For Museums, State/National Parks, Heritage Sites, Powwows, Cultural Centers & Schools
By Jessica Diemer-Eaton for Woodland Indian Educational Programs.
First Published Online 2014. Updated with Photos in 2018.
Late spring to early summer was the time for building dome and barrel-roofed homes traditional to the Woodlands region. It was at this time that the materials used for building these flexed homes were ready to use… saplings of many varieties would bend freely, and tree bark of many species could be peeled off in large sheets. This meant that those Midwestern/Southern Great Lakes Peoples who specifically utilized dome-roofed homes or “wigwams” in winter camps, such as the Kickapoo and Meskwaki/Fox Peoples, usually had to construct the framework of new winter lodges in the warm months. For others, like the Mid-Atlantic Munsee-Delaware (northern Lenape), dome wigwams and cigar-shaped lodges were lived in year round in main villages. Just to the west of the Delaware, the Susquehannock of Pennsylvania lived in villages comprised of barrel-roofed longhouses (like many of their Iroquoian kin). And still for others, like some southern New England communities, smaller wigwams were dispersed among fertile farming plots, and lived in during the summer months (larger flexed-walled lodges being preferred in winter). No matter what season a flexed home was to be lived in, building such a style of home was accomplished more efficiently in the late spring to early summer months, when the sap flow signaled trees to put forth the year’s new growth of leaves. It was this time of year that saplings used to build the framework of the home were pliable and easily cleaned of their bark.
The “green” poles used in flexed-wall frameworks were obtained from many varieties of trees. Those the Native Peoples used more often depended on cultural and individual preference, and availability. Often we hear willow (scrub/river willow) as the “only” traditional variety used for dome wigwam construction, however the history record is very clear in asserting that many varieties were used across the Eastern Woodlands. Some Anishinaabe/Ojibwe, for example, were historically recorded in using tamarack poles while demonstrating dome-wigwam construction for ethnologist Frances Densmore, however, Densmore also noted a special preference for ironwood (as in American Hophornbeam variety, not muscle wood/blue beech variety also known as “ironwood”)… the reason given was because they could use smaller diameter poles which, when dried in place, had the strength of larger diameter poles of other varieties of trees. Her Anishinaabe informants were also noted in favoring elm saplings for straight-sided bark homes, and spruce saplings for conical wigwams. Some traditional lodge builders today cite cedar as their tribe/Nation’s traditional framework material, and often archaeologists cite oak and hickory as possible vertical house posts. In constructing these wigwams, we have personallyused poplar, hard maple, soft maple, sassafras, pine, aspen, beech, and locust saplings for the framework.
While many tree types work well in creating flexed-wall house frameworks (some more than others), many varieties, especially those that bend more freely, have very limited lifespans at ground level. Indeed, only some species lasted longer in the ground, indicating the possibility that builders were more selective of vertical poles, using preferred varieties of trees possibly in contrast to horizontal poles on some level (indeed an early 20th century Anishinaabe/Ojibwe wigwam was noted to use some poplar poles in it's roof frame while tamarack was put in the ground). We know locust and cedar, although tough to bend, have an excellent lifespan in the ground. On the other side of the spectrum is willow and poplar… and according to Purdue University, black willow has absolutely no resistance to rot, making it a rather poor choice when placed in the ground for dome-wigwams and barrel-roofed longhouses, as these frames were permanent and meant to last.
Partly built wigwam frame, framed with a stormy sky (by WIEP, in Indiana).
Historically speaking, it wasn’t unusual to add more wall posts (or possibly “stakes” to secure partly rotted wall posts) throughout the lifespan of the structure, which, depending on the community and structure type, could be a lifespan of 10 plus years. Usual home maintenance is quite evident in the archaeological record. Knowing that, selecting vertical poles to construct a flexed-wall home probably depended on a delicate balance of three material factors: longevity, flexibility, and availability.
