Housing and Architecture

Great Lakes Indian tribes depended on the forests for raw materials for their homes and they built a variety of dwellings depending on the season.

The most common was the dome-shaped wigwam, which served from late fall through spring. With the exception of the Iroquois, all Woodland tribes from New England to the Mississippi River built this style of structure.

The general living pattern of Great Lakes Indians consisted of residence in a wigwam for a six-month period during the late fall, winter, and early spring, while the other six months were spent in the summer house, sometimes a considerable distance from the wigwam. When it was time to shift from one house to another, they merely removed the mats from the first house and placed them on the other. The framework of the abandoned house was left standing, to be used at the next semiannual shift.


The floor pattern was circular or more commonly oval. Saplings of an inch or more in diameter were cut and sharpened at the large end. Beginning at the doorway, these were set into the ground vertically and spaced about two feet apart. One pole and its opposite were bent toward the center to form an arch, and the ends were tied together with basswood-bark strips or other cordage. When all the vertical poles were tied, other saplings were tied on horizontally, to brace the frame and provide attachments for the bark or mat covering. More saplings were added to the top portion to form a sturdy framework. Then, beginning at the doorway, a mat was unrolled along the base, and its upper edge tied to the first horizontal pole. Other mats were added to cover the circumference of the framework. Inner layers of mats and grass were added inside for warmth and insulation. Raised platforms built inside the wigwam created beds and storage spaces and were covered with mats and furs .

Prairie tribes such as the Sauk, Fox, and Kickapoo added more mats until the entire structure was covered except for a smoke hole and a doorway. More northerly tribes living in birch country used birchbark panels to cover the upper portion of the wigwam, the bark having been sewn together in strips about two by six feet. Cattail mats --  prepared during the summer -- and birchbark strips -- prepared in the spring -- were rolled up and transported to the living site. Only the poles had to be prepared at the site, and frames were left standing at favored spots so that the returning people could arrive and quickly cover them with mats and bark to set up camp. In some instances, the framework was covered with sheets of elm, ash, or cedar bark, but these were not so easily carried from one place to another.

For traditional homes, Menominee men gathered poles and bark and women built the frames. Women also wove mats which covered wigwams and lined their interiors. Great Lakes homes were undecorated on the outside, but interior walls could be hung with colorful mats. During historic times, many Native people continued to live in these kinds of homes, but substituted log or frame cabins for the winter wigwam.

Summer House

The other important dwelling was the summer house, a rectangular structure of peeled poles covered with cedar or elm bark and characterized by a high gabled or arched roof. Shaded arbors of poles and bark usually also stood near houses and family gardens of corn, beans, and squash. Four crotched saplings were set upright in the corners of a rectangular floor measuring about 12 by 20 feet. Four poles were bound to the tops in a horizontal position. The ridgepole was supported by two crotched poles, one bound to the center of the horizontal pole at the front of the house, the other extending down the center of the back of the house, usually to the ground. A series of poles ran from the ridge pole down to the wall tops at either side to act as rafters. The walls were formed by poles bound together vertically and horizontally and spaced about a yard apart. The entire structure, except for a smoke hole and a doorway, was covered with rectangular sheets of flattened bark about six feet in length. The sheets were fastened to the framework with strips of basswood bark at their corners. The grain of the bark ran vertically on the roof to help shed water and horizontally on the walls. The walls were roughly six or seven feet high, and the roof peak was about twice as high.

Other Structures

Another house type, used only temporarily, was the peaked lodge: a type of A-frame that supported a ridgepole. On this were laid poles that sloped to the ground, and a bark covering was added. A conical, tipi-like shelter was also found among the northern tribes, but it was relatively uncommon. Long poles were set in a circle and tied near the apex, the whole covered with bark or canvas. Both of these types were built for temporary shelter, particularly by hunting parties.

Small shelters were built away from the main village for hunting, gathering and processing wild rice, and processing maple sugar. There were also three other specialized structures: the menstrual hut, the sweat lodge, and the medicine lodge. The first was a small hut near the family dwelling, generally constructed like the wigwam, to which the menstruating woman would retire during her period. Food was brought to her, and she had no further contact with her family or anyone else. The sweat lodge was a small pole framework, completely covered with bark or cloth. Hot stones were put inside, and the person using the hut stripped and doused the stones with water to produce steam. These lodges were used for personal therapy or, at the Medicine Dance rites, for ceremonial purification. The medicine lodge was a longhouse-like structure, except that it was up to 100  feet in length.

Family Life in a Wigwam

A bark house or wigwam was home to a married couple, their children, and sometime other relatives, such as a widowed grandparent. Specific areas had defined purposes, including food preparation, sleeping, and other tasks. During summer, arbors provided room to spread out and work as well as process food for storage.

Inside the wigwam, there was a central fireplace, and along the sides were arrangements for sleeping. Members of Prairie tribes slept on mats of grass and skins on the ground, while the northern tribes constructed sleeping platforms of poles padded with boughs, mats, or skins. At the rear was a storage area.

Woodland Indians did not spend a great deal of time in their houses. They regarded them as shelters from inclement weather, places to sleep, and storage areas for their possessions. Most of their time was spent outdoors and, weather permitting, most of their cooking and eating was done outside. Their homes demanded little in the way of care or maintenance. A wigwam could be erected by the women in an hour or two, although preparation of mats and bark coverings required much more time.