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Lesson Plan Lessons: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

THE BUFFALO WAR: A Clash of Cultures

Grade Level: 8-12
Subjects: Civics, American History (see modifications below), Government, Environmental Studies

Buffalo nickel - tails   Buffalo nickel - heads

"A people without history is like the wind on the buffalo grass."
- Sioux saying

Materials Needed
Extension Activities
Correlation to National Standards


Using the documentary "Buffalo War," students will discover how cultures living together often come into conflict because they may place different values and meaning on items they share such as nature and resources. The students will further explore ways in which conflict may be reduced by identifying the difference and similarities and seeking a way to build on the latter.

Estimated Time: In addition to watching "Buffalo War," the lesson and its activities will take 90 minutes, making it appropriate for a block schedule.

Lesson Objectives:

Students will
  • Identify the different values and meanings placed on the buffalo by the five cultures portrayed in the documentary;
  • Link the respective attitudes to the resultant treatment of the buffalo by the various cultures;
  • Explore commonalities that may exist between attitudes of the cultures;
  • Develop potential solutions to the conflict based on the commonalities.
Materials needed:

For American History teachers: You can stop the lesson short of the conflict resolution portion-step 5-for a complete lesson.

I. Distribute homemade buffalo nickels (made by photocopying the image). Ask the students to share what they might know about the coin (Have you ever seen one before?) In discussion with the students lead them to note how the designer of the coin choose to connect the image of an Indian with the buffalo recognizing the importance of the animal to Native American culture.

Information: The buffalo nickel, also known as the Indian head nickel, was minted in the United States between 1913 and 1938. James Earle Fraser (see the F near the date) designed the coin. He made his drawing of an Indian from a composite of three chiefs who posed for him. The bison he drew lived in the New York City Zoo.
II. Assign students to observe of the following five groups while watching THE BUFFALO WAR:
  • Beef cattle ranchers
  • Montana Department of Livestock
  • Native Americans
  • Federal officials
  • Activists
Instruct the students to take careful notes on the attitude of their group toward the buffalo. (Does your group value its life? See it as a source of food? As a danger? As a thing of beauty?)

III. Following the viewing, distribute the buffalo silhouettes. Instruct the students to fill them with several illustrations or symbols that depict their assigned viewpoint. On the back of the drawings they will write an explanation for why they chose the particular illustration or symbols, citing the portion of the film that lead them to make each choice. (Let the students use a visual dictionary for examples of drawings and symbols they may want to copy.)

IV. Place the students in groups of five, with each student representing a differing viewpoint. The students will then share their illustrated buffalo silhouettes and explain their choices of illustrations and symbols.

V. Next ask the students to identify common elements. (You might tell them, for instance, that for both the activists and the Lakota keeping the buffalo alive is paramount. Or, to give another example, you might show the students that the ranchers and the state and federal governments share a desire to keep the agricultural economy sound but differ on how to achieve that goal.)

VI. Then ask the students to craft a solution (public policy) that would draw on each of these common elements to solve the problem depicted in the documentary. The students should report their findings as either:

  • a letter addressed from the students to the five parties involved in the dispute.
  • a proposed treaty or agreement among the five parties.
  • a federal or state law governing the treatment of the buffalo.
  • The silhouettes may be assessed using a rubric developed by James A. Percoco for "Historical Heads."
  • Students may be assessed by their ability to identify several of the various perspectives shown in the video and illustrated by the drawings.
  • Have the students present their letters, treaties, agreements, or laws to the class and lead the class in a discussion evaluating the various proposals and looking for their common points.
  • Have the students combine into large groups, bringing with them their letters, treaties, agreements, and laws, and ask them to cull the best ideas into a proposal that they would support as a group. Repeat the process until the class as a single set of proposals.
Other Resources:

The following web sites may be of use to a teacher preparing a lesson on this topic:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service web page with information on the bison.
The web site of the bison field campaign.
A commercial web site with images and information concerning bison.
A commercial web site with images of Lakota Indians and bison.
A web site on Native Americans and the environment researched and produced by an anthropologist.
A 1,800 plus entry bibliography on Lakota Dakota at Creighton University.
Correlation to National Standards:
(This lesson addresses the following national content standards found at
  • Understands how values and beliefs in Native American origin stories explain other facets of Native American culture (e.g., migration, settlement, interactions with the environment)
  • Understands how diverse groups united during the civil rights movement (e.g., the escalation from civil disobedience to more radical protest, issues that led to the development of the Asian Civil Rights Movement and the Native American Civil Rights Movement, the issues and goals of the farm labor movement and La Raza Unida)
  • Understands the factors leading to the conservation movement of the late 19th century (e.g., how emphasis on staple crop production, strip mining, lumbering, ranching, and destruction of western buffalo herds led to massive environmental damage)
  • Understands that trouble-shooting almost anything may require many-step branching logic
  • Understands the effects of Americans relying on the legal system to solve social, economic, and political problems rather than using other means, such as private negotiations, mediation, and participation in the political process
Lesson Plan Author

James McGrath Morris is a member of the social studies department of West Springfield High School. He joined Fairfax County Public Schools in 1996 after a career in journalism and publishing. During his first year of teaching Morris was nominated for the Sallie Mae First Class Teacher Award. His work in American history has been published in Civilization, Journal of Policy History, Journal of Historical Studies, Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, New Mexico Historical Review, and Missouri Life, among other places. As an author or editor, Morris has published four books. He is currently at work on a biography of a turn-of-the-century New York journalist to be published by Fordham University Press.

Lessons: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

THE BUFFALO WAR Guides Resources The Film Talkback In Their Shoes The War The Buffalo The Story