Interactions of Cultures: Reading a Basket 

Name/School: Gretchen Hovan, St. Peter's Preparatory School (Jersey City, NJ)
Topic: Culture of the turn of the century (1900) and the beginnings of Progressivism
Lesson: Interactions of cultures (Reading a basket)
Grade Level: 12th


I designed this lesson as a companion to the lesson on Indian schools at the turn of the century and as a series of lessons to start the school year. The U.S. history program at St. Peter’s Prep is divided into two years. Starting the year with a seemingly familiar topic, Native Americans, will hopefully provide a comfortable place for challenging the students perceptions about history and the “story” of history. These lessons have many tasks:

  • to help students think like historians, specifically through the use of objects
  • to introduce the culture at the turn of the century
  • to introduce our theme for the year:  reform and reaction, with a special concentration on “How does society effect the individual?” and “How does the individual effect society?”

A basket may seem a humble object in which to stuff so many objectives, but I think that it is actually well-suited to the task. The baskets pictured here, and the additional readings, help students to see the layering of meanings in objects. The baskets that Native Americans made at the turn of the century were often created for sale at tourist destinations. As the Industrial Revolution hit its stride, people wanted to return to seemingly purer and simpler times (Colonial revival, Arts and Crafts movement). While racism grew under the quasi-respectable guise of Nativism, Native American products were still acceptable because east coast people believed they had conquered the Native Americans (who, as everyone “knew”, were only found now in the west). The baskets and the readings reveal these not-so subtle prejudices and misconceptions. They reveal the turn of the century desire to reshape and reform the world they had conquered. 

The companion lesson, on Indian schools, shows these sentiments at another level—the desire to “help” the Native Americans by completely obliterating their culture.  This will allow us to further explore the sentiments behind Progessivism and to begin to really define and apply our theme for the year.

Time: 2 and 1/2 class periods


Day 1:

Day 2

  1. Pictures of ash splint basket and sweet grass/raffia baskets from Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (see end of document), possible model of modern day splint baskets
  2. Readings from:  Phillips, Ruth B. Trading Identities.  Seattle, WA:  University of Washington Press, 1998 (including flyer for baskets) and picture of modern “Indian” handicraft stand (from “Mohawk trail”)
  3. Readings from Waugh, F.W.  Iroquis Foods and Food Preparation.  Ottawa:  Ottawa Government Printing Bureau, 1916 (Facsimile edition in 1973 by national Museums of Canada, National Museum of Man) and summary of Ted Brasser’s 1975 hypothesis about basket making
  4. Reading from James, George Wharton.  How to Make an Indian Basket.  New York:  Henry Malkan, 1903.

Day 3

  • chalkboard or overhead projector and transparencies


  • Concepts: Students will be able to apply knowledge to understand objects and what they can reveal about history. Students will begin to explore the themes of the year and to discern the myriad meanings the themes carry. 
  • Content: Students will be able to assess the effects of handicrafts on American Indian and “American” cultures and relationships. Students will begin to define attitudes of turn of the century America.
  • Skills: Students will be able to apply previous learning to new settings (“reading” objects), analyze and interpret sources, synthesize information from multiple sources in order to form hypotheses about objects.


Day 1:

  • After the initial “opening day” business (passing out syllabi, welcoming students), students will be asked to examine two objects from faculty members and read the brief statements (provided by faculty members) about what the objects are/mean to them.  Students will then each say one concrete descriptor of either object, and then (on the second go-around), begin to discuss what they can (and cannot) discern about the person who owns the object.  Teacher will then introduce the concept of studying objects to learn about the past.
  • In small groups, students will then practice using the basket worksheet to talk about their modern baskets.  The teacher should be helping the students to talk about the basket’s purpose, what they can tell about the crafting of the basket and what these things say about the society that created and used the basket.
  • In a large discussion, the groups should present their findings for the possible meanings and support them with information about the baskets.
  • Teacher will then introduce the work for the next few days and assign reading from text on the culture of the 1890s and the problems that spurred the Progressive movement.

Day 2

  • Teacher will introduce the 1880s and 90s and brainstorm with the students about the changes that led to this time (Civil War, Reconstruction, Industrial Revolution, Urbanization).  The teacher should also help the students contextualize the Nativist movements (as discussed in reading).
  • Teacher should remind the students of the work with objects they began and introduce today’s activity, which will look more closely at two kinds of baskets and at other primary and secondary sources that help explain the puzzle. 
  • Four stations should be set up and students will be divided into four groups. Students will be instructed to move to each station and to look carefully at the sources provided and to see how they can help complete their picture of this time period and of the meaning of the baskets.
  • Students should be given equal time for each station. As the students work, the teacher will be circulating among the groups and asking divergent questions to help the students to probe the sources more deeply and to connect the information to what they already have learned about the period. The teacher should also help the students to think carefully about what they can and cannot learn from these sources (reminding students of the first day’s activities).
  • At the end, students will be asked to synthesize what they have learned from the stations about American Indian and “American” cultures and relationships into cohesive statements about the climate and culture of the 1890s-early 1900s.  Students should include their supporting documents or observations for their statements. They may include information from their text. Students should also be asked to form theses for how these sentiments relate to the Progressive movement, as they know it so far (students should be asked to re-evaluate these statements as they study the movement further. Students could be given remaining class time to work on this, but it needs to be finished for the next class time (depending on the students, the teacher may wish to create guided questions to help the students in this phase of the work. 

Day 3

  • At the beginning of the next class, students will create a large chart on the board (or overhead) of what they learned about the makers of the baskets, the users of the baskets and what the basket can tell them about society and cultural changes at the turn of the 20th century
  • From this point, the teacher will introduce the theme for the year and ask students to consider how this relates to the work that has been done so far (How are the baskets reform or reaction?  What do they think the Progressive movement is reforming?)


Students will be given class time to add any new thoughts to the writing they produced in step number 9, and this work will be collected by the teacher to be evaluated.  The teacher may wish to use a rubric to evaluate in class work time, as well.
Extension Possibilities/Interdisciplinary Connections:
This lesson could connect to the lesson on Indian schools, to the changes in the Suffrage movement at this time (introduction of Nativist arguments), and to the Settlement house movement (or other early Progressive movements).

This would be a great connection point for an art class, especially if the students could be given the chance to learn weaving techniques.
Tips and reflections from the author:
For this lesson, I had a difficult time finding documents that revealed the Native American perspective.  Ideally, one of the stations would have included primary sources from Native Americans about the role of the basket, the process of making baskets or their reactions to the movements that created the demand for the baskets.  If teachers can find these sources, they would be a great addition to this lesson.


Photographs courtesy of the Pocumtuck Memorial Valley Association in Deerfield, MA:

This photograph above is of an ash-splint basket made between 1820-1840, painted with “spanish brown”; similar in style to baskets made and sold by Native Americans in the 1880s-90s in Massachusetts and other New England tourist destinations.

The photograph above is of sweet grass and raffia baskets made by the Pocumtuck Basket Makers (part of the Arts and Crafts movement) in the 1900s, after the style of Native American baskets.

History/Social Science Curriculum Frameworks Learning Standards addressed:

NCSS Standards:
1. Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity.
5. Individuals, Groups and Institutions:  Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of interactions among individuals, groups, and institutions.

New Jersey Standards:
6.3  All students will acquire historical understanding of political and diplomatic ideas, forces, and institutions throughout the history of New Jersey, the United States, and the world.
6.4  All students will acquire historical understanding of societal ideas and forces throughout the history of New Jersey, the United States, and the world.
6.5  All students will acquire historical understanding of varying cultures throughout the history of New Jersey, the United States, and the world.