Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/October 1892/A Comparative Study of Some Indian Homes



WHILE attached to a military expedition against the Sioux in Wyoming in 1877, I saw those Indians construct at the various camps we made what I take to be the most primitive form of house built by human hands. It was simply a shelter, or tepee as they called it, made with the green boughs cut from the cottonwood trees. Without any especial preparation of the ground, they implanted the cut ends of the limbs in two parallel rows about eight feet long and five feet apart. The tops were adroitly bent over the inclosed space and fastened together along the middle line, thus creating a semi-cylindrical shelter open at both ends. These tepees were merely intended for two or three men to sleep in, all the cooking and other arrangements being performed outside.

In permanent summer camps these tepees are built in a sub-hemispherical shape, the ground upon which they are erected being previously cleaned off, moderately scooped out, and the earth thus obtained banked around the in-stuck ends of the boughs on the inside of the structure. They are then trimmed up and properly covered outside with long prairie grass, so placed as to shed the rain. Often, too, they threw an old buffalo-hide over the top as an additional protection.

In 1886 I observed the Navajos in northwestern New Mexico building similar houses to the ones I have just described; but those Indians also build a more durable structure in their hogan—a conical house of logs plastered with mud, and with a door at the side. Navajos, too, are improving in their home-building, more especially where they have taken up their abode in the neighborhood of frontier military garrisons. All this I have explained in a paper read before the Anthropological Society of Washington (March 17, 1891), and which appeared in the Proceedings of the United States National Museum.[1]

Many other Indians build these temporary shelter-houses, and among them the Apaches of Arizona. In Fig. 1 of the present paper they are well shown as they are constructed by those Indians in a summer camp. Here they have protected the top by large pieces of old canvas, thus making one of them quite waterproof. Corbusier, in the September number of the American Antiquarian for 1886, well describes one of these shelters as erected by the Apache-Mojaves. He says: "They live in circular brush huts (u-wah') about five feet high, and from six to eight
PSM V41 D819 Apache camp in arizona.jpg

Fig. 1—Apache Camp in Arizona.

feet in diameter. To make one, a hollow space is excavated with sharp sticks and their hands, and the earth is banked up around the circumference until they have a bowl-shaped depression about a foot and a half deep. Around the edge of this, bushes or branches of trees are stuck, bent over and fastened together to form a round top. In winter it is thatched with grass, tide, or soap-weed, so that it will shed rain. An opening is left on one side, which serves as an outlet for smoke as well as a doorway. The fire is made just inside the opening. For a bed they break up the ground, let it dry, pick out the stones, and then spread down dry grass. Seeds, meat, buckskins, extra clothing, etc., are hung outside on upright poles. Formerly only a few huts were usually found together, and they were occupied by members of one family, as these people had to scatter over the country in small parties and move frequently in order to obtain a sufficient supply of food; but in seasons of plenty, villages of about one hundred souls would be formed, when the huts of each family were always built in a group by themselves."

As primitive as these dwellings now are, they were found to be somewhat more so by Lieutenant Whipple in 1853, and he reports that "an Apache wigwam is as rude, it is believed, as any race of human beings have been known to construct for abodes. These huts are usually isolated in some mountain gorge, near a rivulet or spring, and are composed of broken branches of trees. They are covered with weeds, grass, or earth, such as may be obtained most readily. A large flat or concave stone, upon which they grind corn or grass seed to flour, is the only utensil or article of furniture that they do not remove in their wanderings. Visits to the houses of Mexicans or their more enterprising Indian neighbors excite no desire to improve their condition by the erection of more comfortable habitations. Tents they do not use, even when robbed from Mexicans or some poor party of emigrants surprised and murdered. The Tontos, Yampais, and most of the Apache Indians within New Mexico and California are equally barbarous and rude in the construction of their habitations."

