Native American Mathematics Integrative Lesson for Mathematics for Elementary School Teachers or a Liberal Studies Mathematics Courses

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Native American Mathematics Integrative Lesson for Mathematics for Elementary School Teachers or

a Liberal Studies Mathematics Courses


Native American Numeration (Lesson 3)


  • Wheeler, R. & Wheeler, E. (2003) “Modern Mathematics”, pages 127-146

  • Musser, G., Burger, W. & Peterson, B. (2003) “Mathematics for Elementary Teachers”, pages 51-61

  • Smith, K. (2004), “The Nature of Mathematics”, pages 102-110


50 minutes


1. ways of expressing numerals

2. counting systems

3. basis

Students who complete this lesson will be able to:
1. describe the uses of gesture counting.

2. appreciate the need for alternative methods of number representation in Native American (and other) cultures.

3. present the Plains Indian counting gestures for counting 1 to 10.

4. use the Salish name for the number while gesture counting from 1 to 10 (optional)

5. suggest the relationship between the real world objects and number names and basis.

6. investigate other cultures’ gesture counting systems and the development such cultural-based systems.

An example of a point of integration is clearly given in Wheeler & Wheeler, pages 127-146. These sections of this commonly used text for mathematics for preservice elementary teacher presents a history of numeration systems. Systems discussed in the text are Egyptian, Babylonian, Roman, Mayan, and Hindu-Arabic. This lesson will supplement these systems by presenting Plains Indian gesture counting, together with the same emphasis on sources of the symbols (gestures), place value and basis, and relationship to the decimal system commonly used in U.S. schools.

1. Drawings

2. Videos or photographs of Native Americans gesture counting

3. Models of gesture counting

4. Native American language utilization while gesture counting (optional Salish audio)

5. Students gesture counting in varied situations


1. Instructor-generated questions about gesture counting.

2. Instructor-generated questions about Plains Indian culture and life related to the need for gesture counting and communicating mathematically.

3. Student-generated questions about gesture counting.

4. Student-generated questions about Native American culture and their mathematical need for gesture counting.

5. All questions generated will be recorded for further discussion and investigation in this lesson and future lessons.


These include but are not limited to

1. session activities in which participants are presented with examples of gesture counting, basis and related Native American culture, and are asked to analyze, interpret or respond to them.
2. students will present examples of Plains Indian gesture counting to one another.
3. students will devise systems of gesture counting and be able to explain the motivation and numerical basis for the systems.
4. students will create written, pictorial or video representations of their gesture counting systems (Native language audio record optional).
5. Students will complete assigned problems from Wheeler & Wheeler and a supplemental worksheet of related Plains Indian mathematics.

The story is as important as the content. Stories are oral or written ways of relating a particular idea or concept to the real world or everyday life, to a broader context than just the abstract content. Native American students (and teachers) will be more familiar with this concept than non-Native Americans, so this skill may take some practice for the latter group. The instructor will collect his own stories and those of students in class related to the learning of counting and gesture forms of communication and specific information related to Native American culture and mathematics. This session is developed for an audience of undergraduate mathematics students, both Native American and non-Native American. It also will include mathematics education and non-mathematics education students. Stories should, therefore, be of use and interest to this diverse audience.

Print Materials/Transparencies/Media

  • Narratives on history, mathematics and sociology of gesture counting (see “Teaching Children Mathematics”, February 2001, pages 312-320—reprint as attachment and “Gesture Counting Narrative”)

  • Transparency diagram, “Indian Sign Language”, from Tomkins (attachment or PowerPoint version)

  • Transparency pictorial: “Native American Gesture Counter”, from Fronval & DuBois (attachment or PowerPoint version)

  • PowerPoint Presentation, “NA Materials Lesson No.3 PPT” (optional)

  • Audio Presentation, “1 to 10” (optional Salish counting activity)

  • PowerPoint Presentation, “Counting 1 to 10 in Salish: A Tutorial” (optional)


