Indian Houses

Indian Houses – The habitations of the Indians of northern America may be classed as community houses (using the term “community” in the sense of comprising more than one family) and single, or family, dwellings. “The house architecture of the northern tribes is of little importance, in itself considered; but as an out come of their social condition and for comparison with that of the southern village Indians, is highly important” (Morgan). The typical community houses, as those of the Iroquois tribes, were 50 to 100 ft long by 16 to 18 ft wide, with frame of poles and with sides and triangular roof covered with bark, usually of the elm; the interior was divided into compartments and a smoke hole was left in the roof.

A Mahican house, similar inform, 14 by 60 ft, had the sides and roof made of rushes and chestnut bark, with an opening along the top of the roof from end to end. The Mandan circular community house was usually about 40 ft in diameter; it was supported by two series of posts and cross-beams, and the wide roof and sloping sides were covered with willow or brush matting and earth. The fireplace was in the center. Morgan thinks that the oblong, round-roof houses of the Virginia and North Carolina tribes, seen and described by Capt. John Smith and drawn by John White, were of the community order. That some of them housed a number of families is distinctly stated. Morgan includes also in the community class the circular, dome-shaped earth lodges of Sacramento valley and the L-form, tent-shaped, thatched lodges of the higher areas of California; but the leading examples of community houses are the large, sometimes massive, many-celled clusters of stone or adobe in New Mexico and Arizona known as pueblos (q. v.).

These dwellings vary in form, some of those built in prehistoric times being semicircular, others oblong, around or inclosing a court or plaza. These buildings were constructed usually in terrace form, the lower having a one-story tier of apartments, the next two stories, and so on to the uppermost tier, which some times constituted a seventh story. The masonry consisted usually of small, flat stones laid in adobe mortar and chinked with spalls; but sometimes large balls of adobe were used as building stones, or a double row of wattling was erected and filled in with grout, solidly tamped. By the latter method, known as pisé construction, walls 5 to 7 ft thick were some times built. The outer walls of the lowest story were pierced only by small openings, access to the interior being gained by means of ladders, which could be drawn up, if necessary, and of a hatch way in the roof. It is possible that some of the elaborate structures of Mexico were developed from such hive-like buildings as those of the typical pueblos, the cells increasing in size toward the S., as suggested by Bandelier. Chimneys appear to have been unknown in North America until after contact of the natives with Europeans, the hatch way in the roof serving the double purpose of entrance and flue.

Other forms, some community and others not, are the following: Among the Eskimo, the karmak, or winter residence, for which a pit of the required diameter is dug 5 or 6 ft deep, with a frame of wood or whalebone constructed within 2 or 3 ft above the surface of the ground and covered with a dome-shaped roof of poles or whale ribs, turfed and earthed over. Entrance is gained by an underground passageway. The temporary hunting lodge of the Labrador Eskimo was sometimes constructed entirely of the ribs and vertebrae of the whale. Another form of Eskimo dwelling is the hemispherical snow house, or iglu , built of blocks of snow laid in spiral courses. The Kaniagmiut build large permanent houses, called barabara the Russians, which accommodates or 4 families; these are constructed by digging a square pit 2 ft deep, the sides of which are lined with planks that are carried to the required height above the surface and roofed with boards, poles, or whale ribs, thickly covered with grass; in the roof is a smoke hole, and on the eastern side a door. The Tlingit, Haida, and some other tribes build substantial rectangular houses with sides and ends formed of planks and with the fronts elaborately carved and painted with symbolic figures. Directly in front of the house a totem pole is placed, and near by a memorial pole is erected.