Those curious people, the Havesu-pai Indians, living in a great, deep canon in Arizona, also build lodges of rushes and limbs, but they are rather more substantial than those I have described for the Navajos and Apaches. This is due to the fact that they use rough timber uprights, and a few stout pieces for rafters. Their houses are also more commodious, although they rarely contain more than the one large living-room.[2]

In my opinion, the next step taken in advance is by the Mojaves of Arizona, and those Indians build for themselves homes which are more or less permanent dwellings. One of these is shown in Fig. 2, and its architecture is certainly very remarkable. The upright portion of the frame is composed of very heavy timbers, each piece being completely stripped of its bark and firmly implanted in the ground. The rafters and the frame and ridge-piece for them to rest upon are also of timber much stouter than is at all necessary to support the roof. This

PSM V41 D821 House style built by mojave indians of arizona.jpg

Fig. 2. Style of House built by the Mojave Indians in Arizona.

latter is composed of long prairie grass overlaid with a thick coat of mud-plaster. It is quite impervious to the rain, and the eaves at one side are not more than a foot and a half above the ground. Indeed, the peak or ridge of this house is hardly as high as an ordinary man's head. All the sides and the front are left open, but the back is usually built up with timber and filled in with mud-plaster, or sometimes these Indians build this kind of an abode into an embankment at its rear. Internally it is not partitioned off into rooms at all, and the right-hand side of the dwelling constitutes a sort of a porch or wing, wherein the roof is horizontal, being much thicker than it is over the gabled portion. The floor is kept hard and clean inside, and most of the domestic arrangements are carried on in the open air. It will be observed that they have a lot of corn drying in a heap up on the roof, and their pottery utensils are in front outside.

Formerly it would appear that these Mojaves built a somewhat better home for themselves than this, and Lieutenant Whipple has said,[3] in reference to the figure of one he published in his report, that "the large Cottonwood posts, and the substantial roof of the wide shed in front, are characteristic of the architecture of this people. This particular house appears to run into a sand-bank, and is peculiar. Others are formed in the valley, with all their walls supported by posts; and the longitudinal beams have their interstices filled up with straw or mud-mortar." .... The interior of a house consists of a single room with thatched roof, sandy floor, and walls so closely cemented by mud as to be nearly air-tight. It has no window, and receives no light except by the door which leads to the shed, and by a small hole at the top which gives egress to the smoke of fires. Structures similar to this are common throughout the lower portion of the Colorado Valley, and may be found also among the Coco-Maricopas and Pimas of the Rio Gila. With the latter, however, the circular hut, described by Mr. Bartlett, is much in vogue. In such gloomy abodes the Indians seek shelter from cold. Arranged around the walls are large earthen jars, in which they preserve their main supply of fruit and vegetables." Mojaves wear scarcely any clothing, especially the men, as may be seen from the individuals shown in my figure.

The more nomadic tribes of Indians, such as the Sioux of the North and others, when they come to build anything better than a tepee, erect a regular wigwam, a large, commodious structure of a conical form, supported by the cut trunks of saplings, and covered with ornamented or non-ornamented tanned buffalo-hides. Frequently I have been in one of those wigwams, and at almost any time of the year they are very comfortable, though rather warm in summer. All the buffaloes now being practically exterminated, those tribes which formerly built hide wigwams will now have to resort to the construction of other kinds of homes. Probably they will do as the Navajos have done, and come to erect houses more or less like the primitive one-room buildings of the early squatters. Navajos, however, place the timbers side by side in the vertical position, filling the interstices with mud-plaster, whereas, as we know, in the ordinary log-cabin they are laid one on top of another in the horizontal method, with their ends molded upon each other by the aid of an axe, or an adz. The Choctaws have long built such houses, and the more intelligent tribes of the Indians on our frontier will undoubtedly follow their example, as they become completely surrounded by our advancing line of civilization.

From this point, did the scope of my article admit of it, I should like to show how, from such houses as have thus far been described, we pass through easy transitional stages to the higher types of architecture, or the communal homes of the Indians of the pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona. Such a treatise, however, would form quite a volume, and far exceed my limits.