Indeed, picking poles to build a "flexed" home was probably a more selective process than picking poles to use in "rigid" (straight-walled) home construction, because often those poles that bent easily weren't the most decay resistant in the ground (as covered in our last post). Possibly for this reason (among others) many earlier Mississippian house structures of the Southern Woodlands changed from flexed structures to rigid structures. However flexed homes remained strong in much of the Woodlands region. Reasons for this change in some areas with a continued tradition of flexed-wall structures in other regions of the East remain largely unknown, and may be based on a mixture of factors like resources, environmental changes, and cultural trends.
Wigwam frame built by WIEP.
Based on excavation sites, the diameter of saplings used in flexed-wall construction varied. Post base diameters range from 1 to 2.5 inches in smaller nuclear family wigwams, up to 3.5 inches in multi-family lodges, and to 4 inches in large barrel-shaped longhouses (specifically speaking of wall frame posts). Generally, wall posts were placed rather closely together to create a strong lattice, sometimes as close as 6 inches apart (as seen in some Virginia excavations). Larger posts (3.5 plus inches) used in Iroquoian longhouse frames (featuring 12-foot plus roof heights), could be spaced 24 inches or more apart as these posts were quite stout. A house frame has to be strong enough to hold bark/mats, a snow load (depending on location and structure type), and the weight of builders to climb on it while working.
Let’s use a Late Woodland era Munsee-Lenape/Delaware longhouse for example: A longhouse at the Miller Field site (Northwestern New Jersey) measured about 60 feet in length and 20 feet wide. It had rounded ends which indicate a dome roof (this type of lodge is often described as cigar-shaped). As determined by the posthole stains, of which there were 220, this was a double-framed lodge (inner and outer frame to sandwich bark coverings) which employed saplings between 2.5 and 3 inches in diameter at the base. In general, most vertical poles were set between 9 to 12 inches apart.
Here are some more examples of posthole size and placement distance in flexed-home construction from other Eastern Woodland communities:
*The Late Woodland Bessemer site in Southwestern Virginia where remains of a “rectanguloid” house (rectangular with rounded corners – interpreted to be flexed-home but can be debatable) 50 feet long and 20 feet wide was excavated. In total, 193 postmolds were uncovered. Post diameter varied but over 80% of post bases were between 2 and 3.5 inches.
*The 17th century Strickler site of Southeastern Pennsylvania exhibits barrel-shaped longhouses about 60 feet in length by 18-22 feet wide. Evidence shows an average of 2 to 3 inch base diameter of poles used. They were placed at an average of 18” apart.
*The early 18th century Natchez, of now southern Mississippi and Louisiana, were recorded as preferring saplings 4 inches in diameter (at the base) for their flexed-homes. The vertical poles are placed in the ground no more than 15 inches apart (note: the walls of these homes, in contrast to the classic wigwam model, were wattle and daub).
*The early 20th century Anishinaabe/Ojibwe who demonstrated the construction of a wigwam for Frances Densmore placed tamarack poles, that appeared to be about 2 inches in diameter, about 18 or so inches apart in the ground.
*The Mexican Kickapoo of the 1960’s (originally of the Great Lakes region) used saplings from 2 to 3 inches in diameter to construct the framework of their winter wigwams over two central structural posts. On a side note, the Kickapoo use of interior structural posts in oval-shaped wigwams rings is similar in practice to some of their ancient neighbor’s lodge styles, such as the late precontact structural remains excavated at Douglas Lake in Northern Michigan (that of four large posts surrounded by an oblong pattern of smaller postholes).
Harvesting saplings was usually the job of men. Men, being the main woodworkers of most Woodland societies, usually took charge of the cutting of poles for dome-wigwams and barrel-roofed/cigar-shaped longhouses (exceptions can be seen for some smaller temporary camp structures, especially some straight-walled structures built in the extreme northwoods, where women participated more in or took charge of gathering poles for the framework, more or less depending on the culture). In general, poles needed to be very long with as little taper as possible. Such saplings could be found in deep forest (especially small valleys) as they grew straight and tall actively seeking sunlight blocked by the forest canopy. Few have also theorized some Native Peoples may have practiced some form of sapling management… that is encouraging “sapling patches” to grow. With such a method, builders would clear saplings and let new shoots grow in abundance for future use, harvest again, and repeat the cycle (I have personally tried this practice to mixed success, reaping two harvests of saplings after an initial one… an attentive forester would achieve better results). Actively managing certain natural resources, whether it be for raw materials or foods, was a usual practice among many Native communities.
