Indian Lore is the study of the traditions, practices, and histories of American Indian tribes. Now, more than ever, we have a lot to learn by studying the wisdom of ancient Native American lifestyles, which makes the Indian Lore merit badge a great option for Scouts to earn! 🙂
Believe it or not, Scouting draws many inspirations from the cultures of American Indians. The BSA’s focus on sustainability and outdoor survival skills were things that many American Indian tribes excelled at. Additionally, The Order of the Arrow, Scouting’s highest national honor society, also uses American Indian symbolism in their teachings.
If you have Eagle-required merit badges to earn, you also should check out my Difficulty Ranking Guide to Every Eagle-required Badge. There, you’ll also find the links to my other merit badge guides, as well as a description and summary of each badge’s requirements. I’m certain this resource will be helpful to Scouts on their road to Eagle!
Also, remember that ScoutSmarts should just serve as your starting point for merit badge research. In school, we’re taught not to plagiarize, and the same is true for Scouting worksheets. Answer these questions in your own words, do further research, check out the included links, and I promise you’ll gain much more from every merit badge you earn!
In earning the Indian Lore merit badge, you’ll learn about the lifestyles of different American Indian tribes, at their peak. In addition, we’ll also be covering the rituals that some tribes held, as well as the modern-day developments that American Indians contributed to! By the time you earn this badge, I hope you’ll have learned a ton and developed a newfound respect for American Indian Culture!
First, closely read through each of the requirements below so you know what you’ll be learning, as well as what you’ll need to do. Thoroughly understanding your instructions, beforehand, is an important part of succeeding on your first try! After you know exactly what’s expected to complete for each requirement, follow along closely. Now, let’s dive into it!
What Are The Indian Lore Merit Badge Requirements?
- Identify the different American Indian cultural areas. Explain what makes them each unique.
- Give the history of one American Indian tribe, group, or nation that lives or has lived near you. Visit it, if possible. Tell about traditional dwellings, way of life, tribal government, religious beliefs, family and clan relationships, language, clothing styles, arts and crafts, food preparation, means of getting around, games, customs in warfare, where members of the group now live, and how they live.
- Do TWO of the following. Focus on a specific group or tribe.
3a. Make an item of clothing worn by members of the tribe.
3b. Make and decorate three items used by the tribe, as approved by your counselor.
3c. Make an authentic model of a dwelling used by an Indian tribe, group, or nation.
3d. Visit a museum to see Indian artifacts. Discuss them with your counselor. Identify at least ten artifacts by tribe or nation, their shape, size, and use.
- Do ONE of the following:
4a. Learn three games played by a group or tribe. Teach and lead one game with a Scout group.
4b. Learn and show how a tribe traditionally cooked or prepared food. Make three food items.
4c. Give a demonstration showing how a specific Indian group traditionally hunted, fished, or trapped.
- Do ONE of the following:
5a. Write or briefly describe how life might have been different for the European settlers if there had been no native Americans to meet them when they came to this continent.
5b. Sing two songs in an Indian language. Explain their meanings.
5c. Learn in an Indian language at least 25 common terms and their meanings.
5d. Show twenty-five signs in Indian sign language. Include those that will help you ask for water, for food, and where the path or road leads.
5e. Learn an Indian story of up to 300 words (or several shorter stories adding up to no more than 300 words). Tell the story or stories at a Scout gathering or campfire.
5f. Write or tell about eight things adopted by others from American Indians.
5g. Learn twenty-five Indian place-names. Tell their origins and meanings.
5h. Name five well-known American Indian leaders, either from the past or people of today. Give their tribes or nations. Describe what they did or do now that makes them notable.
5i. Attend a contemporary American Indian gathering. Discuss with your counselor what you learned and observed. Include in your discussion any singing, dancing, drumming, and the various men’s and women’s dance styles you saw.
Indian Lore Merit Badge Requirement 1:
1) Identify the different American Indian cultural areas. Explain what makes them each unique.
As you probably already realize, no American Indian tribe is the same. From region to region, tribes practice different rituals, hunt different game, and speak in different languages! It’d be difficult to classify each American Indian tribe on its own, so the 10 American Indian cultural areas are what scholars use to draw similarities between different American Indian peoples!
In the section below, I’ll be breaking down all 10 of the American Indian cultural areas and filling you in on what makes each one unique. First though, I’d highly recommend watching the informative video (8:54) below to get a visual understanding of the regions, and learn about the 8 primary cultural areas within the continental United States.