In those transitional stages to which I refer, it can be shown that a great many interesting forms of homes are built, or

PSM V41 D823 Wolpai moqui indian village.jpg

Fig. 3.—Wolpai. A Moqui Indian Village.

used to be built, by the Indians. These present every imaginable form: in some the thatching is very well done, and very ingenious; in some the door is at the side, while in others it is on the roof; they contain single rooms, as well as rooms en suite; and finally they gradually pass from the use of brush, poles, hides, and mud-plaster to the employment of adobe-plaster, rubble-stone, and adobes. Mr. Lewis H. Morgan has said that "a comparison will show that they belong to a common indigenous system of architecture. There is a common principle running through all this architecture, from the hut of the savage to the commodious joint-tenement house of the village Indians of Mexico and Central America, which will contribute to its elucidation."[4] And in the same work this distinguished author adds that the same common principle runs through all this Indian architecture, "from the 'long house' of the Iroquois to the 'pueblo houses' of New Mexico, and to the so-called 'palace' at Palenque and the 'house of the nuns' at Uxmal. It is the principle of adaptation to communism in living, restricted in the first instance to household groups, and extended finally to all the inhabitants of a village or encampment by the law of hospitality. Hunger and destitution were not known at one end of an Indian village while abundance prevailed at the other. Joint-tenement houses, each occupied by one large household, as among the Iroquois, or by several household groups, as in Yucatan, were the natural and inevitable result of their usages and customs. Communism in living, and the law of hospitality, it seems probable, accompanied all the phases of Indian life in savagery and barbarism."

Several years ago the present writer visited the pueblo of Zuñi in New Mexico, and I have seen some of the others, as well as the ruins of a number of the ancient ones. Both New Mexico and Arizona to-day offer a rich field for the investigations of the thoughtful, scientific anthropologist, for in many localities in each Territory he will not only find, in all stages of preservation, the old ruins of the almost extinct "cliff-dwellers," the remains of former pueblos; but he will likewise have the opportunity of comparing the previous states of those communal villages with several of them still in existence. There are about twenty pueblos in New Mexico that are still inhabited, and in Arizona we find seven more that constitute the Moqui group. Many of these have been studied by members of several of the Government exploring parties, and by other individuals, but there still remains a vast store of knowledge in regard to them that no one has as yet drawn upon. This to be done at all must now be done quickly, for our own civilization presses closer upon them each year that goes by, and will very soon work its invariable changes.

Some of these pueblos are built out upon the level, open plain, several miles from any high or mountainous land, and are usually near some river-course, as in the case of Zuñi or Santo Domingo; or they may cap the extremity of some bold mesa, five or six hundred feet above the surrounding prairie, as is the case with the Moquian pueblo, Wolpai (Fig. 3).

Substantially their plan of structure is the same, though it may differ considerably in detail, and this likewise applies to the mode of life of their inhabitants. Massed together and built of adobes of rock laid in mud-mortar, and reared in tiers or terraces of from two to three or more stories high, they admirably fulfill

PSM V41 D825 Terrace houses of the pueblo indians in new mexico.jpg

Fig. 4.—Terrace Houses in the Pueblo of Acoma, New Mexico.

the triple purpose of a durable architecture, a communistic plan of living, and as a fortress in the event of an attack from outside marauders.

Many of the pueblos, now in ruins, were at the time of Coronado's expedition to New Mexico, in 1541-1542, at the height of their vitality, and a study of a number of these go to show that in their arrangement they were built upon some definite plan. Their ground plans point to the fact that they were laid out upon the quadrate of a circle in some instances, while in others the three sides of a parallelogram were chosen, or roughly the arc of a subellipse, the major axis joining the extremities, and represented by a double tier of houses. In other cases the entire ellipse can be traced from the ruins, but houses were not erected on the lines of its axes, as was the plan in Pueblo Peñasca Blanca. Most of these and the more elaborate ones are found upon the Rio San Juan and its tributaries; others are seen upon the Rio Animas, in the canon of the Rio de Chelly, in the Ute Mountains, and elsewhere.