Once harvested the poles were stripped of their bark. Removing the bark prolonged the life of the poles by discouraging rot and bugs. During the late spring to early summer, many varieties of saplings could be easily peeled by hand (otherwise, they had to be scraped of their bark). The thick ends destined to be placed in the ground were then readied. Many did this by fire-hardening the ends, which in the classic definition means hardening by holding the wood over the flame to dry it out and tighten the grain, however some archaeological sites have revealed evidence of actual burning of the pole ends (possibly fire-hardened, slightly burned, and hammered to make stiff and pointed). Doing this not only stiffened the ends to be thrust into the ground, but also possibly deterred rot and certain wood-seeking bugs for a while. Or, as some sites show only evidence of only part or half the post ends burned, it could also have been a byproduct of shortening poles before use (laying poles over a fire to passively “cut” the pole at the desired point with little effort). Still there is reason to believe the practice may have been more intentional for strength and possible resistance to ground rot.
And yes, I did mention hardening the ends of the poles before driving them into the ground. It seems, depending on the building tradition, not all poles were set in excavated cavities (whether it be dug out holes or long trenches). For those archaeological sites that showed no ground disturbance around the postholes (such ground disturbance usually attributed to digging), it is likely that a hardened stake was driven into the ground at each spot a pole was to be placed, molding cavities for the pole ends to be then driven into usually at a depth of a foot, give or take.
And for those who did excavate cavities, it appears some may have used other materials to anchor the poles in the ground, besides just dirt. One site in Pennsylvania showed a few postholes of a lodge to contain broken pottery and other materials, possibly used to help fill the void or even stabilize the framework (note: cultural/spiritual reasons for such materials being buried with a few of the posts is a possibility too). We (WIEP) can personally attest to the benefits of packing post ends with stones and wood pieces (even bricks) when building wigwam frames on softer grounds. While some may have practiced this, many also did not... it would be very evident for those communities who did, archaeologically speaking.
Vertical poles driven in the ground (vertically or at an angle) were then bent into place, creating the dome shape of the roof and walls. Anishinaabe/Ojibwe men drove the poles into the ground and bent them into shape, holding them in place until their female kin tied them sufficiently to each other. Natchez men fastened ropes to the top sections of the poles and pulled them downward to meet matching poles from the opposite side, creating the arch shape roof. For dome-shaped roofs, this technique is ideal as each arch is a different size – each must be formed individually in place to create a well-shaped roof. However for barrel-shaped longhouses, where each arch is roughly the same size, the preforming of each arch, by staking them out while laying on the ground, is a plausibly efficient method to build (such a method was exemplified and well documented by an experimental archaeology project/dissertation involving the building of a Pumunkey style longhouse).
18th century Siouan wigwam builders (of Virginia), like most in the Eastern Woodlands, used bark cordage to tie their house frames together. Bark was an abundant resource, and since lodges were built largely of tree sources, it’s no surprise that bark cordage was the preferred lashing material. The inner fibers of many varieties of tree barks (including basswood, elm, cedar, poplar, etc.), when harvested and processed correctly, provided a strong cordage capable to securing wigwam frames. I personally twist up poplar, basswood, and cedar fibers into cordage material (along with milkweed and dogbane plant fibers), and all these bark fibers are capable of great strength.
Bark cordage, if we take our cue from the Anishinaabe/Ojibwe, was always in store. Native Peoples worked to keep a surplus of such a useful, everyday resource in stock so when the occasion to lash, sew, string up, or tie something together arose, there was enough string/rope for the task. But house building called for a lot of lashing material, so most likely fiber collecting and processing activities increased with the anticipated construction of a new home.
