Lesson Plan

American Indian Reservations

The Indian Girl's Home. A group of Indian girls and Indian police at Big Foot's village on reservation
John C. H. Grabill (Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsc-02526)


In "American Indian Reservations" students will look at American Indian Reservations. 

The Homesteaders, Immigrants, and American Indians unit is broken up into six lesson plans, taking 45-120 minutes to complete, targeting sixth through eighth grade students.  A class does not have to complete every lesson in the unit - each lesson comes with its own set of objectives and resources.  This is lesson 4 of the unit.


Guiding Question
What are reservations and why were they used?

Critical Content
Students will understand American Indian Reservations and why they were created.

Student Objectives
Students will be able to

  • examine maps fo the American Indian reservations
  • understand why American Indian reservations were created
  • discuss living conditions on American Indian reservations


The first people living on the prairie were the ancestors of the various American Indian Tribes. Through archeology, we can surmise that the plains have been inhabited for centuries by groups of people who lived in semi-permanent villages and depended on planting crops and hunting animals. Many of the ideas we associate with American Indians such as the travois, various ceremonies, tipis, earth lodges, and controlled bison hunts, come from these first prairie people.

Horses were brought to Mexico by the Spanish in the 1600s. With the migration of the horse from Mexico in the 1700s, the culture of the plains people changed to one that was more mobile. Before the horse, the cultures hunted and traveled in relatively small restricted areas. With the introduction of the horse into American Indian society, greater distances could be covered. The horse became a status symbol to the American Indian and individuals amassed vast herds of these animals.

The first known historic tribe in the plains area was the Pawnee who lived in earth lodges part of the year and in tipis during the summer and fall hunts. The earth lodge tribes such as the Arikara, Hidatsa, Mandan, Omaha, Oto, Ponca, Pawnee, Wichita, Winnebago, among others, planted crops such as corn, squash, and beans and stored their food in underground storage caches. Their semi-subterranean lodges held from 10 to 40 people. Several lodges were grouped together to form fortified villages. Smaller groups ventured out with tipis for the bison hunts, returning to the earth lodge for winter. 

Other tribes associated with the Great Plains. were the Lakota-Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahos, Comanche, Kiowa, Crow, among others. They lived mainly in tipis, traveling through the Plains region. These groups were the great hunters of the Plains following the bison or "buffalo" and foraging for berries, roots, and other plants. They lived in extended family relationship groups, traveling to familiar places and encampments. Often, they traded and warred with the earth lodge dwellers.

When the prairie was changed by the coming of Euro-Americans, the culture of the prairie tribes was dramatically affected. The prairie tribes were moved off their traditional homelands onto reservations by the United States government to make way for the ever increasing settlement. They were forced into a foreign lifestyle that was in opposition to their own.


Using a farm as an example, ask students who owns it—the farmer? the community? the country? How do we determine who owns land? Historically how have countries gained or lost territory? Explain to students that most American Indian groups did not believe people owned land and thus you could not buy or sell it; it was just yours to use. They were merely stewards of the land, much like students and their desks. They do not own the desks, but they are theirs to use.

Have students examine the map of American Indian reservations at http://www.independencetrail.org/native-americans.html
Then compare it to the map at http://bit.ly/b2vB8o

Discuss as a class what reservations are and why they were created. Then ask students to look at the map of the reservations again. Using their knowledge of U.S. geography, why were the reservations created where they were? (It was land with few natural resources and poorly suited for farming.)

Divide students into groups. Assign each group one of the primary documents about life on reservations found at http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/eight/wkmiles.htm.

As a class, discuss what living conditions were like on reservations at the turn of the century. Finally, have each student assume the role of an American Indian living on a reservation in 1890. Have them write a diary entry about what their life is like.

Additional Resources

This lesson plan is part of a larger curriculum unit on Homesteaders, Immigrants, and American Indians for grades sixth through eighth. To view the entire curriculum or other individual lesson plans, please click the links below.

Homesteaders, Immigrants and American Indians (entire unit)

Lesson 1: Agriculture and Inventions
Lesson 2: Territorial Ranges
Lesson 3: Land Use
Lesson 4: American Indian Reservations
Lesson 5: Homestead Shelters
Lesson 6: Dawes Act