Of the pueblos yet inhabited the best examples are seen in the Moqui group, in Zuñi, Acoma, Santo Domingo, and Laguna. Apart from the demoralizing influences of the Roman Catholics upon some of them, and the changes brought about by our civilization, these pueblos may be taken as fair examples, though by no means of the highest type, of what existed in the country at the time of the discovery. All these tribes have been termed the sedentary Indians, and they enjoy a sort of crude civilization of their own: engage in agriculture, make pottery, weave blankets and many garments of wool, and have many other simple arts and industries. They are the descendants of the inhabitants of the ancient pueblos discovered by Coronado, and in many instances are occupying, in the present villages, houses which certainly are as old as his time. Their government, religious rites and ceremonies, their dances and customs, habits and dress, and domestic life are all full of the greatest interest, but can not properly be treated in the present contribution.

My view in Fig. 2 of some of the houses in the pueblos of Acoma, New Mexico, shows very well their structure and arrangement. It will be seen that they are built in three tiers or terraces, one on top of another. The material used is adobe cobblestone flakes gathered from the country about, and laid in adobe or mud-mortar. The roofs are made of cedar rafters, hewn and brought in by the men, who also fetch in most of the stone material. Plastering, however, is done by the women, who puddle the mud and lay it on with their hands. While thus engaged, its consistency is regulated by their squirting water upon it, which they take into their mouths for the purpose. It will be observed that the lower stories of houses have few or no entrances, and this is undoubtedly for the purpose of defense. Their roofs form the terrace to the second tier, which is reached by the means of ladders. Sometimes, too, the partitions or vertical walls between the houses are extended upward, and externally are formed into steps, each step being made by a slab of stone as seen in the figure. Ladders are also used to reach the other terraces, as well as the roof that tops the whole of this human bee-hive. In Zuni I found doors opening from the street directly into the rooms of the groundfloor, and there were many hatchways in the roofs, the rooms below being reached by the means of ladders, such as the long ones shown in my picture of Acoma. Chimneys are built up with stone and mortar, and frequently are topped off by a large clay olla set in the latter, after having its bottom knocked out so as to give egress to the smoke from the stone fireplace found in so many of the rooms.

Small windows with four panes each admit a meager light to the interior of these dwellings. These panes are most often composed of mica obtained in the mountains, but of recent years they have not infrequently obtained glass from the whites suitable for the purpose, and they always prize that material very highly. Rain which accumulates on the several roofs during the continuance of storms, finds its escape at guttered apertures supplied with small troughs, shown in the engraving. Often a dome-shaped oven is built out on the roof in one of the angles, and in this they bake their bread. One of these is also shown in the picture, and at Las Nutrias Pueblo, in New Mexico, I saw that they built these ovens out on the ground, and were baking tortillas in them at the time of my visit.

One of these pueblan houses rarely has less than three rooms, and may contain as many as eight or nine. Most of those that I have been in—and I have been in a good many of them—are kept scrupulously clean and neat. Their repair devolves entirely upon the women, who consider it their especial prerogative. The floors are evenly laid in moistened clay, and when that material dries, an excellent surface is the result, hard and smooth. They make a kind of whitewash of gypsum, with which the smoothly plastered walls are kept constantly white.

The ceiling overhead is composed of a generous supply of stout rafters of cedar that run horizontally across from wall to wall, and at Zuni, the Indians had filled in the interspaces with osier brush, covering the outside or roof with a heavy layer of adobe-plaster. Often an entire family is confined to one large room, or, if better circumstanced, they may control two or even more.

Conspicuous among its finishings in the living-room are the arrangements to do the family cooking. Sometimes the fireplace, built of the usual masonry, is fitted into one of the angles of the room; sometimes it juts out at the middle of the long side of the apartment; in either situation the chimney, smaller in its
PSM V41 D828 Courtyard of laguna pueblo new mexico.jpg

Fig. 5.—Scene in a Court-yard of Laguna Pueblo, New mexico. (The corn-dance in progress.)

dimensions, rests by its base on its horizontal upper plane, leaving always a mantel-shelf all round. In front of either one of these we find the contrivance upon which they bake their tissue-bread or waiavi, and projecting out above it the hood which conducts the smoke into the chimney. This contrivance is nothing more than an oblong stone slab, as smooth as polished glass upon its upper surface, and raised on four legs at its angles about a foot and a half above the cemented floor. Beneath this glowing embers are raked in sufficient quantity to keep the slab hot, and it thus answers its purpose admirably.

