Dining in Death Valley: Native Tools for Food Harvest
Table of Contents
Museum Collections, Similar Items and other Materials Used
National Educational Standards
Student Learning Objectives
Background and Historical Context
Teacher Tips
Lesson Implementation Procedures
Evaluation/Assessment for Measurable Results
Extension and Enrichment Activities
Site Visit

A. Title: Dining in Death Valley: Native Tools for Food Harvest
  • Developer:

    Diana Valdez-Bartlett, Teacher, Cottonwood Elementary, Palmdale CA

    Cassey Jones, Death Valley National Park Interpretive Park Ranger

  • Grade Level: 3-5
  • Number of Sessions in the Lesson Unit Plan: Lesson 1 – 120 minutes

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B. Overview of this Collection-Based Lesson Unit Plan
  • Park Name: Death Valley National Park
  • Description: In this unit, students explore the tools used by Native Americans over the course of their daily lives in Death Valley, CA  Students examine Native American objects, such as a mortar and pestle, and pinyon nut gathering sticks.  They will explore the function of these tools, and draw comparisons with contemporary items.  Students will also create their own useful tools using organic materials from their local environment. 
  • Essential Question: How did the Native Americans living in Death Valley manage to survive and thrive?

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C. Museum Collections, Similar Items and other Materials Used in this Lesson Unit Plan
MUSEUM OBJECT [photos of objects in the Death Valley museum collections] SIMILAR OBJECTS [local items similar to museum objects] & OTHER MATERIALS Length of time

Dining in Death Valley: Native Tools for Food Harvest

Mortar and Pestle Plant Gathering Sticks

Similar items
  • Modern mortar and pestle
  • Fruit picker

Forms and Charts:
How to Read an Object chart

Other materials:
  • Art-making materials
  • Locally sourced organic materials for students to make their own tools, ex. grasses, pinecones, rocks, sticks, etc.

120 minutes
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D. National Educational Standards

Visual Arts
NA-VA.K-4.1 and NA-VA.5-8.1 Understanding and Applying Media, Techniques, and Processes
NA-VA.K-4.2 and NA-VA.5-8.2 Using Knowledge of Structures and Functions
NA-VA.K-4.4 and NA-VA.5-8.4 Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures

NL-ENG.K-12.9 Multicultural Understanding
NL-ENG.K-12.10 Applying Non-English Perspectives

Social Studies
NSS-G.K-12.5 Environment and Society
NSS-USH.K-4.4 The History of Peoples of Many Cultures Around the World

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E. Student Learning Objectives

    Lesson 1. Dining in Death Valley: Native Tools for Food Harvest

    After this lesson, students will be able to:
    • Critically investigate the tools used by Native Americans in Death Valley to harvest and prepare food.
    • Draw comparisons between the tools used by the Timbisha and Panamint Shoshone and contemporary tools.
    • Design and create their own tools using locally-sourced organic materials.

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F. Background and Historical Context

The Timbisha Shoshone say that they have resided in the Death Valley region since time immemorial.  “Timbisha” roughly translates as “red rock face paint,” in reference to a vivid mineral deposit located near their village.  The Timbisha were a hunting and gathering community, residing in the spring-fed mesquite groves of Furnace Creek in the winter.  The seeds of the mesquite tree were a significant source of protein for the Timbisha, who would ground them into flour using mortars and pestles.  The tribe still actively manages the mesquite groves to enhance seed yields.  In the summer and fall, they ascend to the Panamint Mountains to escape the heat and gather pinyon nuts, using hooked gathering sticks.  Tools made of natural materials, such as the mortar and pestle or pinyon gathering sticks, were essential to successful subsistence efforts in the harsh environment of Death Valley. 

With the establishment Death Valley National Monument in 1933, National Park Service administration of the area initiated an era of strife between the Timbisha and government officials.  The Timbisha Homeland Act of 2000 finally established a formal land base for the tribe, within and beyond the boundaries of the National Park.  Significant areas of the park are co-managed by the tribe and the park as the Timbisha Shoshone Natural and Cultural Preservation Area, to sustain the traditional land management practices of the Timbisha people.