By now you should understand that the lifestyles and practices of different American Indian tribes are heavily influenced by their location. In colder regions like the Northwest Coast, Eastern Woodlands, and Plateaus, tribes needed to collect warm furs to survive the harsh winters. In warmer regions like the Southeast, finding warm shelter was less of a concern.
Below, I’ll be filling you in on the most notable aspects of each American Indian cultural area (Source: Encyclopedia Brittanica and native-american-indian-facts.com). Of course, there’s so much more you could learn, so I’d highly recommend doing further research on the regions that most interest you! You might also want to take notes so you can share what you’ve learned with your merit badge counselor later on. 😉
Northwest American Indian Tribes
Bounded by the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains in present-day Oregon, the most famous Northwest tribes are the Tillamook, Chinook, Tlingit, and the Coast Salish Indians. Below are some unique facts about the Northwest American Indian tribes:
- The Northwest Indian tribes had plenty of food sources. While most of their meat came from fishing, they also hunted deer, moose, and elk for food and skins.
- Northwest tribes are best known for their creation of gigantic carved wooden totem poles and canoes. Their totem poles were used to record stories and legends, as these tribes had no written language.
- The two most important resources for the Northwest American Indian peoples were cedar and salmon.
- Northwestern Indians lived in large, sturdy wooden homes with no windows.
- The Northwest American Indian tribes had the densest populations along the Pacific coast.
Great Basin American Indian Tribes
Centered in the deserts of present-day Nevada, the Great Basin American Indian tribes include the Shoshone, Goshute, Ute, Paiute, and the Washoe. Below are some unique facts about the Great Basin American Indian tribes:
- Great Basin American Indians mainly ate seeds, nuts, and small game like rabbits and birds.
- Local populations were often sparse and scattered. Because of this, in some tribes, a woman would sometimes marry a set of brothers.
- Most Great Basin tribes participated in dances, with their Sun Dance serving as a primary 4-day religious festival used to symbolize harmony and rebirth.
- Great Basin Tribes were skilled in building wigwams, nets, baskets, and other brush weaving-based tools.
Plateau American Indian Tribes
Centered between present-day Washington, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia, the Plateau American Indians include the Kutenai, Palus, Cayuse, Coeur D’Alene, Flathead, Kalispel, and Nez Perce tribes. Below are some unique facts about the Plateau American Indian tribes:
- Hunting and weaponry were essential to these tribes survival. In many tribes, Plateau Indians spent half their year hunting and fishing in the plateau woodlands and the other half riding horses down into the Great Plains to hunt buffalo.
- Plateau Indians readily adopted new technologies such as the teepees and horses from Plains Indians. They also created artistic bone knives and baskets which we still marvel at, today.
- Spirit quests, where young people were left on a mountain top for 5 days without food or water, were done by the Plateau Indians to produce spiritual visions.
- Although serving separate daily duties, men and women were considered equals. Women often served on village councils and voiced their opinions.
Southwest American Indian Tribes
Located in present-day Arizona and New Mexico, American Indians of the Southwest include the Yuman, Pima, Tohono O’odham, Pueblo, Hopi, Navajo, and Apache tribes. Below are some unique facts about the Plateau American Indian tribes:
- Many Southwest tribes built permanent homes of adobe and stone (Google “Pueblo Dwellings,” They’re so awesome!). 🙂
- Most Southwest tribes used agriculture to grow food, as hunting game was often an unreliable food source. Their main crops included: corn, beans, squash, and cotton.
- More than 20% of North America’s Native American population currently resides in the Southwest region of Indian reservations.
- Southwest American Indians are renowned for their fine textiles, Kachina dolls, and turquoise jewelry.
- There were likely more battles fought between the Indians of the Southwest and the U.S. government than in any other region.
Plains American Indian Tribes
Located on the massive stretch of land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains American Indians included the Blackfoot, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Sioux, and Plains tribes. Below are some unique facts about the Plains American Indian tribes:
- Most archetypal Indians in popular culture are Plains Indians, especially those that are shown wearing headdresses and riding horses.
- The Plains Indians were the last indigenous group to resist American colonialism.
- Plains Indians mainly survived by hunting buffalo. They made sure to use every part of the animal.
