There are many, many long-held stereotypes when it comes to the American Indians, greatly influenced by Hollywood in the 20th Century. One of these stereotypes is that all Native Americans traditionally lived in teepees. While it is true that some tribes did indeed live in teepees, there were many, many other types of traditional Native American dwelling.
How the American Indians lived in the past was dependent on their location and their tribal nations.
Traditional Native American Dwellings
Each Native American tribe required housing that would suit their location, climate, and lifestyle. For example, nomadic tribes required shelter they could take with them as they moved around to hunt migrating herds, while those tribes who based their lifestyle on agriculture were more settled and lived a village lifestyle. Availability of materials was important, with some living in heavily wooded regions while others lived in barren areas. Climate played a huge role as well, with extremes of cold in Alaska, extremes of heat in Arizona, humidity in Florida, and everything in between.
Some of the more common types of Native American dwelling include:
The most widely recognized of all American Indian homes, the teepee (or tipi) was used by the nomadic horse culture Plains Indians, including the Kiowa Apache, Blackfoot, Plains Cree, Cheyenne, Lakota, and Comanche.
The teepee was a tent-like structure made with a cone-shaped frame of wood and a stretched buffalo hide covering. There was a central hole in the ceiling to enable the exhaust of smoke from the central fire pit. The floor inside the teepee was covered with buffalo hide mats to provide warmth. The oldest teepees were 12 feet in height but, once the tribes acquired horses, they doubled in size and could accommodate as many as twelve people.
With a culture based around migration with the movements of buffalo herds, these people needed housing that could be assembled and disassembled quickly and easily for transportation. An entire village of teepees could be packed and on the move within an hour, with women usually being responsible for domestic affairs of this type.
These tall, rectangular adobe complexes were common in the southwest and have been used for at least nine hundred years. Made of mud and grasses, they were ideal in dry, hot climates and offered a cool haven from the heat outside.
Tribes like the Hopi dried clay or adobe (clay plus grasses) into bricks and a new layer of clay was added each year to maintain the home. Pueblos were like apartment buildings, with each unit of the permanent multi-family dwelling being home to a single family, and they could be many stories tall; some were even built onto the side of a cliff. People used ladders to access those above ground level. The interior of the pueblo could be decorated with items like Native American blankets.
The Iroquois and other tribes of the northeast built multifamily longhouses. These were large, permanent structures of around 20 feet wide and they could be up to hundreds of feet long. They were built using long wooden planks held together and framed with curved wooden poles. The longhouse had two floors at its sides, was open down the centre, and had a curved roof. The walls were covered with bark. Hearths were spaced down a central aisle and small holes in the roof enabled smoke to escape. Each longhouse was home to several generations of an extended family, and it could be added to as the family grew.
These were platform dwellings or stilt huts used by the Seminole Indians of Florida. They featured thick posts supporting a flat wooden platform and a thatched roof. Several feet off the ground, they had no walls and the structure remained open. During storms, the people used tarpaulins made of cloth or animal hides to keep the interior dry.
These homes were perfect for people residing in a hot, humid tropical area. The long posts prevented the house from sinking into the swampy ground, and the raised platform prevented alligators, snakes, and other critters from entering the home.
Today, the only type of traditional Native American dwelling in regular use is the adobe pueblo. Some Hopi and other Pueblo people continue to live in the homes their ancestors lived in.
Next time we will look at more traditional Native American dwellings.