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G. Vocabulary
Mortar: any receptacle in which materials are ground, blended and crushed.
Pestle: A club shaped hand tool for grinding or mashing substances in a mortar.
Pinyon : Any of several pine trees bearing edible, nut like seeds
Organic material: Natural substances derived from living organisms.
Reflexed: Bent.
Non-perishable: A substance that does not rot or “go bad” quickly.
Cultivate: To support the natural growing process of a plant, usually with the aim to produce specific results, such as greater crop yields or a pleasing appearance.
Mesquite: A seed pod-bearing tree found in the deserts of the southwestern United States.  The seeds can be ground into flour and eaten.
Subsistence: The act of sustaining oneself, through food, shelter, etc., at the minimum level necessary for survival

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H. Teacher Tips
  • Download and laminate color prints of the museum objects used in the lesson unit plan.  Include the descriptions of the objects on the backside of the image for easy reference.
  • Bring into the classroom a modern mortar and pestle, and a modern fruit picker.  When you are using a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the Native American tools with their modern equivalents, make sure students can see, or even experiment with, the modern objects, to assist visual and kinesthetic learners.
  • Collect rocks, sticks, grasses, and other natural, tool-making materials from the school yard or your local municipal park.  Consider gathering the materials as part of a short field trip with your students – let them collect the materials they think they’ll need themselves.

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I. Lesson Implementation Procedures

1) Show students photographs of the following museum objects: Mortar and Pestle (DEVA 410 and 442) and Pinyon Nut Gathering Sticks (DEVA 122, 3542, 2401).  Walk around room with photos so every student can see them, or project the images onto a screen at the front of the classroom.

2) Students use a “Think-Pair-Share” process to brainstorm the use of these mysterious objects (see section N for an explanation).  First, distribute two “How to Read an Object” worksheets to each student, and ask them to “think to yourself” about how the objects were used, and who used them, while filling out the form for each of the two images.  Next, have the students’ pair up, and share with the partner their worksheet responses.  Both students should modify their answers on the worksheets based on the paired discussion.  Remind students that both partners should have an opportunity to talk.  Finally, call on volunteers or select specific pairs to share with the class, and collectively discuss how various students read the objects.

3) Select students to read aloud the museum object captions (see below) that name and describe the tools:

For the pinyon nut gathering sticks, DEVA 122, 3542, 2401:
“The Timbisha Shoshone made these sticks to gather plants, most probably for collecting pine nuts. One end of each stick is reflexed and held in place by copper wire to form the hook. The Shoshone would spend the months preceding winter gathering non-perishable pine nuts, mesquite beans, acorns and various seeds. Such non-perishable foods were supplemented with game and fresh plants during the winter months.”

For the mortar and pestle, DEVA 410 and 442:
“The Shoshone were well adapted to Death Valley and knew how to cultivate plants for food, medicine, and tools. The mortar and pestle were used to pound various seeds into a finer mass to be used in cooking. This mortar and pestle may have been used to pound mesquite seed pods into flour meal.”

Explain to students that Native Americans often used organic material from their local environment to construct tools.  Even in the harsh conditions at Death Valley National Park, they found resources to help them thrive in their daily lives. 

4) In small groups, allow the students to manipulate the modern objects for a few minutes.  Place acorns, dried corn kernels, or other grains into the mortar and pestle, so they can ground them into flour.  If there are fruit or nut trees in your school yard, students can experiment with the fruit picker outside.  Otherwise, set up a safe “mock fruit tree” in the classroom, by loosely hanging objects (for instance, a Styrofoam ball hung by tape) in a well-cleared corner of the classroom.  Provide students with explicit safety rules, especially no horseplay with the fruit picker , or demonstrate how  fruit picker is used

5) Use large Venn diagrams to guide the class in a compare and contrast exercise between the Native American tools, and their modern equivalents (see Section N for a Venn diagram template).  In the left circle, write “Native American Mortar and Pestle.”  In the right circle write “Modern Mortar and Pestle.”  Make sure the students can see the images of both (taped in the Venn diagram on the board, projected onto a screen, or table copies distributed to students).  Ask the students to brainstorm key features, functions, and materials associated with the museum object, and place them in the appropriate circle in the diagram.  Repeat this process for the new object.  Finally, ask the students whether the tools used by the Native American inhabitants of Death Valley have any similar qualities to the modern tools.  Write the similarities in the overlapping portion of both circles.  Examples (dependent on the modern image): They both grind hard substances into flour.  They both contain natural materials.

6) Perform another Venn diagram exercise using the “Pinyon Nut Gathering Sticks” on one side, and the modern “Fruit Picker” on the other.  Examples of common characteristics: They both help you get at hard-to- reach food.  They both are bent at the far end.  Conclude that there is a lot in common between the tools made by Native Americans, and the modern tools manufactured today.

