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Gallery H - Traditional Native American Housing


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The Dacotah Prairie Museum announces the opening of a new exhibit “Traditional Native American Housing” in Gallery H on the DPM’s first floor.  This exhibit examines housing used by three tribes of the plains region, the Dakota, the Arikara, and the Lakota.  Two of the examples are large enough to allow visitors to go inside and see how they were furnished.  There are three recordings by tribal members telling about the significance of their particular housing style as well as some hands-on materials to help guests understand the construction materials and processes used by the three tribes.

The Arikara had earliest known house on the plains.  Their earthlodges date back to about 700 AD.  The Arikaras were not nomadic and usually lived in one area their whole lives. As its name tells us, the earthlodge was made of earth like the pioneer sod houses that would come later. First, four strong support beams would hold up the structure in a square. These beams were thought to have life and were decorated with offerings of decorated colored cloth. A circle of peeled logs leaned against the connecting beams, forming the walls and the roof of the house. These logs were then covered with bundles of willow branches to provide insulation and keep the sod from falling into the home. The branches were covered with dried grasses and finally with a thick layer of earth, some of it with grass still growing on it. The door of the earthlodge always opened to the east to welcome the Morning Star who poured his light into the home.

Arikara houseThe earthlodges were round and the village was also arranged in a circle with a main plaza were the people met together and held ceremonies. One of the most important times was when the Mother Corn Ceremony was celebrated. Mother Corn was given charge over all the things of earth by the Creator and she taught the people the right ways to live in harmony with the earth. She also gave instructions on how to make the earthlodges so the people could have a warm house in the winter and a cool one in the summer. The smoke hole let in light and the stars of night and reminded the people of the Great Creator whose home was in the sky, watched over them and was always blessing them.

The Dakota people also lived in lodges but made them from bark rather than earth.  They lived in the hills and woodlands of Minnesota and Wisconsin, but as the settlers moved further west the Dakotas moved to the eastern parts of our state, including Milbank and Sisseton. The Dakotas lived in a “circle of life.” From spring to fall they lived a village life, staying in bark lodges while they hunted and fished, planted crops and harvested them. After harvest, they would pack their clothing, weapons and implements and leave for the winter hunt following the buffalo with their tipis.

Dakota villages were always near water, a river or lake. The bark lodges were ridge roofed houses made of a framework of poles, cut and peeled by the women, and lashes together with strips of bark. Great slabs of elm bark were cut from the trees by the women who covered the walls and roof of the home. Inside, there were long benches extending from the walls where the family could eat, sit, and sleep. Four or more families shared one house, each one usually having their own cooking fire in the corner and their own area to eat and sleep. In warm weather, the scaffolds on the front of the house was a good place to dry meat, corn and furs. It became a cool place to play games and spend leisure time and even made a raised bed for summer sleeping out.

The home for the Dakota people showed people how to behave and live peacefully together. In the home, they said, a person first learned the meaning of love, respect and sharing with other people.

housingThe third dwelling in the exhibit is the Lakota tipi.  The Lakota were nomadic hunters, following the buffalo herds and always moving so their houses needed to be portable. In the beginning, the Lakota believed, the Creator Spirit told his helper “Stay close to first man and first woman and look after their needs.” The shape of the leaf of the cottonwood tree gave him the idea of what the house should look like. It was a beautiful home with a cover upon which the people could paint their dreams, and a smoke whole through which to look up to the Above World.

The tipis of the Lakota people started with stripped and peeled lodge poles which the women had prepared. Three of the strongest poles were used to form a triangle base which was tied together. Other poles were then added for strength and set in place. Finally, they were covered with a tipi cover of buffalo hides that were sewn together. The hide became more translucent as it dried, bringing light into the home. The inside was hung with a tipi liner which acted as insulation and told the story of the family that lived there, provided beauty and art for the house.

The women of the tribe owned the tipi and were responsible for making it, moving it, selecting to best place to pitch it and putting it up. The women and girls of the family all helped and often families joined in when moving to help others.

Much has changed from the days of these houses until today when we buy our building materials from all over the world and pay someone else to build our homes. Still, we can learn much from these Native Americans who used their materials wisely, did not waste, and worked together incorporation to build their homes.

Many of our “modern” ideas in architecture such as sustainable housing, recycled materials and renewable energy can be traced back to the Native Americans of the past and how they lived in harmony with the earth.

The Dacotah Prairie Museum galleries are open Tuesday – Friday 9 – 5 and Saturday and Sunday 1-4.  There is no admission fee.  If you have questions about this exhibit or any activity at the Museum please call 605-626-7117 during regular office hours Monday – Friday 8 – 5.