
  3. Connect: Make connections between this object and items in your life. How are they the same or different?
  4. Wonder: What questions about this object do you still have? How can you learn more?

Try practicing with this ‘Treaty of Greenville calumet’ from our collection on Ohio Memory, our collaborative digital archive of Ohio primary and secondary sources. Use this “Object Investigation Worksheet” created by the NMAI to help students understand these steps. Check out Ohio History Central for more information about the Treaty of Greeneville.

When finished, encourage your students to share what they drew and wrote. Finally, share the description of the item and discuss how they can conduct more research to answer their “wonder” questions.

It’s also important to remember that, like all primary sources, one artifact or object cannot tell the whole story. To learn more about American Indian culture, it’s important to explore multiple primary sources – material culture, newspapers, books, photographs, oral histories, etc. By practicing and sharing their findings, students will enhance their critical thinking skills and will become stellar history detectives!

Additional Resources

Below are a few resource to help you and your students learn more about American Indian History.

Research Guidelines: American Indian History – This guide will provide students and educators with an initial orientation for how they may work to research and develop History Day projects that strive to incorporate voices of American Indian peoples, cultures and histories. It includes a brief summary of American Indian History in Ohio; potential topics of study; tips for conducting research; and more!

November 2020 American Indian History Blog Post – In this blog post, we provide educators with a list of our favorite resources to study the history of the native peoples who call Ohio home. Including lessons and activities on language, music, American Indian diversity, and more.

Blog post image citation: Unknown. Fort Ancient Ceramic Jar. 900 – 1500 A.D.Artifact. 6.5 in. x 5.5 in. Ohio History Connection, OH. (Accessed November 2, 2021)


Posted November 9, 2021

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