Traditional earth lodges of the Great Plains

What do you think of when you hear the words “Native American house”? The tipi or tepee is probably what comes to a lot of people’s minds. But while these tents were certainly common among the nomadic hunter tribes of the Great Plains (a vast area of North America covered in prairie and grassland*), different indigenous tribes had very different types of dwellings that suited their lifestyle and local climate. Circular dome-shaped earth lodges were the common dwelling among the more sedentary tribes of the Great Plains, such as the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes of the Dakotas in the northern part of the Great Plains.

Earth lodges are not used anymore, but reconstructed earth lodges can be found at some historic sites in the United States. One of these is Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park in North Dakota where some earth lodges have been reconstructed on the site of an abandoned Mandan Indian village, On-a-Slant Village. I recently visited this site to see what these earth lodges are like and how their characteristics make them well adapted to the local climate with its very hot summers and cold winters.

Earth lodges at On-a-Slant Village
These reconstructed earth lodges at On-a-Slant Village resemble mounds that could almost be part of the natural landscape.

Earth lodges and the climate

Earth lodges are shaped like mounds of earth with a covered wooden passage on one side. The earth lodge has a wooden structure that is covered by a thick layer of earth. This type of circular earth lodges first appeared in the 1400s although earth dwellings have existed in the region much longer. The earth plays an important role in creating a comfortable climate inside the lodge as the outdoor temperature varies greatly between day and night.

Earth has a large thermal mass, which means it can absorb a lot of heat before its temperature rises. Because of this earth walls keep the interior cool in the summer by absorbing heat during the day and releasing it a night. This way the indoor temperature remains close to the daily average outdoor temperature, keeping the house cool during the day and warm during night. Sometimes earth lodges were covered by grass, and the grass would have an additional cooling effect.

During the winter the thick walls insulate from the cold weather. Because of the shape of the earth lodge, snow would accumulate on top of the house and this snow provides additional insulation. The round shape also means that the surface area to volume ratio is lower than in a rectangular house, and because of this less heat escapes through the exterior surface.

An earth lodge at On-a-Slant Village
The design of the earth lodge helps protect it from heat, cold and wind.

The climate of the Great Plains is also very windy, and the shape of the earth lodge protects the house from winds by allowing wind to easily pass over the house. Wind speed is highest at the top of the dome, and here there is a smoke hole that creates ventilation by drawing air out while fresh air enters through the entrance. A fire inside the earth lodge also enhances the ventilation by heating the air below the smoke hole and creating an upward draft.

In terms of shape, earth lodges are similar to yurts or gers of Mongolia. This makes sense since Mongolia has a very similar climate and landscape. However, the construction materials are different because gers are meant to be portable.

Sacred communal homes

The earth lodge needed to be rebuilt approximately every ten years. Building an earth lodge was a sacred task, and earth lodges were traditionally built and owned by women. Indeed, the women who knew how to build earth lodges had great respect in the community.

Earth lodges were communal homes of the extended family and different areas were used for different purposes. The middle area within four central posts was the center of activities. At the center was the fire and above it the smoke hole that provided ventilation and light. The earth lodge was a representation of the universe, with the four central posts representing  pillars supporting the sky and the fire representing the sun.

Interior of an earth lodge
At the center of the earth lodge is the fire and the smoke hole. A wooden screen on the side of the entrance protects the fire from wind and provides privacy.

The earth lodge village and its decline

The Mandan were an agricultural tribe and because of this they formed villages next to their farm land, unlike some of the nomadic tribes that relied more on hunting. On-a-Slant Village had around 80 earth lodges, and only a few of these have been reconstructed while the remains of the rest can be seen as circular depressions on the ground. The village was protected from outsider attack by a high wall and a dry moat.

At the center of the village was the central plaza, and at the center of the plaza was a religious shrine. Around the central plaza were the homes of the most prominent members of the community, as well as a larger ceremonial earth lodge. Outside the central plaza the earth lodges were packed very close together which would protect the village from winds.

A diorama of On-a-Slant village with earth lodges
This diorama of On-a-Slant Village shows how the village on the shores of the Missouri river looked like.

On-a-Slant Village was occupied by the Mandan in the 17th and 18th centuries. A smallpox epidemic in 1781 spread through several tribes of the region, but the Mandan and other earth lodge people suffered particularly badly. The survivors from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes grouped together for mutual benefit. As a result, many villages were abandoned, including On-a-Slant Village.

In 1837 smallpox hit again, and by 1906 there were only 1100 people left of the three earth lodge building tribes in the Dakotas. The people were confined to reservations and they stopped building earth lodges. As I found out earlier during my stay at a Native America reservation, reservations have a lot of problems with unemployment, alcoholism and suicide. A part of the problem is the loss of cultural identity, and bringing back earth lodges would be one way to foster an identity that would motivate the people to improve their own lives.

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