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Native American Houses

There were many different types of American Indian houses in North America. Each tribe needed a kind of housing that would fit their lifestyle and their climate.



Since North America is such a big continent, different tribes had very different weather to contend with. In the Arizona deserts, temperatures can hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and in the Alaskan tundra, -50 is not unusual. Naturally, Native Americans developed different types of dwellings to survive in these different environments. Also, different American Indian tribes had different traditional lifestyles. Some tribes were agricultural-- they lived in settled villages and farmed the land for corn and vegetables. They wanted houses that would last a long time. Other tribes were more nomadic, moving frequently from place to place as they hunted and gathered food and resources. They needed houses that were portable or easy to build.

Here are descriptions and pictures of some of the Native American house styles the people developed over the years to fit these needs.


Native American Homes

Wigwam Homes

Wigwams (or wetus) are Native American houses used by Algonquian Indians in the woodland regions. Wigwam is the word for "house" in the Abenaki tribe, and wetu is the word for "house" in the Wampanoag tribe. Sometimes they are also known as birchbark houses. Wigwams are small houses, usually 8-10 feet tall. Wigwams are made of wooden frames which are covered with woven mats and sheets of birchbark. The frame can be shaped like a dome, like a cone, or like a rectangle with an arched roof. Once the birchbark is in place, ropes or strips of wood are wrapped around the wigwam to hold the bark in place. Here are some pictures of a woman building a wigwam.


  cone-shaped    *      dome-shaped       *    rectangular shape      *      wigwam frame

Wigwams are good houses for people who stay in the same place for months at a time. Most Algonquian Indians lived together in settled villages during the farming season, but during the winter, each family group would move to their own hunting camp. Wigwams are not portable, but they are small and easy to build. Woodland Indian families could build new wigwams every year when they set up their winter camps.

Longhouses

Longhouses are Native American homes used by the Iroquois tribes and some of their Algonquian neighbors. They are built similarly to wigwams, with pole frames and elm bark covering. The main difference is that longhouses are much, much larger than wigwams. Longhouses could be 200 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 20 feet high. Inside the longhouse, raised platforms created a second story, which was used for sleeping space. Mats and wood screens divided the longhouse into separate rooms. Each longhouse housed an entire clan-- as many as 60 people!


            sketch of a longhouse           *   longhouse cutaway     *      a longhouse today

Longhouses are good homes for people who intend to stay in the same place for a long time. A longhouse is large and takes a lot of time to build and decorate. The Iroquois were farming people who lived in permanent villages. Iroquois men sometimes built wigwams for themselves when they were going on hunting trips, but women might live in the same longhouse their whole life.

Tepees

Tepees (also spelled Teepees or Tipis) are tent-like American Indian houses used by Plains tribes. A tepee is made of a cone-shaped wooden frame with a covering of buffalo hide. Like modern tents, tepees are carefully designed to set up and break down quickly. As a tribe moved from place to place, each family would bring their tipi poles and hide tent along with them. Originally, tepees were about 12 feet high, but once the Plains Indian tribes acquired horses, they began building them twice as high.


Indian tepee photograph  *            picture of tepees being set up

Tepees are good houses for people who are always on the move. Plains Indians migrated frequently to follow the movements of the buffalo herds. An entire Plains Indian village could have their tepees packed up and ready to move within an hour. There were fewer trees on the Great Plains than in the Woodlands, so it was important for Plains tribes to carry their long poles with them whenever they traveled instead of trying to find new ones each time they moved.

Grass Houses

Grass houses are American Indian homes used in the Southern Plains by tribes such as the Caddos. They resemble large wigwams but are made with different materials. Grass houses are made with a wooden frame bent into a beehive shape and thatched with long prairie grass. These were large buildings, sometimes more than 40 feet tall.


Wichita grass house *Caddo grass house * construction

Grass houses are good homes for people in a warm climate. In the northern plains, winters are too cold to make homes out of prairie grass. But in the southern plains of Texas, houses like these were comfortable for the people who used them.

Wattle and Daub Houses

Wattle and daub houses (also known as asi, the Cherokee word for them) are Native American houses used by southeastern tribes. Wattle and daub houses are made by weaving rivercane, wood, and vines into a frame, then coating the frame with plaster. The roof was either thatched with grass or shingled with bark.


          rivercane frame    *   plastered and thatched

Wattle and daub houses are permanent structures that take a lot of effort to build. Like longhouses, they are good homes for agricultural people who intended to stay in one place, like the Cherokees and Creeks. Making wattle and daub houses requires a fairly warm climate to dry the plaster.

Chickees

Chickees (also known as chickee huts, stilt houses or platform dwellings) are Native American homes used primarily in Florida by tribes like the Seminole Indians. Chickee houses consisted of thick posts supporting a thatched roof and a flat wooden platform raised several feet off the ground. They did not have any walls. During rainstorms, Florida Indians would lash tarps made of hide or cloth to the chickee frame to keep themselves dry, but most of the time, the sides of the structure were left open.


          drawing of a chickee         *   Seminole chickee

Chickees are good homes for people living in a hot, swampy climate. The long posts keep the house from sinking into marshy earth, and raising the floor of the hut off the ground keeps swamp animals like snakes out of the house. Walls or permanent house coverings are not necessary in a tropical climate where it never gets cold.

