If Trees Could Talk

Overview: Module 1

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Time Frame
6 Class periods

Teacher Pages pdf
Student Pages

Oral Tradition

American Prehistory: 8000 Years of Forest Management

American Prehistory has students study the evidence of 8000 years of Native American prehistoric land use practices.  By analyzing images of Native American material culture, students will understand how artifacts and architecture reveal environmental attitudes of the culture. Students also will learn about the difficulties historians and other scholars face when attempting to study people who had no written language.


Objectives Lesson Plan
Links References

Potawatomi woman A Potawatomi woman in Kansas strips bark from a living elm tree.  First a serrated ring is cut around the tree, then strips are peeled off with the aid of a wedge or ax.   Photo courtesy of Native American Architecture, Peter Nabokov, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 62.


Student Pages
Worksheet 1  

Worksheet 2 
Worksheet 3 

Worksheet 4 
Worksheet 5 
Reflective Exercise


Objectives  derived from

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National Standards

For History

  • The student will understand the patterns of indigenous societies in the Americas before the Columbian voyages. (Era 1, Standard 1)

For Social Studies

  • The student will explain and give examples of how language, literature, the arts, architecture, other artifacts, traditions, beliefs, values, and behaviors contribute to the development and transmission of culture. (Standard 1: Culture)

  • The student will draw upon historical knowledge during the examination of social issues and develop the habits of mind that historians and scholars in the humanities and social sciences employ to study the past and its relationship to the present in the United States and other societies. (Standard 2: Time, Continuity and Change)

State Standard Correlations: AL, AK, AZ, AR, CA, CO, CT, DE, FL, GA, HI, ID, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, MO, MT, NE, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, NC, ND, OH, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VT, VA, WA, WV, WI, WY

Lesson Plan

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Teacher  Preparation:

Download and print Module 1 Teacher & Student PDFs using Adobe Acrobat.

For Day 1 activity: Make copies of the Essay for each student in your classroom. Next make copies of Worksheet 1 and Worksheet 2 for each student.

Day 2 activity: Make copies of Detecting Prehistory and Worksheet 3 for each student. Pre-class preparation: Arrange four tables or four clusters of desks within the classroom. Place one 8x12 colored category topic card on or above each table or desk cluster. The category topic cards, each a different color, are entitled: Archaeologists, Anthropologists, Geographers, and Historians. Print each of the category topics on 4x6 unlined note cards. (The total number of 4x6 cards represents the total number of students in your class). The 4x6 note card color for each category topic should match that of the larger 8x12 card. For example, if the 8x12 anthropology topic card is blue, the 4x6 anthropology cards also should be blue.

Day 3 activity: Make copies of Eyewitness Accounts and Worksheet 4 for each student.

Day 4 activity: Make copies of "The Legend of the Cedar" for each student and Worksheet 5 for each student group (groups of 3-4).

Day 1
Set the stage for this activity by leading a group discussion answering the following questions:

  • Who were the first people to live in North America?
  • What types of evidence do we have of their existence?
Distribute the Essay, Worksheet 1, and Worksheet 2.  Students should read the essay in order to complete the 2 worksheets.

Day 2
Pre-class preparation:
Arrange four tables or four clusters of desks within the classroom.  Place one 8x12 colored category topic card on or above each table or desk cluster.  The category topic cards, each a different color, are entitled: Archaeologists, Anthropologists, Geographers, and Historians.  Print each of the category topics on 4x6 unlined note cards.  (The total number of 4x6 cards represents the total number of students in your class).  The 4x6 note card color for each category topic should match that of the larger 8x12 card.  For example, if the 8x12 anthropology topic card is blue, the 4x6 anthropology cards also should be blue.  

As students walk into the room at the beginning of class hand them a 4x6 category topic card and ask them to look for the table or desk cluster that matches their card.  Distribute Detecting Prehistory  and as a class read the first section of the sheet entitled “Background” together.  Ask students to complete the section entitled “Before you Begin.”  After students have finished this section (10-15 minutes) read the final section of the sheet (“The Case”) together.  Distribute Worksheet 3, go through the completed example together, and instruct students to use the reverse side of the worksheet if more room is needed to answer the questions about artifacts 2, 3, and 4. Upon completion of the worksheet each group should make a short presentation to the class explaining more about their designated profession (archaeologist, anthropologist, geographer, or historian) in addition to revealing their answers to the “mysteries” and the reasons for making such inferences.  Finally, after all groups have presented their answers to the class “solve the case” by revealing the real identity of the objects.  Optional: Award the group with the most correct answers a prize.

Day 3 
Write the word evidence and the corresponding definition on an overhead sheet or on the board: “A thing or things helpful in forming a conclusion or judgment.” As a class compile a quick list of professions that use evidence (based on the definition) on a frequent basis.  Take a few moments to discuss how and why the listed jobs use evidence.  If no one mentioned historians take this opportunity to ask how and why members of this profession might use evidence.  Next, develop a list of the types of evidence a historian could use (artifacts, manuscripts, eyewitnesses, etc).  Distribute Eyewitness Accounts and Worksheet 4.  Since this activity targets student understanding of the uses of evidence in supporting a historical argument, students are asked to prove a specific statement rather than draw their own conclusions.

