Native American architecture is amazing in how it makes terrible climates and terrains livable. Indigenous people on King’s Island in western British Columbia figured out how to live on rocky, steep cliffs. They built their homes on platforms secured to the cliffside by poles embedded into the ground. As the cliff rises from the ocean the houses are tiered vertically, and tightly arranged side-by-side. Wood staircases between the layers let people move up and down the cliff. Pole houses had a benefit beyond the cardio of constantly going up and down stairs; the space under the building’s platform, where the wood was driven into the cliffside, was roomy enough to store whaling boats. Indigenous architectural historians Nabokov and Easton (1989) say the boats needed to be “ready to launch whenever sea mammals were sighted.”
Anyone who has ever dreamed of living in a cedarwood closet and having an ocean view would have been right at home in a Northwest Coastal Longhouse. Longhouses lined the Pacific Ocean coastline, and took advantage of the abundant cedar wood in the area. Longhouses were (aptly named) long, to accommodate lots of families. Some of the larger ones could hold over 100 people, all part of the same extended family. The longhouse had one door, usually facing the ocean, which opened into a center aisle that extended the whole length of the longhouse. The longhouse had individual family sections along both sides of the aisle, separated by wooden storage units. The standout feature of the longhouse, and what separates it from its eastern counterpart, is the unique artwork. Totem poles, crests that feature a revered animal, and murals helped identify the house and the family that lived there.
Northwest Coastal Longhouses – A Family Affair (For a While)
Longhouse life was pretty good; coastal views, abundant food, wood as far as the eye could see, and living with extended family, hopefully without many family squabbles. The longhouse builder expected to stay there for his lifetime (longhouse builders were men). They would raise their family in the longhouse. The children would grow up, start their own families, and assigned a new space in the longhouse with their families. But once the head of household died, the longhouse burned or given away. The head of household’s spirit as free when the house was disposed of. If the family stayed too long in that longhouse, the head of household’s spirit would worry too much about them and not properly be at rest. But there was an advantage – it gave someone else the chance to start their own longhouse and begin the cycle anew.
California plank houses use the locally available trees for their plank houses. But these aren’t just trees, these are the massive redwood trees, the trees in northwestern California famous for being large enough to drive through. Taking one of these trees down took a great deal of planning. They burned the base of the tree, then used wedges to split the charred part. The tree produced long, solid boards to build the frame, gabled roof, and plank siding of the plank house. Builders dug a pit into the earth, then framed the house within the pit. The windowless house appear half buried. But the circular entrance was, above all, one of the most unique visual of the house features. No other region uses circular entrances like these.
The semi-migratory nations of the Plateau region set up permanent homes but had shelters at the ready for the summer hunting and gathering seasons. The permanent homes, pit homes or kekuli, were semi-subterranean, or half-sunk into the ground. The foundation is a pit, anywhere from 1 to 2 meters (roughly 3 to 6 feet) deep. A wood frame held up the domed roof, which had a rather large hole at the top. This was on purpose; the hole was vital to the pit house. It provided ventilation, letting smoke from the fire pit out and fresh air in, andserved as the entrance and exit to the house. People had to scramble up their own roof to enter the house, where they would enter down a ladder into the pit. It was cozy but couldn’t have been too comfortable if a fire was going underneath the ladder.
While Plains nations are most famously associated with tipi, it wasn’t the whole story. Earth lodges were popular with the non-migratory agricultural communities, particularly with Eastern Plains groups such as the Pawnee, Omaha, Poncas and Hidatsas. These nations built earth lodge communities along river bluffs, giving them a trade and defensive advantage. Earth lodges were circular, domed, and framed with wood. The frame was then covered with a thick layer of earth. Stepping inside an earth lodge is a spiritual journey. The roof represents the sky, and the walls a never-ending horizon. The lodge has east and western sections. The west side is female, symbolized by the Evening Star. The east side is male, represented by the Morning Star. The “male” half blends into the “female” half in the morning, if the entryway is positioned just right. This would, briefly, merge the Morning and Evening Star.