- Teepees were the main shelter of Plains Indian tribes and could be transported. This allowed most Plains Indian tribes to lead nomadic lifestyles where they followed their food sources.
Northeast American Indian Tribes
Also called the Eastern Woodlands in the earlier video, the Northeast American Indians include the Algonquian, Iroquois, Susquehannock, Mohican, and Huron tribes. These tribes are located in the area stretching from present-day New England to Wisconsin and Illinois. Below are some unique facts about the Northeast American Indian tribes:
- The Northeastern American Indians are known for the introduction of “three sisters” agriculture that encouraged the co-planting of squash, corn, and bean.
- The Northeast Indians were also the originators of the Iroquois League, an inter-tribal alliance that was the largest and most notable of its kind.
- Wigwams and longhouses were the most common shelters used by the Indians living in this region.
- Pocahontas and Squanto, two of the most recognized American Indians of all time, both came from Northeast tribes.
- Northeast American Indians were the first ones to encounter English pilgrims. They used small beads made from quahog shells, called wampum, to facilitate trade.
Southeast American Indian Tribes
Located in the territory below Virginia, to Florida, and stretching westward to Louisiana, the Southeast American Indians include the Muskogee, Sioux, Caddo, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Apalachee, Creek, Seminole, and Mikasuki tribes. Below are some unique facts about the Southeast American Indian tribes:
- The Southeast region was one of the most densely populated regions of Native Americans when the Europeans came to the New World.
- Southeastern Indians were great farmers and known for the cultivation of corn and sunflowers. They also used 3 sisters farming.
- Southeastern Indian tribes liked to wear bright colors, when possible. During the fall, they’d hold the Green Corn Festival as a time for celebration and giving thanks.
- Within Southeast tribes, there was social stratification, with elites and commoners. Most commoners lived in permanent towns along waterways and would farm.
California American Indian Tribes
Located in the present-day state of California and northern Mexico, the California region is home to American Indians such as the Mojave, Quechan, Hupa, Yurok, and the Chumash tribes. Below are some unique facts about the California American Indian tribes:
- California Indians are unique in that they mostly avoided larger tribal organization. Instead, they remained organized into smaller groups called tribelets that were politically independent.
- The geography in the California region is incredibly diverse, so the American Indian tribes in this region lived in grasslands, forests, coasts, deserts, mountains, wetlands, and plains.
- Tribes in the California region were mostly hunter-gatherers, with agriculture only being practiced in a few areas along the Colorado River. Acorns were one of their primary food sources.
- The California peoples were known for their basketry, ritualized trade ceremonies, and religions (Kuksu and Toloache).
Arctic Indian Tribes
Arctic Indians lived in the northernmost parts of present-day Canada. There, the ground is relatively flat and the climate is extremely frigid and inhospitable. A few Arctic American Indian tribes include the Inuits, Yupiks, and Aleuts (The Inuits and Yupiks are also called Eskimos). Below are some unique facts about the Arctic Indian tribes:
- Arctic Indians are nomadic hunters and fishers known for using dogsleds as transport. Canoes and open fishing boats were also often used.
- On the coasts, most Arctic People’s diets consisted of seals, fish, whales, and other sea creatures.
- Arctic Indians people often built igloos, houses made of packed snow, to sleep in. However, some also built homes from hides and whale bones.
- In the summers, herds of caribou migrated into Arctic Indian territory and vegetation grew. However, winters were often harsh for the Arctic Indian peoples.
- Today, many Alaskan Arctic Indians prefer to be called Native Alaskans rather than Native Americans. Canada’s Arctic peoples generally prefer being called Inuits.
Subarctic American Indian Tribes
Located in most of present-day Alaska and Canada, the Indians of the Subarctic include the Innu, Cree, Objiwa, Chipewyan, Beaver, Slave, and Kasha tribes. Below are some unique facts about the Subarctic Indian tribes:
- The Indians of this region are known for their participation in the fur trade. They hunted moose, caribou, beavers, waterfowl, and fish.
- In winter, Subarctic Indians often lived in underground shelters to conserve heat. In summer, they used lean-tos and tents.
- The Subarctic Indians are known for their snowshoes, toboggans, leatherwork, and fur clothing.
- To show respect for the animals they hunted, the Subarctic Indians created masks and charms in the animal’s likeness. They also made sure that no animal parts went to waste.