The Anishinaabe, like so many Native Peoples, made much use of basswood bark cordage. To obtain the inner bark fibers, living basswood trees were stripped of their bark in sheets. The bark was then cut into strips and sunk into the water for many days (likewise poplar fibers can be “loosen” by a controlled wet-rot process). When taken out, the outer bark was easily removed, leaving layers of inner bark fibers behind. The fibers were then sometimes boiled, the reason given was such a process helped to strengthen the fibers. It could then be used as is, or twisted into a strong twine. Women were said to be quite proficient in this skill (twisting/weaving/twining plant and tree fibers into cordage, bags, belts, carrying straps, and even garments was common among many pre-contact Peoples of the Woodlands region).
With this cordage, wigwam frames were lashed together. Often this job was a shared one between the sexes. Some speak of men holding the framework in place while women tied off. Even when men worked alone on structures, presumably much of the cordage for the project was supplied by their female kin (likewise when women worked alone to cover a lodge with mats, it was often on a framework built by their male kin). It might be important to note here that Native “gendered work” wasn’t opposite or separate, but complimentary and overlapping – codependent and existing in the same space (and don’t make the mistake of assuming all work to be strictly gendered, assume only two genders as a given, or assume gendered work to be absolute… defaulting to these perspectives often leads to overlooking the complexity of social interaction/relations in historic Native communities).
Once the framework was complete, it had to be covered. When it came to flexed-walled structures of the Woodlands region, many were covered with sheets of bark (other traditions included mats, thatching, and/or daub). When most think of bark covered Native homes, they think about birch bark. Paper birch did provide many northern Native folks with a thin, flexible, and even portable house covering, however, the natural region of dense paper birch growth is located only in the northern half of the Great Lakes, and New England (of the Eastern Woodlands cultural region). Only those Woodlands Peoples actually relied on paper birch for house coverings, and even they often used other bark varieties in conjunction with their birch bark. The Anishinaabe/Ojibwe, for example, were noted to use ash, elm, and cedar bark along with birch. Johanna and Christian Feast write that the Ottawa (Odawa) of the upper Great Lakes covered their longhouses with sheets of cedar and fir bark.
Paper birch bark, when used for transportable coverings, were sewn together in long sheets that were easily rolled up for travel. When arriving at a camp structure, Anishinaabe women would spread the roles out again (often with the aid of water), and secure them to the structure. Birch bark was the only real transportable home covering made of bark, although many did also apply it to their homes permanently with no intent of traveling with them.
Below the native region of paper birch another bark was often favored… elm. Elm produced some of the thinnest bark sheets outside paper birch and was more widely available in the eastern forests. With that said, it should be noted that it wasn’t the only bark utilized. In fact, like the saplings used to create the flexed house frames, bark seems to be obtained from many varieties across the Eastern Woodlands. Early descriptions of Lenape/Delaware bark-covered homes highlight the use of chestnut, oak, linden (basswood), and elm bark. Indeed, thin bark probably wasn’t a necessary attribute for home coverings outside of paper birch region. Longhouses and dome wigwams were permanent structures, and the thick bark applied to them was meant to add to the structure’s integrity. Thick barks were heavy, strong and would last long when fastened to a frame, but would quickly crack and fail as coverings if moved around (something we, WIEP, have experienced since we have no choice but to travel with sheets of thick bark to our program sites... something this bark is not meant to do). We have personally stripped elm, ash, poplar, maple, oak, and hickory for house coverings (the shagbark hickory being both easy to separate and rather strong and resistant to cracking when harvesting, but red, white, and black oak not being our favorites at all), and it is easy to see why so many bark varieties would have been useful in home coverings. Most likely, it was the trees within a local area of residence that determined what bark was to be most utilized.
During the late spring to early summer, the bark of most trees separate from the sapwood as a new tree ring forms. It was this time of year the bark was able to be peeled off in large sections. Often this was done while the tree was standing. To do so it was girdled on the bottom and up high, and a line was cut vertically to connect the two. The length of the section was often the height which a person could cut, however it is known that ladder devices were employed to harvest bark pieces eight or more feet in height. And presumably trees blown down in strong spring storms may have been targeted for bark, if in a convenient location.