7) Have students imagine what life was like when there were no stores to purchase tools and groceries.  Tell them that people often relied on local materials they found in their surrounding environment to make the things they needed to survive.  Inform the students that they are about to experience the same challenge.  Pose the question: How could we use organic materials from our local environment to help us survive?  Some possible answers: We could use rocks as hammers.  We could build a house from sticks.  Inform the students that they will have the opportunity to create/invent their own tool using organic materials found in their local community.

8) Ideally, identify a location either in the schoolyard or near your campus where students can harvest leaves, sticks, rocks, pine cones, and other raw materials.  (Make sure you are collecting legally – many state and federal parks prohibit collection of natural substances without a permit.)  If a mini-field trip is not feasible, gather materials on your own, and bring them into the classroom in boxes, so the students can select their desired raw media. 

9) Have students create their own tools using the raw materials.  Specify that the tools must serve some essential purpose (harvesting or hunting food, preparing food, storing food, holding water, building shelter, clothing, etc.)  Hints: Grasses can be used as a fiber for tying or weaving.  If no grasses are present, string can be supplied.  Native Americans may also have used intestines, or other parts of animals to make tools that are not readily available, so feel free to substitute brown paper as “leather,” plastic as “bone,” etc.

10) Go around the room and have the students share their inventions, stating its purpose or function.

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J. Evaluation/Assessment for Measurable Results

Students will be assessed on the construction and purpose of their Native American tool, as well as their ability to orally present their tool to the class.  See the Rubric for Native American Tools located under Section N

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K. Extension and Enrichment Activities

1) Tell the students to pay close attention to the sharing session, because after everyone has talked about their tools, they will be tasked with seeking three to four other “tribe members” whose tools will help them survive in a complementary way to their own tools.  Example: A student who made a bow and arrow for hunting might find a student who prepared a skinning “knife,” a water receptacle, or a pair of shoes. 

2) Once students have coalesced in their groups, they should discuss what needs are still not met.  Example: Food, but no water?  Clothing and shelter but no food?  Hunting tools but no gathering implements? 

3) As a class, on the board, create a “master list” of survival-essential activities that require tools.  Example: Hunting, skinning animals, cooking meat, gathering nuts, grinding nuts into powder, gathering and storing water, etc.  Each group should discuss which of the tools they have constructed would be the most valuable to other groups based on this list, and collectively create a few more of those items.  Then, set up a classroom trade fair, in which each “tribe” barters until they have acquired all the things they need to survive. 

4) Have students create a Power Point about tools used by Native Americans in their own region of the country.

5) So that students better understand the conditions in which the Timbisha live, download the park’s monthly weather datasheet: https://www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/upload/Weather%20and%20Climate.pdf.  Compare the average monthly highs and lows to the same data gathered in your city.  Have the students answer questions like “Why didn’t the Timbisha grow food on farms?” or “Why did they travel to higher elevations in the summertime?”

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L. Resources

Timbisha Shoshone part of park website: https://www.nps.gov/deva/parkmgmt/tribal_homeland.htm
Anderson, M. Kat Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, University of California Press, 555 pp.
Slater, Eva Panamint Shoshone Basketry: An American Art Form, self-published, 139 pp.

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M. Site Visit
  • Pre-visit: Investigate the other Timbisha museum objects in Death Valley’s Virtual Museum exhibit.  Based on research, each student should come up with 2-3 questions to guide an actual or virtual visit to Death Valley. Students visit the park’s Timbisha Shoshone website for an overview or contact the Timbisha Tribal office at 760-786-2374.

    If you cannot visit Death Valley, visit a local museum that has Native American exhibits and programs, or if possible, contact the local Native American tribal offices to see if they host field trips to their tribal offices, or traditional homelands.

  • Site visit: If you are visiting Death Valley, explore the park sites around the Furnace Creek area to get a sense of the environment in which the Timbisha have lived and thrived for millennia.  Arrange to visit the tribal offices, and speak with a tribal elder to learn about Timbisha traditions.  Drive up to the Wildrose area to see where tribal members gathered pinyon nuts. 

    Visit a local museum that has Native American exhibits and programs and explore how the use of native materials in the surrounding environment supported their way of life.  If possible, arrange a class visit the places where these materials were harvested.

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N.  Charts, Figures and other Teacher Materials

Venn Diagram Template
Think Pair Share Technique