Like the tipi and the igloo, the wigwam is one of those ‘famous’ Native American buildings that has entered the popular culture realm. But the term wickiup is preferred over wigwam, as many Native Americans feel wigwam is feeding a stereotype. Both terms mean dwelling. Semi-migratory and migratory groups in California, Plains, Northeaster Woodland, Great Basin, and Plateau territories used the wickiup. People in these regions use the same construction technique; build a frame from flexible wood like saplings and tie it together in a dome shape. Place materials over it – whatever was available. Animal skins, bark, woven mats, grasses, or any combination of these. While some of the materials (particularly skins and really good mats) would be taken along from camp to camp, the rest could be discarded and gathered again at the next destination. It came from the earth, it returned to the earth.
The Inuit nation is famous for their igloo, also called Inuit Snowhouse, but Igloo weren’t actually used all that often. They were typically a seasonal house or hunting lodge. Igloo design depended on their occupants; a family might have a huge one, around 4.5 meters (15 feet) in width. Hunters would build smaller ones for themselves as they travelled. Igloo might be single family winter homes, or connect igloo with others to create complex clusters. Hudson Bay area Iglulingmuit people created clusters that functioned like a full-on indoor city, with domes for multiple families, storage, space for the dogs, food storage, and more. Snow and ice is pretty dependent on a constant temperature, and there was just no guarantee that igloos wouldn’t end up melting into a mushy pile during the summer months. Families moved into tents (called tupiq) during warm months.
One similarity across all Native American culture areas is sustainable architecture. Sustainable design is a hot trend in architecture right now. The idea of using locally sourced, renewable, recyclable materials and having a minimal impact on the environment sells house plans and lands designers clients. Developers covet LEED certification, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Buildings from modest homes to major skyscrapers are touting their environmentally friendly elements. Native American builders have been doing this exact thing for millennia. The architecture of indigenous North American tribes has been sustainable for most of history. Natural air flow and properly placed vents supply cooling and heating. The buildings are often wood, earth, animal skins, snow, or use other locally found materials. Construction materials erode and return to the earth. This makes NAtive American design one of the most sustainable forms.
Native American Architecture – Naturally Air Conditioned!
Today’s air conditioning requires a machine that requires electricity to cool the air. Indigenous architecture figured out how to get air flow and cooling without running up a wicked-high electric bill. Buildings, from tipi to longhouse, included good ventilation. Tipi used a flap at the top of the cone-shaped roof, it could open and close depending on whether they wanted to allow cool air in or trap warmth from the inside fire pit. Permanent houses would build ventilation holes into the roof to control the inside temp. Desert-dwelling people in the southwest United States built in caves or used thick adobe mud brick to keep their homes cool. Windows were rare in the early years, keeping the sunlight from heating the inside of the home during summer months.
Nations that moved around a lot, or migratory communities, followed food sources freeze/thaw patterns. They moved to follow the hunt, needing to be ready to move from one site to another quickly. Anyone who has ever moved their household more than once knows the importance of packing light. Tipis are a vital, portable, and famous part of the Plains culture. Animals would carry the wood framing beams from one place to another. Skins, popular with Plains nations, could be folded up and carried on the travois. Once at the new site, there was no need to hunt around for a new tipi covering, it was ready for use. Other communities used foliage like reeds, brush, or bark, sustainable materials easily tossed aside and replaced at the next destination. It was a model of efficiency. It had to be, or packing and moving would slow down the whole group.
Like hieroglyphics on a pyramid, a tipi tells the story of its occupants. In a Plains tradition, the artwork on some tipi has three layers. The lowest layer represents Mother Earth, and the spiritual connection to the ground. The top layer, toward the tip of the cone and around a flap that could be opened and closed to let in light and air, represented the Father Sky. The center section was creative storytelling about whatever the tipi owner wanted to display. They might use that middle space to show images of a great hunt, or draw pictures of the people they loved. It might show images that came to them in a dream, of animals. It represents the earthly realm between Mother Earth and Father Sky. As the band moved place to place, the tipi cover came too, like hanging a familiar picture in a new apartment.
