Strategies for Teaching American Indians of Virginia

American Indians of Virginia

Hi again, from Meghan at Vestal’s 21st Century Classroom. In my last post, I shared tips for teaching regions of Virginia. In this post, we will move onto the next Virginia Studies topic. I can’t wait to share some of my favorite strategies for teaching American Indians of Virginia! I am a big believer that social studies should be hands-on, and teaching about Native Americans is no exception! Here are five ways to engage your students as you teach about the lives of American Indians in Virginia.

Retell Powhatan Legends

Storytelling was an important part of daily life for the earliest American Indians of Virginia. Each tribe created stories that had to do with objects and happenings that were part of their lives such as food and animals. I have found that students often enjoy listening to and retelling these stories. Many Native American legends and stories can be found online or in books at your local library.

One of my favorite American Indian stories to share with students is the Legend of the Three Sisters. This story was told by the Powhatan tribe and had to do with the crops they grew. I also like to find ways to bring the stories to life. For example, when retelling the Legend of the Three Sisters, students create a healthy snack using the crops described in the story. Students can also act out the legends or try creating their own stories about objects that are part of their daily lives.
A Powhatan legend and activity aligned with Virginia Studies SOL VS.2. Available here.

Share Real Pocahontas History

Pocahontas is probably the most famous American Indian who lived in Virginia. Unfortunately, many stories told about her are inaccurate. As much as I love Disney, it always frustrates me when a student describes the events in Disney’s Pocahontas as real-life events. While teaching this unit, use this as a time to change students’ misconceptions of Pocahontas by sharing real accounts and stories from her life. You can also have students complete a research project about Pocahontas to learn more about her life and legacy.

Study American Indian Artifacts

One of the best ways to teach students about the first inhabitants of Virginia is to have them study artifacts. Not only do artifacts help students learn about the past, but they also encourage students to use their inference skills. Studying artifacts can be accomplished one of three ways, depending on the time and resources available to you.

Visit a Historical Site

Throughout Virginia, there are several places that offer large collections of Native American artifacts and recreations of artifacts. The places listed below are just a few of the places that offer field trips to school groups. To learn more about the field trips offered, visit their websites or call for more information.
  • Crab Orchard Museum (Tazewell)- The Crab Orchard Museum has one of the largest collections of Cherokee artifacts in Virginia. By examining artifacts that are more than 10,000 years old, students will truly grasp what life was like in early Virginia. After examining artifacts, students can also see a diorama of a Cherokee settlement and learn about a nearby Cherokee burial ground.
  • Jamestown Settlement (Williamsburg)- The Jamestown Settlement offers a life-size Powhatan village where historical interpreters and actors share stories about Virginia’s Native Americans. In addition to studying artifacts and replicas, students can also learn what it was like to be one of Virginia’s first inhabitants. Students can grind corn and play Native American games.
  • Wolf Creek Indian Village Museum (Bastian)- Like the Jamestown settlement, Wolf Creek Indian Village has a re-created American Indian village. The village is located near an actual site where Native American artifacts have been discovered. As students tour the village, historical interpreters tell about the history of the Eastern Woodland Indians.

Examine Artifacts Online

If a field trip is out of the question, there are several websites that allow students to examine artifacts virtually. One of my favorite websites for teaching about American Indians of Virginia is Jamestown Rediscovery. In addition to studying images of artifacts, students can also read detailed descriptions, learn where the artifacts were discovered in Virginia, and when the artifacts were actually used by Virginia tribes. When studying artifacts, be sure to encourage students to compare and contrast the artifacts used by different tribes. This can help students paint a picture of what life was like for Native American tribes in different parts of Virginia.

Invite One of the Virginia Indian Tribes to Your Class

When I was the director of a Virginia museum, we would invite members of the Monacan tribe to visit each year. I always found that the tribe was excited to share their culture and traditions with others. Members of the tribe would share artifacts, wear tribal clothing, and perform tribal dances. Some Virginia tribes are also willing to visit schools for educational programs. Reaching out to a local native tribe is also a great way to build relationships with the community. 

Create a Virginia Studies Foldable

When teaching Virginia Studies, I am a big fan of using foldables. Foldables are a great tool for keeping students active during instruction and for helping them to organize information. There are several opportunities for using foldables when teaching American Indians of Virginia. For example, students can use foldables to organize information about American Indian language groups or to compare Virginia tribes that existed in the past and the present.
A foldable that shows the Native American language groups in Virginia, aligned with Virginia Studies SOL VS.2. Available here.

Locate American Indian Tribes on a Map

As part of VS.2g, students are expected to describe the lives of American Indians in Virginia today. Use this as an opportunity to have students work on map skills. Students can use a map to locate where tribes and reservations can be found. Using a tool such as Google Earth, students can get a bird’s eye view of the reservations. In some places, students can even zoom-in for an eye-level view. Students can also recreate their own maps to show where American Indians of Virginia are located today.


Teaching about Native Americans is one of my favorite Virginia Studies units because it is a chance to tell stories and make inferences about the people who first called Virginia home. There are so many ways to creatively teach VS.2 and these are just a few of many strategies you can use for engaging students while teaching American Indians of Virginia. If you are short on time and need help planning, check out my American Indians:Virginia Studies Unit and Virginia Studies Unit Bundle. The activities listed here and many more can be found in these resources.
Make sure to stop by Virginia is for Teachers again next month for more great Virginia Studies tips! In my next post, I will be sharing ways to teach a Virginia Studies unit about Jamestown.

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