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Buildings of the Native Americans

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Buildings of the Native Americans | North American Architecture of the 16th and 17th Centuries | North American Architecture of the 18th Century | North American Architecture of the 19th Century
Aerial view of Pueblo-Bonito.

The Native Americans of the USA and Canada lived in very diverse natural and sociological environments. This naturally resulted in the development of a large number of different buildings to suit the needs of their inhabitants. While some tribes were nomads, others built towns and lived in large settlements. This Entry does not try to list all variations of the different buildings Native Americans used, but looks at some probably rather well-known types and their background.


Drawing of a tipi.

The Great Plains, a plateau east of the Rocky Mountains, are dry grasslands with only a few trees which usually stand where water can be found. This environment was not suited for permanent settlements, causing people to be nomads. They lived in tents, which they could easily assemble and disassemble wherever they went. These tents they called 'tipi', meaning dwelling.

Tipis are built up from 14-30 long, straight wooden poles, erected in a conical shape. The poles were covered with buffalo skins, which protected the inhabitants from wind and rain. The skins often were painted and where they touched the ground they were pinned down with stones. These stones remained on the ground even when the tent was gone, leaving a stone circle. Bigger stone circles, but without a tent, were used as gathering places. These 'tipi rings' can still be found on the ground long after the tent itself has been removed. In the middle of the tent was the fireplace and as usual in such structures the most important place in the tent was opposite the entrance.

Tipis were usually erected by the women. Three or four poles were bound together close to the top and then pulled up by a rope, with the bottom ends of the poles spread wide apart to allow them to stand up by themselves in a conical shape. The other poles were then leaned against the first ones. The skin was again pulled over the poles with a rope. The rope which connects the poles was also used to hold the tent down in a storm.

The place where all poles of the tipi cross is not in the center of the tent but a little bit to the western side. This is because the wind usually comes from the west and the tent has to stand against it. Additionally in the center of the tent is the fireplace, used for both cooking and warmth, and above it has to be the smoke flap in the skins; here, because of the shape of the tent, the wind has a suction effect. The entrance is at the side which faces away from the wind (east). This is why in a larger collection of tipis put up in a circle, the entrances of all the tents do not face into the middle of the circle but to one side.

When the tent was to be moved to a different place, the poles were bound to the backs of dogs with one end touching the ground – a construction known as 'travois' which has been used for thousands of years, not only in North America. The folded skins were bound to the poles, so the tipi almost moved itself. With the later use of horses, tipis became bigger than before.

In a technical sense the tipi is not a tent at all because unlike a real tent, the poles can stand without the skin being applied.

Plank Houses

Section drawing of a plank house.

The western coast of Canada and the northern USA has a mild climate and varied vegetation with plenty of wood. The fjords are steep with only a few small beaches. Traveling was done mostly by boat. Agriculture was unnecessary and not easily possible in this area.

The Kwakiutl (or more correctly Kwakwaka'wakw) built wooden houses directly by the fjords, in the small flat places between the water and the cliffs. They were arranged in lines, one next to the other, the front line by the water being the most important. The richer somebody was, the bigger was his house, so a house was an important status symbol in this society. All façades were made of simple wooden boards, decoration coming not from shape but from paintings. Originally paintings and totem poles showed symbols that were relevant to the mythological background of the family who lived in the house. Later, advertising1 could also be found.

Houses had a length of up to 20 meters, with a massive skeleton construction2 built from tree trunks on the inside. First four pillars were erected with two horizontal beams above them, resulting in something looking like two wooden gates standing at a distance from each other. Two long roof beams were then put on top of them, above the pillars. Next to this structure two smaller pillars with a roof beam on top were erected at both sides. On top of the roof pillars rafters were put, then the whole structure was covered with planks. The outside walls were made of planks and on the inside another layer of planks was erected some distance from the outer wall. They were about one meter high. Soil was put between the two layers, shaping a 'bench' on the inside walls. On top of the bench small 'houses' were built for sleeping.

The roof boards were only loosely put on the underlying structure, allowing smoke to escape through the gaps. The interior of the house was dominated by the decorated wooden beams and the pillars by the walls, which were completely invisible from the outside. The wooden construction was very close to the outside walls, which meant that the interior of the house was one big room with no pillars standing anywhere in the way – this was possible because of the massive dimensions of the construction. The houses had no windows and only small doors.

The Longhouse

Section drawing of a longhouse.

The Iroquois in today's state of New York built longhouses from wooden poles that were stuck into the ground and shaped into an arched roof. The whole structure was covered with bark. There was a door on each narrow side of the house.

The longhouse of the Iroquois was the home of a few related families. Just like plank houses, the longhouse had niches with wooden platforms along both long sides, but they were bigger so one niche could be inhabited by one family and give them a certain degree of privacy. The sleeping places were even higher than the main platform of a niche and right by the walls; this is the place that offered the most privacy.

If more space was needed the longhouse could be extended at both ends, sometimes leading to very big buildings. Fire pits in the central corridor between the niches brought warmth, while light could only get in through the smoke holes in the roof.


Section drawing of an igloo.