Like their northwestern coastal counterparts, longhouses used by Eastern Woodland tribes were huge, even by modern standards. 20 or more families might live there, forming a clan, complete with their own mascot animal. Most longhouses were about 55 to 67 meters (about 180 to 220 feet) long. The longhouse was segmented into units of about 6 or 7 meters (around 20 feet) long, with a wide center aisle. Clan leaders assigned families to a segment on one side of the aisle, complete with their own sleeping platform and storage. Because nobody likes to stare at their neighbors for too long, each unit had a partition or curtain for a little privacy. Family units had to share a fire pit with the family across the aisle. Hopefully there was an agreement over who was supposed to clear the ashes out of the pit each week.
Longhouses in Eastern Woodland tribes were huge, filled with members of a clan. Members of a clan were all traced back to a sole source: a woman. A clan’s lineage followed the female line, and anyone living in the longhouse had to either be a blood member of the clan on that line or marry into it. Clan members could not intermarry. When a clan member married, the male of the partnership moved into the woman’s household to live in her longhouse with her clan. They would make a new home in one of the segments of the longhouse. The clan’s leader would manage the longhouse, taking care of all the activity within its walls. She would distribute food and coordinate the farming and other work. She would also pick the men who would serve on the tribal council.
Nations in the southeast, particularly areas around the Everglades and other swampy areas, had a big problem. The ground was wet. Pretty much all the time. Living in wet, boggy territory wasn’t terrible, it meant healthy crops for these agricultural communities. Even so, it wasn’t the best thing for the wood, earth, and thatching they used for their buildings. The chickee solved this problem by lofting the floor off the ground. The platform was raised about one meter (three feet) off the ground, and secured on the framing poles, lofting it on posts to keep it from water seepage. The platform stayed dry from the wet bottom, the people stayed dry thanks to a thickly thatched, gabled roof that moved water away from them, and the chickee dwellers were comfortable enough to stay and farm the land.
Pueblo nations were non-migratory farmers. They built their homes to last a lifetime. While there were single family homes, the multi-family buildings are symbolic of the Pueblo style. Some of these homes were large, with up 100 rooms. Pueblo multi-family houses came in different forms. There were linear groupings, one next to another, like row housing. In other communities, houses were tiered, stacked on top of one another. The roof of one house was an entry platform to another. These earthen apartment buildings rose several stories tall. Upper levels were accessible by stairs and ladders. The lower levels were utility rooms for storage and pantries. Stacking units like this made very efficient use of the space – communities could share irrigation channels, access ladders, storage, stairs, and other neighborhood stuff. It also gave the Pueblo people their distinctive architecture.
Indigenous people in the southwest had a particular problem when developing their buildings. The desert climate is hot, dry, and not as full of the wood so abundant in other Native American regions below the Arctic. But Pueblo design found a way to make these problems work for them. They developed adobe, a mix of clay, straw, small pebbles, sand, and water. The sun baked the mix to form a mud brick. A thick plaster covered the adobe brick. Wood was scarce, but carefully used as a frame and laid to create beams, called viga, for a flat roof. The ends of the viga stick out of the wall, staying visible and giving the adobe home its distinct look. The best part? It was thick, and in a near-windowless building, it kept the heat of the day out. It was a natural air conditioning.
