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Building Upon the Gallery Experience

The Plains Indian is one of a complex of four museums housed within the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. It is a popular attraction for school children who sometimes travel hundreds of miles to see the things they read about while studying Wyoming and U.S. history. Children of all ages love experiencing a piece of life the way it was. Some of our visitors are members of the Plains Indian tribes, whose personal stories enrich our tours.

Since most of our Plains Indian artifacts are behind glass and untouchable, we offer two hands-on workshops for children — one focuses on tipis, the other on parfleche. Both are geared primarily for K – 4th graders. The tours begin in the museum’s galleries and progress to a classroom for the hands-on activity. The object of these two workshops is to engage children in close observation of Plains Indian artifacts to foster a greater understanding of the cultures that produced them. The hands-on activity reinforces what the students learn in the galleries and provides a tangible object to take back to school for follow-up activities and further review.

A large Blackfoot tipi in the Plains Museum is the focal point of the tipi workshop. Before the children enter the tipi, we discuss tipi etiquette. When the group is seated, the children participate in a discussion about life styles of Plains Indians. This discussion leads into the subject of tipis, why they were used, and how the tipis are constructed — then and now. We look at the materials used to construct the tipi as well as the design. After experiencing the weight of a buffalo hide, children often decide canvas would be much easier to work with than animal skins! The tipi is also a wonderful environment for storytelling, if time permits.

Surrounding the large tipi in the museum are several miniature tipi models that represent the various Plains tribes. The children describe the various designs and select their favorites. As we leave the tipi area and head for the classroom space for our hands-on activity, we try to remember the different animals that were painted on the tipis.

The tipi activity involves a simplified construction using three sticks, about 8″ long and 1/4″ to 1/2″ in diameter. These are laced together about 1″ from the top and then extended to form a tripod. (Canvas works well for the covering, but if not available, any heavy weight fabric that can stand free when folded will do.) We demonstrate a finished product so the children understand that the curved part of the canvas is the bottom of the tipi.

Children are free to create any design they wish on their canvas tipi. We review what we saw in the gallery in terms of designs and color and the fact that some tipi designs told a story. The children use crayon and/ or markers for their designs. While the children are working, the docent circulates to help and to encourage the children to talk about their designs. Younger children tend to include objects important to their families while older children often make designs using Indian symbols they have seen in the museum. They all enjoy sharing the stories their tipis tell.

Extensions of this activity back at school may involve the children constructing a village using their tipis, a follow-up activity that requires them to consider what other items would be in a village, and which materials should be use to create them. Some classes have made villages and sent us the pictures. Another follow-up activity for the older children might be writing a story from the perspective of an Indian child, perhaps to share with a younger child.

The parfleche workshop begins with an examination of parfleches on display in the museum. Discussions involve how they were used, and what they are made of. Sometimes, children have geometric shapes of different colors to look for in the parfleche designs. Replicas in our hands-on collection provide an opportunity for children to handle a parfleche. We discuss the travel styles of nomadic people and how belongings were carried. They consider which belongings they would be able to pack under those conditions and what items would be most important for them to take. We talk about color and symmetry, and the children choose their favorite design.

In our classroom area, each child makes a parfleche out of a 12″ X 18″ sheet of white drawing paper. We have the folded lines drawn on the paper for the younger children. Older children enjoy measuring and drawing their own lines. Crayons and markers are used for the designs. The parfleche are tied through punched holes on each end with a small leather thong. Although this activity is used primarily with K – 3 grade students who have fun with design, shapes, and colors, a 5th grade class recently participated in this activity with amazing enthusiasm. They also created some truly wonderful, symmetrical designs.

Teachers tell us that their lessons on American Indian history would not be complete without their visits to the museum. By providing these students with hands-on activities and exposure to original objects from Plains Indian cultures, their school studies are greatly enhanced.

Cynthia W. Connor is a docent at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. She is married and has four grown children. Ms. Connor graduated from Lesley College in Cambridge, MLA with a B.S. in Education. She taught for 30years in elementary from kindergarten through sixth grade. She was “Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers” in 1990 after a student nominated her. She retired in 1993 and with her husband moved to Cody where they both have been docents for about four years.

Connor, Cynthia W. “Building Upon the Gallery Experience,” The Docent Educator 7.1 (Autumn 1997): 10-11.

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