Indian Tribes of California:
A project created by the students of the Lo-Inyo fourth grade class

At Lo-Inyo Elementary School in Lone Pine, Inyo County, fourth grade students are breaking the popular statewide tradition of doing “mission reports.” Many Lo-Inyo fourth graders in this rural district close to tribal communities are writing about California Natives instead.   

Lo-Inyo’s fourth-grade teacher, Dorothy Branson, is responsible for the children’s new look at California history.  Instead of assigning them each a mission, Branson gives her young students the choice of researching any California Native topic from 1769 through 1850, the period that most California missions were built.  Many of Branson’s fourth graders opt to write about the lives of native people, a task with which Branson helps the children by working closely with local tribes to share resources.

Over the years, locating historically accurate information on California Natives for fourth-grade students has been a challenge for Branson.  Luckily she has discovered the enthusiastic team at the Lone Pine Indian Education Center (LPIEC).  LPIEC staff has worked closely with Branson to cull materials on California Natives. Mary Jefferson, longtime LPIEC secretary who serves as the LPIEC librarian, has loaned Branson many of Lone Pine’s Native books and will have more for her this coming year.  Branson has also enjoyed the support of the Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone Indian Cultural Center, and Lo Lyness, the science technology coordinator of the Inyo County Department of Education.

Branson has long used dated films (Mission Life  [1946] and Had You Lived Then:  Life in a California Mission [1976] among others) to illustrate myths of the California Native experience during the California mission period.  In one film a young Indian boy is making bricks while the voice-over says how much Jose enjoys making adobe bricks.  In another film, the narrator explains that the Spanish padres took the land from the Indians because the Indians were not taking care of the land, and that the padres would give the land back when the Indians learned how to take care of it.  Letting the students come to their own conclusions about the films, Branson observes how her students discover that Jose wasn’t enjoying making bricks, that the Indians knew how to take care of the land, and that the Indians, not the iconic Father Serra, built the missions.

Gary Donnelly, executive director of the LPIEC, says he is “proud to be director of a program that works with a school district that has teachers…[who] bring these types of projects to the next level and educate students on all historical and cultural issues.”  Donnelly credits Branson for helping the Lone Pine Indian education program “expand resource materials at the school sites [so that] students of all ages learn about California Indians and…grow up with [out] myths.”  Donnelly also credits LPIEC librarian Mary Jefferson for the years she has devoted to acquiring material on California Natives to provide correct information about California Natives to the local schools. 

Native Californian website

The fourth-grade students’ reports have evolved into Lo-Inyo Elementary’s California Indian Project, a website that showcases both the scholastic temerity of the youngsters as well as the untold stories of California Natives.  Branson and Lyness developed the website to provide California Indian information to a wider audience.  Each student contributes at least one part of the project’s web content:  location, way of life, villages, culture, legacies the tribe left the state; and comparisons with other California tribes.  Each student researches a tribe - where they lived, what they ate, what shelter they built, their religious ceremonies, their travel, who they traded with, and their work divisions. The Chumash tribe is very popular with Lo-Inyo’s fourth-graders, and Chumash canoes are a popular with students for their mandatory art pieces.

As part of Branson’s innovative approach, tribal members often are guest speakers in her class.  The mother and grandmother of one of Branson’s students, Gregory, spoke to students writing about the Paiute.  “The Paiutes walked until horses came to Inyo County . They would walk to the other side of the Sierra Nevada ,” the mother and grandmother told the children.  As part of his report about the Paiutes, Gregory made a Paiute necklace and bracelet.  He also brought Paiute jewelry tools to class to share as part of his group’s report.

For more information about Lo-Inyo Elementary’s California Indian Project please contact Dorothy Branson, Lo-Inyo Elementary School, 223 East Locust St., Lone Pine, CA 93545 or email

For more information about the California State Library’s efforts in California’s tribal communities please contact Susan Hanks, tribal and rural library programs consultant, California State Library at 916-653-0661 or email

A Few Resources for California Indian History:

A Time of Resistance: California Indians During the Mission Period 1769-1848:  An Integrated Thematic Unit, (1997), Sarah Supahan.   “This unit tells one of many stories of Native Americans in what is now called California during the time known as the mission period.  It differs from most accounts of this era because it does not take the point of view of the Spanish missionaries, nor of the Mexican and Euro-American settlers who followed them.  It speaks in small measure of those Indian peoples whose voices are not often heard.  This is a history of how the Native Peoples of southern and central California resisted and survived.”

Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District: Indian Education Program

Oyate: Teaching Guides & Curricula

Short Overview of California Indian History. California Native American Heritage Commission

Early California History: Southern California before 1900.  University of California, Los Angeles – Cognitive Cultural Studies.  (Francis Steen; revised 8 October 2005)

“There has never been enough credit given to these early Americans who took such good care of our country when it was still in their care.  The time has come to realize tribal contributions to our society today and to give Native Americans not only the credit, but the respect due them.” (Mary Null Boule', California Native American Tribes: Coast Miwok Tribe. c1992.)




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