Man, that took a long time to research and write! Now that you’ve gotten a brief overview of the 10 American Indian cultural areas, watch the quick video (5:41) below to see for yourself how these regions differ. Try to consider how the climates of each region shaped the lifestyles and dress of the American Indians living there.
It’s amazing how diverse “Native Americans” were, and I think it’s crazy how people often lump them together in one big group! By now, you should practically be an expert in American Indian cultural regions. In the next section, we’ll be taking a deep-dive into the history of one of the largest and most well-known Indian tribes of all time: The Cherokees! 🙂
Congrats on learning all that! I’d suggest taking a breather and getting a snack before starting on requirement 2. Once you’re finished, we’ll be getting into a ton of interesting details about the history, culture, and lifestyle of the Cherokee Indians!
Indian Lore Merit Badge Requirement 2:
2) Give the history of one American Indian tribe, group, or nation that lives or has lived near you. Visit it, if possible. Tell about traditional dwellings, way of life, tribal government, religious beliefs, family and clan relationships, language, clothing styles, arts and crafts, food preparation, means of getting around, games, customs in warfare, where members of the group now live, and how they live.
The best way to complete this requirement is by actually visiting an American Indian tribe, in person. Nothing can compare to meeting the tribe historians face-to-face and learning from them the nuances of their culture! However, keep in mind that while some Indian reservations are equipped to welcome visitors, others aren’t.
To find a reservation that welcomes tourists, I’d recommend searching online for “American Indian museums near me.” In many cases, these museums are built on reservation land and have interesting guided programs that dive into interesting aspects of the tribe’s culture.
One American Indian tribe that might be especially interesting for you to study is the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokees are a tribe of American Indians that once inhabited a vast area of land that includes present-day Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Kentucky. If you live on the East Coast, chances are there were Cherokees in your area long ago!
The History Of The Cherokees
Below, I’ve written a brief overview of different Cherokee cultural practices to help get you started with your research. If you’re looking into another tribe though, I’d suggest you still read my description of the Cherokees. Comparing how different tribes lived will really further your appreciation and understanding of Indian Lore!
Historically, Cherokee Indians lived in open-roofed dwellings during warm Southern summers and thatched huts in the winter. These permanent dwellings were constructed out of poplar bark, woven saplings, and mud. Often, these homes did not have windows, but contained a hole in their center to allow the smoke out.
The types of dwellings the Cherokee used are called “wattle and daub houses.” To the Cherokee, these are known as Asi. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a typical Cherokee village consisted of anywhere between 30-60 dwellings that housed around 200 tribal members.
If you’d like to see some pictures of traditional Cherokee dwellings, I’d recommend quickly skipping through the video (5::43) below. Or, you could watch the whole thing if you’re especially interested 🙂 (it’s pretty informative)!
Way of Life
Unlike the nomadic Plains Indians, the Cherokee Indians lived in permanent villages throughout the year. To survive, most Cherokee members farmed (mainly corn, squash, and beans), hunted, or foraged for their food.
Additionally, the Cherokees had a rich religious culture with many special ceremonies. Most notable among these was the Cherokee Green Corn ceremony, which was also practiced by other native American tribes and thought to usher in a bountiful harvest season.
A central Cherokee belief is that our world and the world of spirits are connected. Through celebration, dance, and ritualistic chanting, it’s believed that the Cherokee people can gain the aid of these spirits.
Thus, the most important religious ceremonies of the Cherokee Nation revolved around the new moon and corn harvests. However, they also had many religious rituals related to warfare and marriage.
Family and Clan Relationships
Cherokee families were organized into matrilineal clans and women were considered the heads of the households. This means that any children born would belong to their mother’s clan and take on her animal symbol (sort of like a last name), and live more closely to her side of the family. Additionally, instead of the father, it would be the responsibility of the mother’s male blood-relatives to teach the child.
Two members of a Cherokee clan are considered brother and sister. Therefore, although they might not necessarily be related by blood, no Cherokees from the same clan could marry. Members of a clan could marry into any other clan than the clan of their father. If a Cherokee couple were to split up, the woman would keep the children and possessions (Source: Matrilineal Society Video)
The language of the Cherokee people is known as Tsalagi Gawonihisdi. Unlike English, Tsalagi Gawonihisdi is polysynthetic, meaning that one word in their language can express an entire sentence in ours. However, this makes Tsalagi Gawonihisdi extremely difficult for westerners to learn.