Above Video: The author peels poplar bark from a tree felled by her husband. Though this is a modern method, and the sheets are only 4ft tall (for use in WIEP's traveling exhibit), you can see and even hear the bark separating from the sapwood. The author, Jessica, has been peeling bark for over 15 years now.
For thick barks (poplars, elms, hickories, ashes, etc.), stone and later metal axes where used to chop through the bark layer. The bark is peeled off using tools for the job, often sticks with wedged ends. It can be applied straight to the lodge frame, especially if it’s a flexed home (as the bark can be shaped to the curve of the frame), or it can be laid out bark side up, weighted and flattened for later use. Left to dry without being fixed to a frame or weighted flat, it will roll up and become unusable. Often lodges covered with thick bark employed a second frame, sandwiching the bark between the inner and outer framework. Heavy barks are often shaped right away while fresh, unlike birch bark, which is more easily shaped anytime after a good soak.
Birch bark was often taken around the same time of year. It too could be taken from a standing tree, but often the trees (which weren’t as large in diameter as other trees used for their bark) were cut down first to take as much useable bark from each tree as possible (as demonstrated by some early 20th century Anishinaabe/Ojibwe birch bark harvesters). The bark was sliced into with knives, cut with hatchets, and peeled off the tree. It, unlike other bark varieties, could be saved, moistened and used later. In fact, it could be used over and over again, covering one structure to the next.
After bark is stripped from living or freshly cut down (or blown down) trees, it is used either right away or laid out to dry flat and used later. The bark is attached to the wigwam frame, tied on with cordage and/or braced with an outer frame, working from the bottom to the top (in a shingling fashion). Doing this sheds water off the structure properly. Using an outer framework of saplings to brace bark against the inner frame not only braces heavy bark to discourage curling as the bark dries, but it likely cuts down on the amount of cordage that would be needed to brace the bark just as firmly - heavy barks like poplar, elm, ash, hickory, etc. all want to curl as they dry (and often continue to curl every time they dry from wet weather). These bark varieties will warp with intense strength and require sufficient bracing to counteract such.
Wigwams and other types of flexed-wall structures of the Woodlands are known for being covered with sheets of bark, however, it is often that where bark was utilized for house coverings, so were reed mats. Such mats might be used on temporary camp lodges or at a family’s winter quarters (ie a small winter wigwam located at a distance from the main village comprised of larger, multifamily bark lodges, as usual for many mid-western Nations), utilized to cover main village homes (such as what was seen with some Virginia/North Carolina coastal Native villages), or used to insulate village bark homes that were inhabited year round (such as was presumably done by Munsee-Lenape/Delaware Peoples).
Exterior mats were often made of cattail leaves. They were made by sewing through the leaves… not weaving. This helped to shed water. Also they were easily made compared to woven mats, which is logical as exterior mats would have to be replaced more often as they were exposed to the elements. Cattail mats could be made single or double thickness. Often one edge is left “unfinished” – this helps to shed water, and again, it’s more efficient to not spend unnecessary time finishing an edge that would be counterproductive. The cattail mats were layered, the same as bark sheets, starting from the bottom working to the top (to shed water).
Cattail mats (and mats in general) insulate the home from the cold outside. The cattail leaves are spongy and full of air space. Layering the mats, 4 or more deep, create air pockets between the warm interior and cold exterior temperature (allowing a gradual change from cold to warm, efficiently insulating the home). Often bark was used in conjunction with mats, offering even more protection from the elements. Likewise interior mats, usually woven (many of bulrush, sometimes other reeds or grasses) and often featuring aesthetically pleasing designs, were also used to insulate the home. They were fastened to the frame from the inside. Those who lived in year-round bark homes could use such interior mats seasonally, insulating their lodge by fixing the mats to the inside of the bark walls as needed. Mats were also used for padding under beds and sitting areas, privacy walls/dividers (in multifamily lodges), and for carpeting the floors of the homes.
Note: This article doesn’t cover the wattle-and-daub variation of flexed-wall construction, as exemplified by certain Mound Building Peoples and Woodland Nations, especially of the Southeast.
