Resources Details

Travel by Travois

This is a multi-part activity on environments that encourages students to think about ways in which humans adapt to their surroundings. Students discuss how to limit which items to take during travel, similar to problem-solving decisions made for centuries by nomadic tribes. Students use visual arts to make and decorate a small container patterned after Native American rawhide bags.

Key Concepts

Life Sciences, Ecosystems, Human Adaptation


Multicultural Classroom Activities  View All »


50 minutes


K-2, 3-5


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Life Science

Resource Type

Extended Lesson Plan


Word DOC



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Many Native American tribes lived as nomads for centuries, moving frequently to fully utilize their environments. Those on the Great Plains of the United States traveled regularly to follow food sources or avoid human enemies and adverse weather. Before these tribes acquired horses, they often trained dogs to pull sleds called travois for moving the camp to a new location. To make a travois, they used two 7- to 8-foot-long poles tied together at the top, with a cross piece placed about half way down to form a large A-shape. The cross piece carried the owner's possessions during the move. Household items, which were made using local resources, needed to be portable and lightweight. Tribes lived in leather tipis that were easily dismantled and moved. They also utilized rawhide bags and trunks for both storage and transport. Rawhide comes from the leather hides of animals like buffalo, elk, and deer that are first stretched on the ground. Scrapers remove the hair, meat, and fat from the leather, which then is tanned using the brains from animals. The rawhide can be formed and dried into the desired container shape. Leather cords tied the resulting container together. Native containers made from leather often are called parfleche bags or cases ("parfleche" refers to treated and dried leather). Native artists sometimes adorned the containers with plant-dye patterns and other decorative materials.

Native Americans adapted to their often-harsh surroundings by understanding and utilizing the plants, animals, and landscapes of their local environment. Everything that surrounds an organism makes up that organism's environment and includes both living and non-living objects. Organisms respond to environmental conditions by adapting to those conditions and sometimes changing those environmental conditions. For example, native people might migrate to new environments in response to seasonal food shortages, like those tribes following the buffalo herds. More recent examples of human-environment interactions include those populations who have polluted or otherwise altered their environments during mining or petroleum-drilling activities. An ecosystem is a community of organisms and its interaction with its environment. Ecosystem samples are the deserts of the U.S. Southwest, the rain forests of Central and South America, the Arctic and the Antarctic, Florida swamps, and the prairies of central North America. The number of organisms supported by a specific ecosystem depends on the available water, food, and shelter resources -- living beings can exist only in environments that meet their basic needs.


The purpose of this activity is to give students an introductory understanding of environments and the ways in which humans adapt to those environments. Students discuss the problems of choosing which items to take during travel (akin to native migration). They construct and decorate a container similar to those used by nomadic Native Americans while moving camps. They also learn that Native Americans used materials found naturally in the environment in order to survive.


Carol Bird
Cultural Consultant - Blackfeet

My name is Carol Bird and I am an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe. I have lived on the reservation in Browning, Montana for 52 years. In the past 28 years I have been working in the field of education on the reservation. The past 15 years I have worked as a pre-school teacher at the Blackfeet Head Start Program. I shall graduate in December 2002 from Montana State University with a Bachelor of Science degree.


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Learner Outcomes

  • Understand and discuss in basic terms the concepts of “environment” and “ecosystem.”
  • Realize that environments contain many types of objects, both living and non-living, thus creating great diversity among the Earth’s ecosystems.
  • Recognize that organisms living within a particular environment interact with various factors within that environment, sometimes changing to adapt, sometimes causing the environment to change.
  • Appreciate that Native Americans learned to adapt to their respective environments, sometimes through migration, and that they utilized natural resources found in those environments.

Content Standards

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  • Sheets (8½ x 11) of printer paper or construction paper (one/student)
  • Staplers or tape
  • Rulers
  • Scissors
  • Markers/colored pencils/crayons
  • Single-hole punches
  • Yarn or twine

Lesson Procedures

  • Lead students in a large-group discussion. Talk about the things they have in their home that they feel they could not do without. Make a list of the items.
  • Challenge the class with a what-if scenario -- what if they are moving to another state and they can only take what they can fit on top of their desks?
  • Divide students into groups of four; have groups decide which items from the class items list they would choose to move across the state.
  • Reunite the entire class and discuss the items that groups chose to take on their trip. Ask students how they would pack the items to fit onto their desks. Ask students how they think Native Americans moved their camps from place to place. Introduce parfleche bags as native-made storage containers and the use of travois carriers.
  • Distribute a sheet of paper to each student, to use as the basis for a miniature parfleche trunk.
    1. Have students use rulers to mark 2½ inches from each side of the paper. Fold the paper on the two lines and then open the paper sheet. The results should look like the following:
    2. Have students fold their paper in half, across the shorter width of the paper. Open the paper and fold the top edge down to meet the center fold. Fold up the bottom edge to meet the center fold. Results should look like the following:
    3. Instruct students to cut slits as indicated by the red lines on the following:
    4. Have students draw designs on the back side of the paper (Note that the top-tier three squares on the folded paper will form the top of the box. Showing students a pre-made box will help them decorate their own boxes.)
    5. Fold section A onto section C. Fold Section B to meet the combined section. Do the same on the other side so that you have an open topped box. Staple the sides together.
    6. Punch holes in the sides of the box and thread yarn through the holes to tie the sides together.


  • Many Native Americans were nomadic people who frequently moved their homes and other belongings across great distances.
  • Native Americans used natural resources to create their everyday household items.
  • Any particular environment can contain many different types of objects, both living and non-living.


  • Participation in classroom discussion
  • Participation in group item-list activity
  • Individual parfleche bag activity


  • Make a miniature travois to carry your parfleche bag.
  • Ask your parents how they decide which items to take on a trip.
  • Look in magazines or on the Internet for pictures of people moving their belongings.
  • Think of examples of local ecosystems/environments and make lists of the living and non-living objects in those places.