While Tsalagi Gawonihisdi was once widely spoken amongst Cherokees, in 2019 it was reported that only 2100 of the 376,000 tribal members can fluently speak it today.
Cherokee men and women both dressed in deerskin, with the men wearing buckskin breeches and the women wearing skirts. For footwear, both male and female Cherokee wore moccasins (soft shoes made of leather). Cherokee clothing often contained bright colors and zig-zag patterns.
During ceremonies, Cherokees would wear honorary robes and headdresses, resembling those seen in American Indian popular culture today (In fact, they’re quite similar to the headdresses used by the BSA Order of the Arrow). While Cherokee men, mainly warriors, traditionally sported piercings and tattoos, Cherokee women did not.
Arts and Crafts
The Cherokee Indians are reknown for their basket weaving, mask crafting, stone carving, gourd art, bead making, and pottery skills. On these mediums, Cherokee artisans crafted beautiful, intricate patterns that were used to tell stories or represent spirits. Today, Cherokee art is still widely appreciated and sought-after.
Cherokee Indians traditionally cooked their food in one-pot stews over an open fire, or by burying them in coals. Common Cherokee foods include squash, corn, beans, fish, and venison. These ingredients could be used to make cornbreads, preserved foods, or nourishing stews.
In spite of their reliable hunting and farming methods, Cherokees were also very resourceful and would eat a variety of naturally-growing foods. During summers when vegetation was abundant, Cherokee Indians would collect wild plants like chestnuts, berries, and crabapples. During winters, they hunted large game for food and furs.
Cherokee Indians often rode horses after acquiring them from European settlers. Before that though, Cherokees often traveled either on foot through forest trails, or by canoes along rivers. These canoes were often made from birch tree trunks that had been hollowed out using hot coals.
Before settlers arrived, the Cherokees also used dogs to transport supplies. The dogs were made to pull a sled-type thing called a travois. This basically consisted of two crossed poles with a net in between them which was used to hold supplies. the bottoms of the poles would be dragged along the ground.
The Cherokee play a wide variety of games, but historically, the two most popular Cherokee games were stick ball and basket dice. Stick ball is similar to lacrosse, where each team’s objective is to knock a ball into a goal. However, stick ball players use 2 netted sticks instead of 1! In traditional Cherokee culture, the game of stick ball had religious significance.
Basket dice was a common American Indian game, with different variations played throughout the east coast. Like stick ball, basket dice was also a game connected to Cherokee religion. Basically, players would test their luck by casting a number of 2-sided dice. They would then take point counters based on number of white or black sides of the dice that showed.
Ancient Cherokee hunters were also fond of games related to hunting such as archery competitions, blowgun shooting, and javelin throwing. Today, their descendants play the very same games! Check out the video (2:46) below to see some of these Cherokee games in action.
Customs in Warfare
Cherokee Indians used a variety of weapons including clubs, tomahawks, bows and arrows, knives, battle hammers, and axes. Their culture taught them fighting skills at an early age, and inter-tribal warfare was common. When heading into battle, Cherokee warriors would wear strips of otter skin to designate themselves as fighters on the field.
Like many other American Indian tribes, the Cherokee fought bravely to resist European overexpansion into their territory. Following the Cherokee-American wars, the Cherokees were one of the main tribes forcibly relocated west of the Mississippi River between 1830 and 1850. This removal of American Indians later became infamously known as the Trail of Tears.
Today, the Cherokee Nation is the largest federally-recognized tribe in the United States with over 300,000 members. Many Cherokees still have strong ties to their heritage, and put in the effort to share it with others.
Hopefully, this section gave you a new appreciation for Cherokee culture! Regardless of what American Indian tribe you decide to research, I’d encourage you to do so with respect and appreciation. As you’ll learn in the later requirements, many helpful types of American Indian knowledge were adopted by settlers and are used to this day!
Congrats on Finishing Part 1 of the Indian Lore Merit Badge!
Wow, we just made it halfway through this entire badge! Great work 🙂. Learning about other cultures is always interesting, but be sure to remember the importance of being humble and respectful. I hope you enjoyed learning about American Indian Lore as much as I did!
Also, if you’re interested in the difficulty rankings for every Eagle-required merit badge, you can check out my full guide here. PS: The article also links to my ultimate badge guides that’ll help you to answer your merit badge worksheets!
Once you’re ready to continue on to part 2 of the Indian Lore merit badge (Requirements 3-5) Click here!