Navajo people of the southwest notably used the hogan, a variation of the pit houses used in other regions. The pit was shallow, only .6 to 1 meters (roughly 2-3 feet) deep, and framed in a circle or semi-circle. The Navajo settled in areas where pinon pine trees were more abundant than their pueblo-building neighbors. They used the pines to frame the houses and create stacked log walls on the hogan. The roof is a corbeled domed, created by stacking logs closer and closer together. Earth, baked mud, sod, reeds, and (much more rarely) carved stone covered the dome. A smoke hole in the dome provided fresh air and ventilation. This kept water out, but also naturally cooled the building. The space was a single room, without walls or dividers. These walls had sculpted-earth benches along them for seating and storage. But the Hogan is especially notable for its spiritual connection.
The Hogan wasn’t just an ordinary home, it is connected to the spirits of First Man and First Woman. In Navajo tradition, the pair completed a migration around three underworlds. The Supreme Being greeted First Man and First Woman at the end of their journey. He showed them a house shaped like a mountain. This was the “heart of the earth.” The Supreme Being showed them another house that looked more like a butte, calling this the “lungs of the earth.” The hogan is based on the Heart of the Earth and the Lungs of the Earth. The shape varies, but the spiritual connection does not. When a hogan’s construction is complete, there is a dedication ceremony honoring the journey of the First Man and First Woman.
Popular discussion of Native American communities overlooks the large, urbanized cities, with houses, shopping, multi-story buildings, roads and dedicated paths, and government. These were trade centers built near riverways for ease of transportation and abundance of resources. Traders from many regions and communities would share goods, ideas, technologies, and spirituality with cities along these riverways. The architecture of these cities reflects the Native American tradition of using locally sourced materials. Cities also used the common architectural styles of their region. For instance, the city of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico reflects the adobe Pueblo style of the nearby territory. While culturally the cities weren’t much different than smaller villages and hamlets , they were larger, more densely populated. They had to provide services to more people. Cities had to plan for things like water, waste disposal, roads, and other functions on a much larger scale than smaller communities.
The city of Chaco Canyon, in present day New Mexico, was a cosmopolitan trade hub from about 850 CE to 1250CE. Trade was critical – Chaco Canyon sat on in salty, infertile soil. Most of the food had to be imported, and Chaco Canyon became a regional economic center connected to other cities by roads and irrigation systems, some 15 miles long. Their sophistication showed in architecture. They built unique semi-circular stone buildings with hundreds of rooms tucked into its five or six stories. These buildings are called great houses, even though nobody lived in them. They were more like ancient office buildings and shops. The particularly unique thing about these huge complexes is that they didn’t start as small buildings and have add-ons over the years. Archaeologists believe the Great Houses, about 150 of them in all, were planned to be large from the start.
Plains: Earth Lodge Clusters in On-a-Slant Village
Earth lodges provided solid permanent housing for people of the Eastern Plains. These lodges clustered together to create thriving agricultural communities along waterways. The rive gave them a chance to not only provide for their own needs, but trade, too. The farms produced a surplus for trade, and from 900 CE on, eastern Plains farming communities engaged in long-distance trade. One community, the Mandan nation’s On-a-Slant Village housed seventy-five to eighty tightly-placed earth lodges clustered around a central plaza. On-a-Slant village was built along a river bluff, which gave them the defensive advantage of being able to watch the river for attackers. Additionally, the city had a high wall around its perimeter to protect them from an overland attack. The defenses and trading allowed On-a-Slant Village to reach a population of about 1,000 people. It flourished for about 200 years until the 1780s, when smallpox ravaged its population.
In 1600 CE, the Plains Hidatsa people settled a river bluff area near the Knife River in what is now North Dakota. The population of 820 to 1200 people clustered in 120 earth lodges together to form a village of about 820 to 1,200 people. The earth lodges in the community could hold 20 to 30 people, making each lodge a small community within itself. Big Hidatsa Village had suburbs, the Lower Hidatsa Village (Awatixa Xi’e), and Awatixa. Hidatsa Village and its suburbs were agricultural trade centers, but are best known for diplomacy. They facilitated trade between traders coming from the Minnesota region to the nations in the west, they were the home of one of the most well-known guides in history. Sakakawea lived in one of the Hidatsa villages prior to her work with the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Plains Region: Chicago wasn’t the first grand city in Illinois!
