Architecture, American Indian

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ARCHITECTURE, AMERICAN INDIAN. The traditional architecture of American Indians was greatly influenced by the building materials available in a particular region of the country. There were other determining factors as well.

Technology imposed three basic structural types: the bent frame with covering, as used for the wigwam; the compression shell, as used for the igloo and tipi; and the post and beam wood frame, as used for the lean-to, the shed, and the plankhouse. Frequently the form of a dwelling utilized more than one technique. Construction practices required great skill, as workers had to steam a sapling until it bent without breaking, to down trees and split boards, to rain proof animal hides, to make fiber ties for binding building materials, or to manufacture adobe bricks.

To protect themselves against the elements, Indians built double-shelled walls of skins or wood that could be insulated with grass or moss. Walls of cane or reeds were erected around dwellings to serve as windbreaks. The sides of structures were covered with bark and animal skin that could be removed on hot summer days. Arbors were built with bough roofs and no walls so inhabitants could rest in the shade.

Social customs governed the size of a structure. If a man lived with his wife's family when he married or vice versa, then the dwelling would be enlarged to accommodate the spouse, and later, children. Many structures, such as the Iroquois's longhouse or the Pueblo's apartment-style buildings, were built in a modular fashion that allowed remodeling. Circular dwellings were often joined to nearby structures by passageways.

The economics of food gathering generally required that Indian tribes have more than one home. Many had summer quarters that allowed easy access to the food source. For example, the Northwest Coast Indians moved inland to collect berries and fish the salmon-laden rivers; and the Pueblo Indians moved closer to their fields to tend their crops. More sedentary Indians in the Northeast would move entire villages to harvest particular runs of fish or birds. They also moved their villages if the supply of saplings for building materials was used up or if the garden soil was exhausted. Many southeastern Indians had summer and winter houses next door to each other with unattached storage units.

Indian views of religion and myths often determined the placement of a dwelling. Prayers were said before construction and blessings asked for after the structure was complete. Different dwellings were needed for various religious ceremonies. Specific structures were designed for sweating, giving birth, cleansing, meditating, dancing, worshipping, and honoring the dead.

During the immediate precontact period, the styles of Indian architecture can be divided into broad geographic regions of ecological similarities. The basic structure in the Northeast woodlands and Great Lakes areas was a frame of bent saplings covered by bark sheets or reed mats. These wigwams, utilized by three major language groups, the Iroquoian, the Algonquian, and the Siouan, were usually round or oblong dome-shaped huts averaging twelve to fifteen feet in diameter. In some areas, the same basic structure was elongated to stretch 100 feet or more. These longhouses were year-round dwellings for extended families or were used as lodges for religious ceremonies.

In the Southeast, the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks lived in towns. Often the chief's house was built on a burial mound; other significant buildings, such as those used for town council or for worship, might also be situated on top of mounds. Houses were constructed of timber and wattle and daub, a clay and grass plaster placed over woven laths of rods or cane; roofs were normally made of thatch, bark, or palmetto leaves. Council houses, also made of wattle and daub, were built for special meetings and assemblies and could hold up to 500 Indians on tiers of raised platforms.

Many Plains agricultural groups lived in earthlodge villages. An earthlodge was usually forty to sixty feet in diameter, but could be larger. Typically, a twelve-post circular arrangement served to support the walls and roof, with a central four-post-and-beam structure used to support the 100 or so rafters. The roof was made of willow branches and prairie grass and topped with sod. These lodges were used during the agricultural season. During hunting season, the Indians would follow the game employing portable housing. Tipis, designed around a three-or four-pole foundation, were covered with buffalo hides. When Indians moved from place to place, dogs carried the poles and hides. Only with the advent of horses did many Plains Indians take up a nomadic existence with large tipis that could be moved by large pack animals.

In the far north, Eskimos survived the dark frigid artic in winter houses or igloos. Winter houses were partially sunk into the ground and their frames were made of whatever could be found nearby: walls were made of rocks or sod, roof supports, of whale bones or driftwood. Layers of seal or walrus skins were covered with dried moss or sod and used for roofs. A long entranceway that angled down and then back up was used to eliminate chilling windblasts and required inhabitants to climb through a trapdoor into the interior. Igloos were made of snow blocks angled and tilted to form a dome. They also featured a long entrance passage. In summer, Eskimos lived in tents of skins covering wooden frames with and without ridgepoles.

Along the Northwest Pacific Coast, Indians harvested planks for their homes from dense cedar forests. They used post and beam construction with rafters to build longhouses (averaging sixty-feet long) for multiple families. They grouped these houses in winter villages facing the shore. Shed roofs and gabled roofs were made with rocks to hold roof planks in position. In summer, many Indians took planks from their homes to use at salmon fishing camps, while others built temporary lean-to dwellings out of brush and cedar-bark mats.

In the Southwest, Indians built dwellings four or five stories high using stone or sun-dried adobe bricks and mortar. Towns were comprised of clustered multiroomed houses with connecting rooftops, interior passageways, underground religious chambers (kivas), public plazas, and work terraces. Steps and ladders led to upper floors. The probable ancestors of these Pueblo Indians were the Anasazis, who built cliff dwellings archeologists believe suggest the use of sophisticated architects and construction contractors.


Ferguson, William M. The Anasazi of Mesa Verde and the Four Corners. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1996.

Morgan, William N. Precolumbian Architecture in Eastern North America. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.

Nabokov, Peter, and Robert Easton. Native American Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Wedel, Waldo R. Central Plains Prehistory: Holocene Environments and Cultural Change in the Republican River Basin. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

Veda BoydJones

See alsoAdobe ; Indian Technology ; Tipi ; Wigwam .

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Architecture, American Indian

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