Adobe Houses

Adobe houses (also known as pueblos) are Native American house complexes used by the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest. Adobe pueblos are modular, multi-story houses made of adobe (clay and straw baked into hard bricks) or of large stones cemented together with adobe. Each adobe unit is home to one family, like a modern apartment. The whole structure, which can contain dozens of units, is often home to an entire extended clan.


  Pueblo Indian houses *   Adobe cliff dwellings    *   Hopi Mesa pueblos

Adobe houses are good homes to build in a warm, dry climate where adobe can be easily mixed and dried. These are homes for farming people who have no need to move their village to a new location. In fact, some Pueblo people have been living in the same adobe house complex, such as Sky City, for dozens of generations.

Earthen Houses

Earthen house is a general term referring to several types of Native American homes including Navajo hogans, Sioux earth lodges, subarctic sod houses, and Native American pit houses of the West Coast and Plateau. Earthen houses made by different tribes had different designs, but all were semi-subterranean dwellings -- basement-like living spaces dug from the earth, with a domed mound built over the top (usually a wooden frame covered with earth or reeds.)


      Pawnee earth lodge         *         Navajo hogan          *       Alaskan sod house

Earthern houses are good for people who want permanent homes and live in an area that is not forested. (It's difficult work to excavate underground homes in areas with many tree roots!) Living partially underground has several benefits, especially in harsh climates-- the earth offers natural protection from wind and strong weather.

Plank Houses

Plankhouses are Native American homes used by tribes of the Northwest Coast (from northern California all the way up to Alaska.) Plank houses are made of long, flat planks of cedar wood lashed to a wooden frame. Native American plank houses look rather similar to old European houses, but the Indians didn't learn to build them from Europeans-- this style of house was used on the Northwest Coast long before Europeans arrived.


          Chinook plankhouse         *   Yurok plank house

Plank houses are good houses for people in cold climates with lots of tall trees. However, only people who don't need to migrate spend the time and effort to build these large permanent homes. Most Native Americans who live in the far northern forests must migrate regularly to follow caribou herds and other game, so plank houses aren't a good choice for them. Only coastal tribes, who make their living by fishing, made houses like these.

Igloos

Igloos (or Iglu) are snow houses used by the Inuit (Eskimos) of northern Canada. Not all Inuit people used igloos -- some built sod houses instead, using whale bones instead of wooden poles for a frame. Like a sod house, the igloo is dome-shaped and slightly excavated, but it is built from the snow, with large blocks of ice set in a spiral pattern and packed with snow to form the dome.


       Inuit (Eskimo) igloo      *    Building an igloo     *                Inside an igloo

Igloos are good houses for the polar region, where the earth is frozen, the snow cover is deep, and there are few trees. Snow is a good insulator, and dense blocks of ice offer good protection against the arctic winds.

Brush Shelters

Brush shelters (including wickiups, lean-tos, gowa, etc.) are temporary Native American dwellings used by many tribes. Brush shelters are typically very small, like a camping tent. People cannot usually stand up straight inside brush lodges -- they are only used for sleeping in. A brush shelter is made of a simple wooden frame covered with brush (branches, leaves, and grass.) The frame can be cone-shaped, with one side left open as a door, or tent-shaped, with both ends left open.


       conical frame     * conical wickiup *  tent-shaped frame   *  tent-shaped brush lodge

Most Native Americans only made a brush shelter when they were out camping in the wilderness. But some migratory tribes who lived in warm dry climates, such as the Apache tribes, built brush shelters as homes on a regular basis. They can be assembled quickly from materials that are easy to find in the environment, so people who build villages of brush shelters can move around freely without having to drag teepee poles.

Do Native Americans still live in houses like these today?

Most Native Americans do not live in old-fashioned Indian houses like the ones on this page, any more than other Americans live in log cabins. The only Native American housing style on this page that is still in regular use as a home is Indian adobe houses. Some Pueblo families are still living in the same adobe house complexes their ancestors used to live in. There are also a few elders on the Navajo reservation who still prefer to live in hogans. But otherwise, traditional Native American houses like these are usually only built for ritual or ceremonial purposes, such as a sweat lodge or tribal meeting hall. Most American Indians today live in modern houses and apartments, just like North Americans from other ethnic groups.

Recommended Indian House Books

Native American Architecture:
     An excellent, in-depth book on American Indian building styles.
Native Homes:
     Illustrated book with Indian house pictures and information from throughout North America.
Houses of Bark * Houses of Wood: * Houses of Adobe:
    Houses of Hide and Earth: * Houses of Snow, Skin and Bones:
     A great series of picture books for kids about wigwams, tepees, and other Indian house styles.
Longhouses * Native American Longhouse:
     Books about Iroquois longhouses.
Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains * The Indian Tipi: Its History, Construction, and Use:
    Tipis, Tepees, Teepees * The Tipi: Traditional Native American Shelter:
     Books about Plains Indian tepee homes.
Igloos and Inuit Life * Building an Igloo * Igloos: * How to Build an Iglu and a Qamutiik:
     Books about Inuit/Eskimo igloos.

Further Reading

We have visited all of these sites and to the best of our knowledge they are informative, respectful, and safe for kids. Please let us know if you find inappropriate material on any of them.

Native Pre-Contact Housing Types: Thorough resource page including excellent sketches of each American Indian house style.
North American Settlements: Information about Native American villages and houses in different culture areas of North America.
Native American Housing: Pictures, links and background information about traditional Native American shelters.



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