Near East St, Louis, Illinois, visitors can climb the central staircase on a giant, grass-covered earthen mound. What looks like a big hill with stairs is actually the physical remains of a city. Between 1000 and 1350 CE, the city of Cahokia was home to an estimated 10,000 to 20,000, and if its suburbs are included, 40,000 to 50,000 people. Cahokia was a farming community that specialized in maize production, but also served as a trade and government center, and a scientific community. The city had everything a city needed, including natural and man-made water systems and roads. The ever-important central plaza held festivals and ceremonies that make city life exciting. In their off time, Cahokians could head to a play area and enjoy a game of Chunkey, where they would aim spears at disc-shaped, rolling stones. Looming over the city like a watchful friend was Monks Mound.
The National Park Service calls Monks Mound, built around 900 CE, the “largest indigenous structure north of Mexico.” The mound’s base was 291 by 236 meters (954.7 by 774.3 feet). This means the base is larger than the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt. But unlike its minimalist, smooth-sided Egyptian relative, it had four terraces as it climbed toward the sky. Monks Mound was an organic earthen mound, unlike their stone-built Egyptian cousins. Each tier was slightly smaller than the one beneath it. It was the original Community Center; it was a foundational platform for public buildings, burial mounds. Some of the terraces had gardens. Despite the name, there were no monks living on the mound in Cahokia’s heyday. The name refers to the Trappist monks who lived near it in the 1800s. Remarkably, Monks Mound was the tallest man-made structure in the United States until 1867.
Scotland has Stonehenge, Cahokia has Woodhenge. Woodhenge was, historically, an observatory for watching the sun, moon, and star cycles, built on land once used for houses in the early Emergent Mississippian era. There were five observatories at Cahokia. Wood posts, made of sacred red cedar reached toward the sky. The resulting shadows provided scientific data the people needed for their studies and to properly time religious ceremonies and agricultural cycles. The five observatories were probably built at different times because each Woodhenge had a larger diameter and twelve more posts than the one it overlapped. Woodhenge 1 had twenty-four posts. The last Woodhenge, Woodhenge 5 had 72 posts. Archaeologists believe Woodhenge 1 was built in 900 CE, was in use for much of Cahokia’s history, then just stopped being used around 1100 CE. Woodhenge likely returned to its original residential use, based on archaeology at the site.
Nobody knows why Cahokia was abandoned in the mid to late 1300s, but historians think it might be a combination of things like disease, warfare, conflict, trouble with the watershed and depleted wood resources. Faith in leadership plummeted. There would have been fights over the (increasingly scarce) good land, and warfare between communities. Cahokia built wooden palisades for protection against these new threats. The city’s’ population moved on, joining other Native American communities and evolved into groups like the Osage, leaving the bustling urban center a mere memory. Seventy mounds remain out of the known original 120, but the most formidable by far was Monks Mound. The city wasn’t suddenly, catastrophically abandoned. That is pretty rare in city evolution. Historians believe it followed a pattern of urban decline, where little things, and time, reduce a city’s purpose and usefulness.
Native American Architecture is a Modern Inspiration
What makes Native American architecture amazing is its template for modern designers. The buildings were sustainable, but also very sturdy, waterproof, and kept cool (or warm) using natural, not mechanized means. These ideas are consistent for every region, from the Arctic to Southwest, from small, migratory bands to the urban centers like Cahokia and Chaco Canyon. The design was often compact rather than clearing great swaths of land for housing and made use of the materials nearby for construction. True, some of these materials are less sustainable that others, particularly the loss of ancient redwoods in California, but that was an exception. Native American architecture is complex, with a huge variety in styles, details, decorative details, and spiritual meaning. Archaeologists are continuously finding new information about Native American buildings. But more important, architectural traditions live on with the Native American people. These traditions are passed down through generations.