Earth lodges: Homes of the Native Americans of the Great Plains built with a technique 6,000 years old

Verica Sitnik
 
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The Native American tribes from Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains such as Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan built semi-subterranean structures known as earth lodges. Earth lodges are circular in construction and covered with earth, either completely or partially.

They have been found in archaeological sites of the Mississippian Culture in the Eastern United States. A number of reconstructed lodges can be seen, such as Town Creek Indian Mound which is open to the public and includes a visitor center and several monuments.

The entire village consists of earth lodges. Author: Mandaree36. CC BY-SA 3.0

Earth lodges were often built by the tribes on their farms, and a large number of reconstructed lodges can be seen at Glenwood Lake Park, Iowa. In New Town, North Dakota, an entire village is made up of earth lodges. The community consists of a large ceremonial lodge and six family-sized dwellings. It was constructed by Hidatsa, Mandan and Arikara Nation and is the only village of its kind to exist in the last 100 years. The ceremonial lodge is more than 90 feet in diameter, while the family lodges are 40 feet in diameter.

Wattle wall in the process of construction. Author: Richard New Forest. CC BY-SA 3.0

Wattle and daub technique was typically used for the construction of these buildings, with a thick coating of earth. This is a composite building material that has been used for at least 6,000 years, mostly for making walls.

The wattle is made by weaving branches daubed with a sticky material such as clay or animal dung and left to dry; the daub is usually a mixture of individual ingredients to control shrinkage and provide flexibility. It is very similar to the modern process of lath and plaster which was in common use in the first half of the 20th century.

The view of an earth lodge before covering with earth, built by North Dakota National Guard.

Earth lodges usually have a dome-like shape. The shape was achieved by the use of angled tree trunks. Sometimes hipped roofs, a type of roof in which all sides slope downwards to the walls, were used in the construction. The first move in the construction is digging the area to a few feet beneath the surface, which allowed the building to have the floor beneath the ground level.

The exterior of an Earth lodge reconstitution at Knife River Indian Village. Author: Nakor. CC BY-SA 3.0

After the posts are set into holes in the ground, which are arranged on the edges of the structure, and the tops meet in the middle. This technique can produce large buildings up to 60 feet across, in which more than one family can live. The next step is a strong layer of sticks, also a thin layer of thatch can be applied so the structure is ready to be covered with earth. The ground was used as some insulation, which helped to keep a comfortable temperature in the earth lodge. Clay was often used as the outer shell of the building.

Reconstruction of a Mandan earth lodge interior in the historic Mandan town On-a-Slant, North Dakota. Author: Gooseterrain2. CC BY-SA 3.0

There’s a hole built in the center of the structure because the fireplace was settled in the middle of the earth lodge. Therefore, during inclement weather, the smoke hole needed to be covered to provide protection from the rain. One of the most used options for covering the hole was a bull boat. A bull boat was a small boat used for travel and fishing, made by covering the wooden frame with a buffalo hide. The most common material for building earth lodges was cottonwood, which is soft wood, and that’s why lodges required rebuilding every six to eight years.

Interior of a reconstructed Mandan earth lodge at On-a-Slant Village in Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. Author: Gooseterrain2. CC BY-SA 3.0

The job of the men workers was to raise the lodge and all the rest was done by the women, such as the entrance,  windbreak, cache pits and all of the interior. The windbreak was built to block the strong wind and also to give privacy to the occupants. The root cellar-type holes (cache pots) lined with grasses and willow were used for storing dried vegetables. An interesting fact is that the completed earth lodge was considered to be owned by the women who built it.