  • Overhead and blank transparencies

  • Drawing paper and pencils

  • Cameras or videocam/VCR

  • Opaque projector

  • PowerPoint on PC or Mac


Print Materials: Group Work

  • Diagram, “Indian Sign Language”, from Tomkins (attachment or PowerPoint version)

  • Pictorial, “Native American Gesture Counter”, from Fronval & DuBois

Print Materials: Individual Work

  • “Gesture Counting Narrative”

  • “Developing Number Sense: What Can Other Cultures Tell Us?”, Teaching Children Mathematics, February 2001, pages 312-320 (on library reserve)

  • “Gesture Counting Worksheet” (Worksheet #1)


  • Drawing paper and pencils

  • (Digital) Camera or videocam\VCR

  • PowerPoint on PC or Mac


  • Wheeler, section 4.3, “History of Numeration Systems” presented as suggested in text or as usually presented by the instructor

  • After Mayan system, student knowledge and interest in counting systems and Plains Indian culture investigated

  • PowerPoint Presentation, “NA Materials Lesson No.3 PPT” (optional)

  • History of gesture counting presented (see NCTM’s “Teaching Children Mathematics”, February 2001, pp. 314-315; attached and placed on reserve for students in library and “Gesture Counting Narrative” attached)

  • Plains Indian gesture counting graphics (Tomkins and Fronval & DuBois) presented and methods demonstrated

  • Students attempt and practice Plains Indian gesture counting

  • Mathematical content (i.e., basis and place-value) discussed

  • Students generate own gesture counting systems and explain the mathematics behind them

  • Students told to investigate other gesture counting systems and present them in the next class

  • Problems assigned both from Wheeler (pp. 134-136) and from a supplemental “Gesture Counting Worksheet” of related Plains Indian mathematics (Worksheet #1)

  • Students listen to and practice audio presentation, “1 to 10” (optional Salish counting activity)

  • Students practice PowerPoint Presentation, “Counting 1 to 10 in Salish: A Tutorial” (optional)


This section provides detailed suggestions on the use of the materials or equipment noted in Parts A and B of the Assignment portion of “Do Now” and “Do as Preparation for our Next Session”

1. Zaslavsky’s NCTM article in “Teaching Children Mathematics”, February 2001, pp. 314-315, related to gesture counting should be placed on reserve at the library for students to read before this session. The “Gesture Counting Narrative” (attached) will be part of each student’s materials.
2. Be sure to allow ample time for students to discuss knowledge of counting systems, basis, place-value and Native American cultures. Breaking students into smaller groups (pairs are good here) and having a “secretary” report can make for more productive discussions.
3. All transparencies and computer graphics need to be clear, large and highly readable. If students can’t see the gestures, the counting will be lost.
4. Use an opaque projector to show student-generated work.
5. Allow some students to create a slide show on Plains Indian and other gesture counting systems using “PowerPoint” with digital camera imaging.
6. Besides the transparency or PowerPoint presentation on gesture counting from 1 to 10, consider having Native American presenters come in to present some (or all) of this material on gesture counting.
7. The audio presentation and related tutorial are optional enrichment/culturally-specific activities. These can be adapted to other Native American languages.

An assignment is an integral part of each session. The “Do Now” section is work to be done in class to stimulate participant thinking for a follow-up discussion and to provide a general context for the session. The “Do as Preparation” section is intended to augment the work of the session and will include appropriate related mathematics problems.


1. Discuss mathematical ideas and cultural contexts involved in counting and gesture counting.

2. Read “Gesture Counting Narrative”.
3. Practice Plains Indian gesture counting and apply it to situations around the classroom and campus.
4. Complete “Gesture Counting Worksheet” (attached Worksheet #1)
5. (Optional) Practice counting to 10 in Salish using “1 to 10” audio file on this disk.
6. (Optional) Test your skills using the “Salish Numbers 1-10 Lesson” tutorial in PowerPoint also given on this disk.

1. Investigate other systems of gesture counting (e.g., African, Asian, ASL)

2. Do library or interview research on Native American culture as related to gesture speech/sign language in general.
3. Prepare a set of camera or PowerPoint images of gesture counting in other Native American languages and a written discussion of the application of such gesture counting in a real-world (tribal) setting.

