Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Native Americans were living two distinct lifestyles in the Great Plains at the time of first contact with European Americans. Tribes along the eastern edges of the Plains were practicing a semisedentary lifestyle, relying on agriculture for part of their subsistence. Tribes farther west were leading a more mobile lifestyle based on hunting and gathering. These two adaptations are reflected in distinctive patterns of architecture.

The agriculturists developed more permanent structures. These included earth lodges in the Central Plains and farther north along the Missouri River. The prototype earth lodge was probably first developed as an adaptation to a more northerly climate by northward-moving ancestral Pawnee and Arikara groups around A.D. 1200. This architectural style then spread to neighboring groups, including the Mandans, Hidatsas, Omahas, Poncas, Otoes, and Kansas by the eighteenth century.

The Pawnee/Arikara earth lodge was constructed by first digging a circular pit thirty to fifty feet in diameter and eighteen inches deep. The central framework consisted of four to eight large center posts, which held up the rafters of the domed roof. An outer circular row of posts held the lower end of the rafters. The rafters were covered with willow branches, a layer of grass, and a thick layer of earth. The earth covering and subsurface floor made the structure easy to heat in the winter and allowed it to stay cool in the summer. The circular roof had a central opening at the peak to allow smoke to exit. An entranceway extended to the east for several feet. The earth lodge was home to from thirty to fifty people, depending on the size of the structure. Larger structures were also used for religious ceremonies.

Pawnee earth-lodge symbolism was highly developed. The dome of the roof was the sky, and the circular wall of the earth lodge was the horizon. The house was divided symbolically into four quadrants, each with a center post represented by a symbolic color, wood, animal, and weather pattern. The house was divided into the male east half and the female west half. The west half of the lodge was symbolized by the Evening Star and contained the sacred altar with a bison skull and the sacred bundle with its ears of Mother Corn hanging above. The east half was symbolized by the Morning Star, the god of light, fire, and war. Each morning when the Morning Star rose in the eastern sky it shot beams of light through the entranceway across the lodge to light the fire, symbolizing the first union of the Morning Star with the Evening Star in an act of cosmic procreation. The earth lodge also acted as an astronomical observatory for the village priests. Observations of star positions were made through the central smoke hole, and each of the eighteen to twenty outer wall posts and the four center posts was associated with a star.

On the Southern Plains, the Wichitas, Hasinais, and Caddos built conical-shaped grass lodges with double-curve profiles and wooden frames. Two kinds of grasses were used in constructing these dwellings: the external roof was thatched with coarse Prairie grasses, while the interior walls were sealed over with softer grasses from riverbanks. The walls rested on dozens of poles that were bent and bound together at the top. This structure in turn leaned against an interior ring of posts and beams. The frame, which could be sixty feet in diameter, was tightened with horizontal sapling stringers. The grass lodge could be transformed into a cool summer dwelling by exposing the lower ribs. Traditionally, the grass lodges had no smoke holes; instead, the smoke seeped through the grass roofs.

The tipi was used from the Prairie Provinces to the Southern Plains. The tipi is an inverted cone, steeper on the windward side, with an off-center smoke hole at the top. Overall, the floor plan is subcircular. Two types of tipi architecture are recognized: a four-pole framework was more common on the Northern Plains among groups like the Sarcees, Blackfoot, and Crows, and a three-pole variety was more common on the Southern and Central Plains among the Kiowas, Apaches, Arapahos, Lakotas, and Cheyennes. The agricultural groups on the eastern Plains also used the three-pole variety when hunting bison.

Covering for the conical-pole framework was originally made of tanned bison hides sewn together. Before the advent of the horse, when dogs pulled the travois made of tipi poles and loaded with the tipi cover and other belongings, six to ten bison hides were used in the average tipi. Later, horses allowed larger tipis to be moved. Canvas began to replace bison hides for covering the tipi in the late nineteenth century. Some tipi covers were painted to represent events of importance in the owner's life, including a defining vision. In most societies the tipis were owned by the men but were constructed, assembled, and disassembled by the women. Tipi poles were generally lodgepole pine on the Central and Northern Plains, with red cedar more common on the Southern Plains.

The Plains Indians utilized several types of temporary or specialized structures, the most famous of which was the Sun Dance lodge. The centerpiece of the Sun Dance lodge was a forked cottonwood trunk, which directed the dancers' focus toward the sky and the deity. From the center pole, sapling rafters radiated to a circular fence forty to fifty feet in diameter. The side fence and sometimes the rafters were covered with leafy branches. The interior design was dominated by a low, circular barrier of brushes that separated the dancers from the altar, fire pit, drummers, and singers in the middle. Like the earth lodges, grass lodges, and tipi, the Sun Dance lodge opened to the east, toward the rising sun.

See also RELIGION: Sun Dance.

Steven R. Holen University of Nebraska State Museum

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

Weltfish, Gene. The Lost Universe. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

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