Cultural Comparisons

Lesson Plan


Students will draw upon research, writing, and creative skills to move through various activities inspired by the Iatmul Culture Orator’s Stool.

Intended Age Group

Secondary (grades 6-12)

Length of Lesson

Two 50 minute lessons

Standards Area

Language Arts


Students will be able to:

  • describe the Orator’s Stool and its use in Iatmul culture;
  • identify at least three similarities and differences between two cultures on a specific topic;
  • identify themes based on research; and
  • feel comfortable taking risks to make a creative piece based on factual data.


Day 1

  1. Warm-up: Play Barnga to help students get a sense of the importance of communication, power, and structure as they relate to culture. You can play the game quickly in 10 minutes or spend more time as you see appropriate. Debrief using the following questions:
    • If you could describe the game in one word, what would it be?
    • When did you realize that something was wrong? How did you deal with it?
    • Who had the most power? Why? How could you tell?
    • Were the rules of the game in each culture important? How did people enforce and keep to these rules?
  2. Show students a picture of the Iatmul Culture Orator’s Stool. Discuss in detail the purpose of the stool and the history/social structure of the culture as found in the About the Art section. Have students apply what they’ve learned from playing Barnga to information they have learned about the stool. Use the following questions to guide the discussion:
    • How does the stool relate to order? What rules apply?
    • How does the stool provide structure and help people “play” by the rules?
  3. Have students pick one issue raised from the discussion to research such as marks of identity, initiation, gender, debate/sharing points of view; impact of the west on the culture (i.e. how and why is this piece in a museum).
  4. Have the students write a fact sheet on what they discover and compare the topic they’ve selected to their own culture (e.g. marks of identity for Iatmul culture as compared to tattooing as used by various cultures in the United States).

Day 2

  1. Warm-up: Show students the picture of the stool. Give students five minutes to write about what the stool would say about their class (they can have the stool talk about the climate and other physical aspects, student and teacher behavior, smells, etc.). Ask for volunteers to share their stories.
  2. Have the students make a digital story, collage, or short story using the information from their research.
    • Based on the fact sheets they have written, students will write a short statement of the theme(s) guiding their creative piece (e.g. Iatmul culture has formal initiation rites often missing in most American cultural groups; the Orator’s Stool helps structure debate and disagreement, preventing violence similar to courts of law in the United States).
    • The creative piece should reflect these comparative themes visually and/or through writing.
    • After brainstorming, allow students time to talk with each other about their ideas, sharing feedback.
  3. About 30 minutes into the creation process, give students time to walk around and look at and talk about what their peers are doing. If they see something they would like to modify and incorporate in their own piece, encourage them to do so.
  4. Have students finish work at home if they need to (if they don’t have the resources at home, you might need to allow more class time).
  5. Allow students time to meet in groups to share and talk about their piece.


  • Barnga game supplies: one set of playing cards, Ace-10, for every 4 students; 100 popsicle sticks or paper clips (instructions at end of lesson)
  • Instructions for the game Barnga
  • Internet access during class and/or at home for research
  • Lined paper and pencil/pen for each student
  • If making collages, 11 x 17 inch poster board, magazines, scissors, and glue sticks
  • If making digital stories, computers with access to programs/Internet
  • About the Art section on the Orator’s Stool
  • One color copy of the stool for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes

21st Century Skills

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art

Orator’s Stool

Orator's Stool


Iatmul artist

Who Made It?

This object was made by a member of the Iatmul [YAHT-mool] cultural group from the Middle Sepik region of Papua New Guinea (part of Melanesia). The religious life of the Sepik River was dominated by men’s societies, and wood carving of this kind was done exclusively by men. The artist who created this Orator’s Stool began by cutting the shape out of a large piece of wood. He then used sharp objects like obsidian knives or rodents’ teeth to further shape the figure and to carve details. To decorate the figure, he attached raffia around its waist, wrists, and ankles. He used feathers and shells to ornament the head. It’s possible that the artist painted the figure with charcoal, lime, or ochre.

This sculpture would have been kept inside a special house called a Men’s House, where Iatmul ceremonial activities often take place. Typically, each Iatmul community or town contains a few of these buildings, which serve as the center of community and celebration. The buildings are both visually imposing, as well as socially and spiritually influential. Women and uninitiated men are not able to enter the house.

What Inspired It?

Every Iatmul community has its own ceremonial chair, similar to this one. This Orator’s Stool (also called a “speaking chair”) is not meant to be sat upon, but is used during village meetings, debates, and tribal ceremonies. During a discussion, the speaker stands next to the orator’s stool and hits the top of the stool with a cluster of leaves, sticks, and grass to validate important points in his argument. He also places leaves on the chair to confirm his statements. When the first speaker is finished and all the leaves lay on the chair, the next speaker can begin his address. After all of the speakers have stated their arguments, the village chief hits the chair a few more times and states a decision for all to follow. Orators also use these chairs to tell the community about the clan’s history and mythology while hitting the chair with a bundle of leaves to emphasize points.

The human figure is a common form in Sepik River art. As seen in this sculpture, figures were often given an elongated head and torso and short limbs. Special emphasis was placed on the head to show that it is the most important part of the body, where the spirit resides. The artist carved an elongated nose, possibly in imitation of a bird’s beak, and the nose is pierced with ornaments made of bone or boar’s tusk, just as the Iatmul people wear. The incised patterns on the chest and arms represent scarification patterns that would be seen on many Iatmul men. Scarification is part of a young man’s initiation into the men’s secret society and the scars are considered marks of beauty and status.


Crocodile (Wagen)
Crocodile (Wagen)

The Iatmul people believe that everything in the world is inhabited by a spirit. The figure represented here is the spirit Wagen [WAH-gen], a mythological giant in the form of a crocodile. Iatmul people believe that they were born from Wagen and that the world rests upon his back. The figure attached to the stool serves as a temporary dwelling for the spirit who presides over meetings and ensures that each speaker is truthful.


Young Iatmul men go through a series of rites, scarification, and seclusion as part of their initiation into the men’s secret society. Their bodies are incised with sharp blades, leaving scars that look like the teeth marks of a crocodile.


The large head emphasizes that it is the most important part of the body. The artist used most of the decorative materials—including shells, feathers, and bone—on the head.


Many Iatmul people wear nose ornaments similar to those on this sculpture.


Figures like this one often have curved eyebrows that create a heart-shaped face.


Cowry shells outline the figure’s face and decorate the nose. The artist also used shells to create large circular eyes.

Dark Lines
Dark Lines

The artist may have used charcoal to draw the dark lines around the face, nose, and mouth. He also created designs on the figure’s forehead and drew circles around the eyes and tusks.


The figure’s legs are quite short when compared to the large head. Its knees are bent and mirror the angle of the stool’s legs.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.