The Term Wigwam...
The word “wigwam” is derived from the Algonquian Language Family and is employed today as a universal term in describing traditional nuclear family homes of the Eastern Woodlands region. Close terms include the Unami-Delaware “wikëwam” (wikwahëma pl) and Ojibwe “wiigiwaam” (wiigiwaaman pl). Wig- and wik- can often be thought of as the base terms “dwell,” “dwelling,” and “live” (depending on the language), and can also be seen in words describing materials often employed in house building (particularly bark). For example, “wiku” is Unami-Delaware for “he dwells (he has a house),” and “niila weekiaani” is Miami for “I dwell (at a place).”
It should be noted that W’s and K’s swap depending on dialect (as in “wig-“ and “wik-“ in wigwam terminology can vary from culture to culture). Both sounds are made with similar actions in the back of the mouth (go ahead, try it… pronounce /g/ and /k/).
But what then is a wikiup? “Wikiup” derives from of an Algonquian Native term referring to a home structure, just the same as “wigwam.” It was likely corrupted from house terms like “wikiop” (Menominee) and “wiikiyaapi” (Fox/Meskwaki), or even “wiikapi” (Miami) defined as “a piece of basswood bark.” Wikiup, contrary to popular belief, is a wigwam. Though modernly a wikiup is thought to be a smaller version of a “normal-sized wigwam” that, as a full structure including framework, is mobile. But keep in mind that English-speakers brought the terms "wigwam" and "wikiup" together as labels for Native homes. In origin of terminology, the terms appear to be of different languages/dialects, therefore such terms would not have coexisted originally. It must also be noted that no lodge traveled in the Eastern woodlands... There is no equivalent of a tipi here, where all coverings and pole structure traveled camp site to camp site (and just for fun, "tipi"- Lakota term: ti- "to live/dwell," and -pi pluralizes the term: "they live/dwell" - ah, reminds me of Lakota language classes and my university days past... but I digress : ) Only some coverings of the wigwam could travel historically... specifically the reed matting, any canvas tarps (post-contact), and birch bark sheets (that are sewn together and travel in rolls... and not any other type of bark ). Poles and framework, as well as any other bark besides birch, did not get broken down and packed to move (and most bark utilized in the Woodlands region were heavy barks that did not travel).. The framework of dome-shaped lodges were even set in the ground, usually about a foot or so. "Traveling wikiups" are a thing today due to 1. mid-20th century bushcraft publications and scouting activities that established their popular version of Native lifeways (which continues today), and 2. hobbyists and enthusiasts' need to pack small dome or conical-shaped "mini wigwams" (hardly tall enough to stand in) to travel via modern vehicles from place to place. As you can guess, packing the wikiup poles on top of a sedan wasn't usual practice a few hundred years ago.
“Wigwam” and “wikiup” are both popularly used to describe Woodland nuclear family homes. In general reference, these terms work (like when we use the term "moccasin" to describe a type of footwear in general). But keep in mind there are so many uncorrupted terms for “a home/dwelling” from different Native dialects that are very appropriate to use, especially when describing homes of specific Nations. You might have noticed that we favor the term “wigwam” in our writings. This is only because the term “wikiup” is often an applied term to describe Apache dwellings (in poplar writing and some academic outlets), and because they are not similar, we’d rather stick to terminology that embodies Woodland traditions without the association of a very different Native housing tradition of the Southwest. But truly the term “wikiup,” just like the term “wigwam,” are born of the Woodlands region.
About the Author: Jessica first started constructing Native-style home frames and peeling bark in 2001 while working for a museum in New Jersey. Since then, she has continued constructing wigwams, learning from other builders, and researching ethnographies, historical accounts, and archaeological site reports that highlight Native homes. All this information figures into her building approach. Today Jessica has built, repaired, and/or helped maintained almost 20 life-size traditional Native-style structures ranging from simple lean-tos to dome wigwams to multifamily lodges/longhouses (built of both traditional and conventional materials). If your organization is interested in a WIEP Wigwam Workshop, clickhere.
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