Igloos were built in the arctic regions of northern Canada but hardly ever in Alaska. They were built from hard snow, which is durable and a good insulator because it contains a lot of air. Because of this the walls only had to be about 20cm thick, which meant that light could still get inside through the snow.

Building an igloo took about an hour. First a hole was made in the ground and the snow removed from it used for building the walls. The snow cubes were about 40x80cm in size and not built on top of each other in rows but in a spiral shape. Because a hole in the ground was used, the dome did not have to be so high; the igloo was lower on the outside than on the inside. Finally, the last stone was put into the top of the dome from inside and a hole was cut into the wall at the side facing away from the wind to serve as a door. The whole igloo had a diameter of two to five meters. At the entrance an 'air lock' was attached to the igloo. Storage chambers were also built on the outside of the dome and could be accessed by cutting holes into the snow wall and later closing them again.

Inside, the igloo had three different levels. At the lowest level was the entrance, a level higher was the hearth and a storage area. The highest area was for living and sleeping. Because of the warmth of the inhabitants and the hearth, the snow on the inside of the igloo melts, fusing the snow together but also resulting in water drops coming from the ceiling. To protect the inhabitants from these drops and the cold coming from the walls, the inside of the igloo was covered in furs.

Since the igloos could not be built any bigger, if more space was needed, more igloos were built next to each other and connected with low corridors. When the igloos collapsed in summer, tents were erected on their foundations.

Pit Houses

Section drawing of a pit house.

Pit houses were built by various cultures. Pits were probably first used not for houses but as storage spaces which were covered with wood and stones while people still lived in caves. Later, similar structures were used for living. The earliest pit houses were circular holes in the ground, covered with branches and soil on which grass was grown, making the houses look like small hills. At the top of the roof was a smoke hole for the fire pit in the center of the house.

Later the natural branches were replaced by a wooden skeleton which was covered first with branches and grass and then sods, to again shape a hill. The entrances were either a short tunnel at one side of the house or on the top, serving as a smoke hole at the same time. The diameter and depth of the pit varied in different cultures.

Pit houses are the perfect home in regions where temperatures vary widely between night and day or summer and winter. The soil on the roof provides very good insulation and the soil surrounding the pit offers a certain amount of warmth.


Section drawing of a pueblo.

The Pueblo people of the south-western USA were also living in pit houses at the beginning. Pit houses which were half above ground and half underground were used as houses for living as well as ritual places. Slowly two different buildings evolved for these uses: houses for living were built above ground while cultural places moved entirely underground.

The Kiva, the cultural building, was a round hole in the ground with wooden pillars at the wall and a wooden dome which was covered with clay. They got bigger and bigger over time and the walls and floors were covered with stones. The entrance was a staircase at one side.

While at first the homes of the people were also built of wood, infilled with stone and covered with clay, they were later built completely with drystone walls. Ceilings were made of wooden beams which were covered with branches, grass and clay. The houses as such did not get bigger but there were more and more small houses with single rectangular rooms built next to and on top of each other, forming big agglomerations of houses. All rooms were approximately the same size which hints at a very egalitarian society. In courtyards between the buildings were the round Kivas.

Bigger and bigger settlements were built because they were easier to defend, with the most important ones in Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. In the canyon, very wide streets connected hundreds of villages which were often situated by rock faces which collected warmth during the day and emitted it during the cold nights. Orientation of the settlement to the south brought more warmth during the winter.

In Mesa Verde people returned to caves, building the same structures as people on the flat country. There were all in all a few thousand 'cliff dwellings' and four big settlements with over 200 rooms. They are all hard to access and easy to defend. The caves gave shelter from the weather and protected the people from the summer sun while the lower sun in winter could reach the houses.

All settlements were abandoned around 1300, possibly because of a drought.


Drawing of a hogan.

The construction of a hogan, the house of the Navajos in the south-western USA, was quite similar to that of a round pit house, but stands completely above ground. A wooden skeleton was covered with grass sods in the shape of a steep hill. Later the walls were built from natural stones or logs – similar to a log cabin but in the shape of a hexagon or octogon. This construction was influenced by the European settlers. The roof was still covered with grass sods, with a hole for smoke in the middle. The roof was carried on four wooden pillars that supported wooden beams.

Wigwams and Wikiups

Drawing of a wigwam.

Wigwams and wikiups are only two examples of many different but quite similar dwellings, and the same buildings are used, for instance, in Africa. For the structure of a wikiup – used by nomadic tribes in the south-western USA – long wooden poles or branches are stuck into the ground at both ends, shaped into arches, some parallel to each other, some crossing in the center. Horizontal rings add stability to the construction and are also used to fix the covering material, usually grass.

Wigwams are built in a similar way but the poles do not cross at the center, where a hole for the smoke from the fireplace is left open (this is not necessary when grass is used as a covering material because it easily lets the smoke escape). The other parts of the structure are covered with bark. These houses were mostly used in the north-east. Not all of them were round, sometimes more arches were added in the middle of the wigwam, giving it an oval shape.

1For instance: 'CHEAP. The home of the head chief of all tribes in this country. White man can get information. He is true and honest. He don't give no trouble to no white man.'2A skeleton construction generally consists of beams and pillars as opposed to stone or brick walls for instance.

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