Gesture Counting Narrative
(adapted from Fronval & DuBois [1978] and Tomkins [1969])

(Note: The PowerPoint presentation which accompanies this lesson gives a visual representation of the narrative below, showing gesture counting being done by a Native American speaker. The presentation can help avoid a lot of confusion which may be engendered at first reading of this Narrative: “A picture is worth a thousand words!”—especially with gesture counting.)

Plains Indians’ gesture counting generally used base ten. The speaker usually started with the right hand closed, palm turned to the person being addressed, at shoulder level.
For the number one, the little finger is raised; for two, the next adjacent finger is also raised; for three, the next adjacent; for four, through the index finger of the right hand is raised; for five, through the thumb of the right hand.
The numbers six through ten build on this configuration.
For six, touch the left thumb to the tip of the right thumb; for seven also raise the left index finger; for eight, add the left middle finger; for nine, the add the left ring finger; for ten, raise the left little finger so that all the fingers are raised, backs to speaker, front to person addressed.
For numbers above ten, different tribes used different methods, but the following method is the most widely used:
For say, 30, the gesture counter would first make the sign for 10. Then with the left hand turned toward the person addressed, the middle finger would be touched by the right index finger. In like fashion, the pointing to the right hand would indicate numbers above 50 but below 100.
For numbers over 100: raise both hands to the shoulder level, thumbs touching, palms turned toward the person addressed, and motion an arc to the left with your hands thus configured; next follow the same “back of the left or right hand” procedure used in generating 20 through 100 to indicate multiples of 100.
For higher numbers other similar, but discrete, procedures and gestures were utilized.

Gesture Counting” Worksheet #1

Part A
1. Choose a partner. You give the gesture counting for the even numbers from 1 to 10, your partner should give the odds. Do this activity both giving each discrete set of signs as individuals, then alternating with one another.
2. Have someone give any five Plains Indian numbers from 1 to 10. Verify the gesturing of the presenter. Now switch roles.
3. While gesturing the following numbers have a partner convert them to written Roman numerals: 1, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10.
4. Using what you have learned in your regular textbook and this lesson, convert any three Plains Indian Gestures to Babylonian Numerals.
5. Based on what you have learned about Plains Indian Gesture Counting in this lesson and the readings, how do you think you would sign 21? 37? 101?
6. Plains Indians also worked with other mathematical concepts such as equality and fractions. Research how this was done and discuss how consistent these methods are with Gesture Counting (Fronval and DuBois may be especially useful here, but many other resources may be just as informative).

Part B
1. Restate the Hindu-Arabic numeral 157 in each of the following number systems that were described in this lesson or your textbook:
Plains Indian



2. Compare and contrast Plains Indian Gesture Counting as given in this lesson with Roman Numerals from 1 to 10. What similarities or differences do you see? (Note: Tomkins may be especially useful here.) In this consideration, be sure to note the geographical and time differences in the development of each. What does this consideration tell you about the universality of mathematics?
3. How is the idea of greater than, less than or equal two clearly demonstrated by Gesture Counting? Is it more or less effective, than say, Roman Numerals or the Hindu-Arabic system in demonstrating the Trisotomy Property of numbers?
4. The Plains Indians also did addition and subtraction using gesturing. Build on your knowledge of Gesture Counting and investigate how signing was used to add and subtract.
5. Some people go through reversals of digits when they see them; that is, they confuse 13 and 31 or 27 and 72. How might this be a problem (or not) with Gesture Counting, and how would you try to help a person avoid such confusion?

Fronval, G. & DuBois, D. (1978). “Indian Signals and Sign Language.” New York, NY: Wings Books.
Tomkins, W. (1969). “Universal Indian Sign Language of the Plains Indians of North America.” New York, NY: Dover Publications.
Zaslavsky, C. (2001). “Developing Number Sense: What Can Other Cultures Tell Us?”, Teaching Children Mathematics (February 2001), pages 312-320. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

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