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Behind Design: Exploring American Indian Cultures Through Artifact Investigation

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Language Arts And English +3 Age Levels Primary (5 to 8 years old), Elementary (9 to 12 years old), Middle School (13 to 15 years old), High School (16 to 18 years old)


How might we learn about cultures through the study of artifacts? What role could the study of design elements and process play in in deepening our understanding? How could we leverage student agency of the design process to gain opportunities to recognize relationships between artifacts and culture.

This collection provides opportunities for students to uncover complexity by looking closely and making connections between cultures and the design process behind the artifacts. Student claims are based on evidence using provided resources for investigation. The Artifact Investigation Map serves as a visible thinking tool for documenting our understanding of a culture by making connections between the artifact and our research.


Begin by looking closely at an artifact, Lone Dog Winter Count, using a Project Zero Routine, See, Think, Wonder. Through close examination, we begin to develop hypotheses about the object and the connections to the culture. While a main goal is to learn more about the culture related to the artifact, we are also building a capacity for using this thinking process to build understanding. Record and display class ideas generated through this routine. In the discussion of culture, we are looking at how people live: What do the people value? What are their priorities and motivations?

Introduce the points of The Artifact Investigation Map. Ask students, “How could this be used to organize the ideas documented from the thinking routine about the artifact and the people who created it?”. (Students may recognize this as the Engineering Design Process.) Building on our initial See, Think, Wonder documentation, the group connects the artifact ideas to the map points. Different questions within each point may serve as prompts to continue making connections and lead to more questions about what we still wonder, guiding the next research steps. Provide a space to record and share new questions during the process.

Begin the research process with the first video Lakota Winter Counts. Using information from the source, model the process of organizing the findings using the different points on The Artifact Investigation Map. Be sure to highlight unanswered questions in the map as the class decides the future steps in the research. Support the student use of resource-based evidence starting from this Learning Lab collection when making and documenting claims. Depending on the learners, this phase may vary in the structure of guidance and interaction. Documentation is shared with an emphasis on providing opportunities to discuss the claims, findings, and analysis.

Guiding Points for Inquiry using The Artifact Investigation Map:

Ask: What needs or problems might this artifact address/solve? Does this design reflect empathy for a particular group or person?

Imagine: What possible prototypes or variations might have been produced in the timeline of this artifact? Could there have been earlier versions leading to this one?  

Plan: Identify and describe what could have been key factors influencing design process. Examples: materials/natural resources, people power, skills, technology/tools, historical and natural environment….

(Re)Create: Describe the possible steps taken to create the artifact. What could this look like? Options include for this exploration: Try to create a mini-version or reenact one of the steps of the process. Use observations of the process to draw possible conclusions about the culture. Sketch or act out the steps. Take a part of the process and use the Step Inside thinking routine. *Document and share this process with the group in order to prepare for the next phase of The Artifact Investigation Map

Improvements: Since the creation of this artifact, what versions do we see today? What would the biography of this type of innovation look like? How might this type of artifact connect to modern innovation? *Extension for Improvements: Use the thinking routine Imagine If to evaluate a modern iteration of the artifact. How does it compare to the original?

Documenting Ongoing Conclusions/Questions/Reflections

Throughout the investigation, students share and post supported claims about the culture and reflect upon the process of using the design cycle to guide the study.

For the final reflection, use the thinking routine I Used to Think, Now I Think… to look for changes in thinking. Keep the process and research lines of thinking open for continued exploration with the unanswered questions.


Lakota Lone Dog Winter Count

Credit: Lone Dog Winter Count, National Museum of the American Indian, Cultural Resource Center, Catalog # 21/8701.

Organization Slide

Erik Lindemann

See/Think/Wonder: Project Zero Visible Thinking Routine

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access

Lakota Winter Counts

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

The Artifact Investigation Map

Andrea Croft & Erik Lindemann

Imagine If…: Project Zero Agency by Design Thinking Routine

Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access

Resources Arrow

Erik Lindemann

The Flame winter count, 1887

National Anthropological Archives

1833-1834 The Year the Stars Fell

Smithsonian Institution National Anthropological Archives

Leather Quiver and Arrows

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Quilt: Star Quilt

National Museum of the American Indian

The Story of the Morning Star

National Museum of the American Indian, Office of Education

Kutenai Indian woman with cradle board on back

National Anthropological Archives

Child in cradleboard

National Anthropological Archives

Chippewa woman with baby in cradleboard

National Anthropological Archives


NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Woman Holding Child Cradleboard 1893

National Anthropological Archives

A Baby, [photomechanical print]

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Studio Portrait of a Toddler Girl Sitting in a Stroller

National Museum of African American History and Culture