These houses are sometimes 40 by 100 ft in the Nootka and Salish region, and are occupied by a number of families. Formerly some of the Haida houses are said to have been built on platforms supported by posts; some of these seen by such early navigators as Vancouver were 25 or 30 ft above ground, access being had by notched logs serving as ladders. Among the N. W. inland tribes, as the Nez Percé, the dwelling; was a frame of poles covered with rush matting or with buffalo or elk skins. The houses of the California tribes, some of which are above noted, were rectangular or circular; of the latter, some were conical, others dome-shaped. There was also formerly in use in various parts of California, and to some extent on the interior plateaus, a semi-subterranean earth-covered lodge known among the Maiduaskūm. The most primitive abodes were those of the Paiute and the Cocopa, consisting simply of brush shelters for summer, and for winter of a framework of poles bent together at the top and covered with brush, bark, and earth. Somewhat similar structures are erected by the Pueblos as farm shelters, and more elaborate houses of the same general type are built by the Apache of Arizona. As indicated by archeological researches, the circular wigwam, with sides of bark or mats, built over a shallow excavation in the soil, and with earth thrown against the base, appears to have been the usual form of dwelling in the Ohio valley and the immediate valley .of the Mississippi in pre- historic and early historic times. Another kind of dwelling, in use in Arkansas before the discovery, was a rectangular structure with two rooms in front and one in the rear; the walls were of upright posts thickly plastered with clay on a sort of wattle. With the exception of the Pueblo structures, buildings of stone or adobe were unknown until recent times.

The dwellings of some of the tribes of the plains, as the Sioux, Arapaho, Comanche, and Kiowa, were generally portable skin tents or tipis, but those of the Omaha, Osage, and some others were more substantial (see Earth lodge, Grass lodge). The dwellings of the Omaha, according to Miss Fletcher, are built by setting care fully selected and prepared posts together in a circle, and binding them firmly with willows, then backing them with dried grass, and covering the entire structure with closely packed sods. The roof is made in the same manner, having an additional support of an inner circle of posts, with crotchets to hold the cross logs which act as beams to the dome-shaped roof. A circular opening in the center serves as a chimney and also to give light to the interior of the dwelling; a sort of sail is rigged and fastened outside of this opening to guide the smoke and prevent it from annoying the occupants of the lodge. The entrance passage way, which usually faces east ward, is from 6 to 10 ft long and is built in the same manner as the lodge.” An important type is the Wichita grass hut, circular, dome-shaped with conical top. The frame is built somewhat in panels formed by ribs and crossbars; these are covered with grass tied on shingle fashion. These grass lodges vary in diameter from 40 to 50 ft. The early Florida houses, according to Le Moyne s illustrations published by De Bry, were either circular with dome-like roof, or oblong with rounded roof like those of Secotan in North Carolina. The frame was of poles; the sides and roof were covered with bark, or the latter was sometimes thatched. The Chippewa usually constructed a conical or hemispherical framework of poles, covered with bark. Formerly caves and rock shelters w r ere used in some sections as abodes, and in the Pueblo region houses were formerly constructed in natural recesses or shelters in the cliffs, whence the designation cliff-dwellings. Similar habitations are still in use to some extent by the Tarahumare of Chihuahua, Mexico. Cavate houses with several rooms w r ere also hewn in the sides of soft volcanic cliffs; so numerous are these in Verde valley, Arizona, and the Jemez plateau, New Mexico, that for miles the cliff face is honey combed with them. As rule the women were the builders of the houses w r here wood was the structural material, but the men assisted with the heavier work. In the Southern states it was a common custom to erect mounds as foundations for council houses, for the chief s dwelling, or for structures designed for other official uses.

The erection of houses, especially those of a permanent character, was usually attended with great ceremony, particularly when the time for dedication came. The construction of the Navaho hogán, for example, was done in accordance with fixed rules, as was the cutting and sewing of the tipi among the Plains tribes, while the new houses erected during the year were usually dedicated with ceremony and feasting. Although the better types of houses were symmetrical and well proportioned, their builders had not learned the use of the square or the plumb-line; the unit of measure was also apparently unknown, and even in the best types of ancient Pueblo masonry the joints of the stonework were not “broken.” The Indian names for some of their structures, as tipi, wigwam, wickiup, hogán, and iglu, have come into use to a greater or less extent by English-speaking people. See Adobe, Archeology Architecture, Cliff-dwellings, Earth lodge, Fortification and Defense, Grass lodge, Hogan, Kiva, Mounds, Pueblos, Tipi.

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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