Day 4 
Begin class today by asking your students to brainstorm about the ways a group of people who have no written language could record their beliefs, history, and culture.  Explain the significance of oral tradition in the lives of prehistoric people and then as a class compose a list of different forms of oral tradition that might have been used by Native Americans (for example, songs, stories, legends).  Tell your class that for the next 2 days you will be focusing on legends.  Write the word legend and the corresponding definition on the board or an overhead sheet:  “a story coming down from the past; especially: one popularly regarded as historical although not verifiable.”  Mention that Native Americans used legends for a variety of reasons: to teach lessons, explain the origin of an object or animal, and remind people of the importance of things such as nature.  Distribute “The Legend of the Cedar Tree.”  Remind students that although such a story now has been transcribed originally it would have been spoken aloud.  Ask for a volunteer or volunteers to read the legend aloud to the class.  Divide the class into groups of 3-4 and distribute Worksheet 5.  When students have completed Part I. of the worksheet review the answers to the questions as a class.  Next, allow students time to complete Part II.

Day 5 
Begin class by allotting time for the groups to finish the preparation of their skits.  The remainder of the time should be devoted to the performance of the skits.  Encourage the class to ask questions of each group to ensure that all students have thought about the importance of legends and the link between their stories and the environment.

Day 6
Choose from one of three types of activity assessments: 

Application and Integration Exercise (Correlated to National Standards for Social Studies)  ~Teacher Explanation~ If you choose to use this activity there are several possible variations.  First, you may want to have students complete the exercise in the same groups formed on Day 2 when they first studied artifacts.  If not, the activity also would work fine in random groups you select.  Second, Part II of the activity asks students to examine five modern artifacts that you provide.  Here are some suggestions: baseball, pad of paper or notebook, CD, soda can, book, hat or shoes, key, computer mouse, cell phone, pet toy, trash bag, or sunglasses.  You can either fill boxes with the same 5 objects or supply each group with different artifacts to analyze.

Test  (Correlated to National Council for History Standards)

Reflective Exercise  


Class Extensions

  • Use the 2 links below to locate a Native American tribe in your geographic vicinity.  Contact a tribe near your school to discuss the possibility of arranging for a guest speaker to make a presentation to your class that would help them learn more about Native American culture and land use practices (past and present).

Native Web 1
Native Web 2

  • Use the link below to help you locate a nearby museum specializing in or containing extensive exhibits on Native American history.  Plan a trip for students to a museum so that they can experience Native American culture in an educationally rich setting.  If possible, contact the museum educator of the institution about the possibility of special programming for your students.
  • Use the link below to find the nearest archaeological park.  Since students learned about the importance of archaeology in the study of prehistory, visiting an actual Native American site will help reinforce what they just learned and also will serve as a real world historical connection.  
    Archaeological Parks

Team Teaching Possibilities

Technology: Instead of having students complete Worksheet 1 on the sheet provided, ask them to design and complete their own table in Microsoft Word or worksheet in Microsoft Excel outlining the significant information contained in the essay.

English: Have students use a library or the internet to find a Native American legend focusing on an aspect of nature. Ask students to compare and contrast the legend they located with the "Legend of the Cedar Tree."

Math: have students investigate how prehistoric people used math in their lives. Additionally, ask them to locate a picture or description of a prehistoric artifact that utilized mathematics in some respect.

Science: A) Building upon the information presented in the essay and Worksheet 3, have students investigate the specific methods involved in the use of charcoal deposits, pollen records, carbon dating, and dendrochronology to date prehistoric artifacts. B) Conduct a mock archaeological dig at your school that provides students with a hands-on approach to learning more about the work of archaeologists.


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Forest History Society--Bibliographic resources on forestry, conservation and environmental history. Ordering Resource for: American Forests: A History of Resiliency and Recovery.

Indigenous Peoples Literature Links to literature from many cultures, often describing connections to nature.

Illinois State Museum --Information about prehistoric Native American cultures, most especially in Illinois.


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Bonnicksen, Thomas M. America's Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2000.

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land : Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

Henschel, Gary W. Prehistoric Tools, Points, & Arrowheads. Elkhart Lake, WI : Henschel's Indian Museum, 1996.

Hothem, Lar. Indian Artifacts of the Midwest. Paducah, Kentucky: Collector Books,  1992.

MacCleery, Douglas. American Forests: A History of Resiliency and Recovery. Durham, NC: Forest History Society, 2011. [Order]

MacLeish, William H. The Day Before America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin  Company, 1994. Mann, Charles C. “1491.” The Atlantic Monthly (March 2002): 41-53.

Nabokov, Peter and Robert Easton. Native American Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

  Essay  / Worksheet 1 / Worksheet 2 / Detecting / Worksheet 3 / Eyewitness/ Worksheet 4 LegendWorksheet 5 / Application / Test / Reflective Exercise