Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Waginogans and Other Indian Homes
Nature Bulletin No. 578   October 31, 1959
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
Richard Becker, Naturalist

The American Indians built homes of many types that varied according to the materials available and the customs and culture of each tribe or nation. Sioux and other plains Indians who followed the buffalo lived in teepees. The "longhouse" of the Iroquois, built of poles covered with bark and surrounded by a palisade, was a large permanent structure housing several families. So, too, were the fort-like pueblos and cliff dwellings built of rocks and adobe clay by some of the southwestern "agricultural" Indians.

Indians such as the Ojibwe and Potawatomi, who lived in our Middle Western forests, were hunters who roamed over large territories but they had winter homes where, each spring, they planted corn, beans, squash and tobacco. These one-family "waginogans" or wigwams were commonly oblong and each had a frame of poles pushed into the ground. The tops were bent over and lashed to form an oval dome-shaped roof. The entire frame, except for an opening in the top to permit the escape of smoke, and a small doorway, was covered with overlapping slabs of bark or woven mats of cattails and rushes.

The Ojibwe and other northern Indians, for their houses and canoes, used the bark of paper birches which could be peeled off in large rolls. Farther south, tribes such as the Potawatomi had to use the bark of elms, black ash, or merely woven mats. The best waginogans were lined with mats, the space between the two coverings was filled with moss, and the edges of the bark "shingles" were sealed with pine pitch. Inside, along each sidewall, there was a long bench serving as a seat in daytime and for sleeping at night. Bedding and other household goods were stored under them. Above, at about head level, were racks for storage. At the center was the fireplace, a shallow pit.

The fire, used for cooking and warmth, was always small and made of dry spark-free wood. Each year the logs used on the roof slabs to hold them down, after being replaced with green ones, were burned. In the Indians' economy nothing was wasted. The littlest child was taught to respect the fire and keep it in the fireplace.

Far to the west, on wind swept bluffs overlooking the Mini Shoshay -- Muddy Water, now called the Missouri river -- the Mandan and Hidatsa dwelt in earthen lodges. So did some of the semi-agricultural Pawnee in Nebraska. These people excavated a circular area from 30 to 40 feet in diameter and about 3 or 4 feet deep. In it they set heavy posts of red cedar and bur oak found in coulees, or even cottonwoods that grew along the streams. The posts were roofed over with heavy beams, then light poles, then prairie grass, and finally blocks of sod. A hole was left in the top, as a chimney.

Frequently an entrance way of posts, covered with sods, served as a windbreak during the terrible winters. Inside there was a screen or windbreak close to the doorway and beyond that, at the center of the lodge, was the family gathering place -- the fire. Pullman-like berths, with canopies of skins, and racks for storage, lined the walls. Some earthen lodges were so spacious as to allow room for one or two of their favorite horses when there was a blizzard.

Just as the ingeniously contrived teepee was a perfect portable home for the wandering Sioux, so the earthen lodge was ideal for the more sedentary tribes. It was warm in winter and remarkably cool in summer. When the early homesteaders came they, too built sod houses and lived in them during a lifetime. Smart ideas are not exclusive with Wah-see- chung, the white man.

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