"In Zuñi, as elsewhere, riches and official position confer importance upon their possessors. The wealthy class live in the lower houses, those of moderate means next above, while the poorer families have to be content with the uppermost stories. Naturally no one will climb into the garret who has the means of securing more convenient apartments, under the huge system of "French flats," which is the way of living in Zuni. Still, there is little or no social distinction in the rude civilization, the whole population of the town living almost as one family. The alcade or lieutenant-governor furnishes an exception to the general rule, as his official duties require him to occupy the highest house of all, from the top of which he announces each morning to the people the orders of the governor, and makes such other proclamation as may be required of him."[5]

There is one other prominent object in the living-room of a Zuñian home which we can not afford to overlook in the present account. I refer to the troughs in which they grind their corn, and Mrs. Stevenson, whom I have just quoted, gives an excellent account of one of these. She remarks that "the pueblo mills are among the most interesting things about the town. These mills, which are fastened to the floor a few feet from the wall, are rectangular in shape, and divided into a number of compartments, each about twenty inches wide and deep, the whole series ranging from five to ten feet in length, according to the number of divisions. The walls are made of sandstone. In each compartment a flat grinding-stone is firmly set, inclining at an angle of forty-five degrees. These slabs are of different degrees of smoothness, graduated successively from coarse to fine. The squaws, who alone work at the mills, kneel before them and bend over them as a laundress does over the wash-tub, holding in their hands long stones of volcanic lava, which they rub up and down the slanting slabs, stopping at intervals to place the grain between the stones. As the grinding proceeds the grist is passed from one compartment to the next until, in passing through the series, it becomes of the desired fineness. This tedious and laborious method has been practiced without improvement from time immemorial, and in some of the arts the Zuñians have actually retrograded."[6]

The above is a faithful description of one of the pueblan mills; I observed a great many of them at Zuni, and elsewhere have said that I "saw standing behind one of the stone slabs where they grind their corn, a pretty Zuñi girl, not a day over a year old, and as naked as the hour she was born, with the stone grinder in her hands, playfully showing her mother, who watched her with no little pride in her face, how to grind the corn. The picture was a charming one, and if the expressions of all could have been caught at the proper moment, what a study it would have made!"[7]

The tiers of houses at Zuñi, in common with a number of the other New Mexican and Arizonian pueblos, are clustered about two open squares or public plazas of no very great size, a portion of one of them being used as a graveyard in front of the abandoned mission church in Zuni. In Fig. 5 of the present article I give the court at Laguna Pueblo of New Mexico, which is there kept clean and neat. This picture well shows the arrangement and relation to each other of these conglomerate homes. In this engraving the annual "corn-dance" of the Lagunas is being performed—a very interesting ceremony.

Thus in the present account I have passed briefly in review the study of the homes which the American Indians build for themselves in these days. The subject could easily be enlarged upon, and, indeed, treated in detail, would fill three or four ample volumes. My labor, however, will have been well repaid should it be the means of inciting the student in anthropology, with a knowledge of the present literature of the subject, to broaden the field by published accounts of his or her own observations. Much yet remains to be carefully studied and compared, much that is yet obscure or totally unknown to science. It must be done in the near future, for already many of the facts are rapidly fading upon the unturned pages of aboriginal American history.

The forests of Chaga, the temperate zone of Mount Kilimandjaro, Africa, as described by Dr. W. L. Abbott, have a most curious appearance. The trees, although often of very thick trunks, are not tall but somewhat stunted. The trunks and larger branches are completely covered with orchids, lichens, ferns, and moss. From every limb and twig hang long festoons of gray moss, while the ground is thickly carpeted with ferns of a species resembling "love in a tangle." Some of the huge tree-trunks are perfect botanical gardens, from the number and variety of the plants growing upon them.

  1. Shufeldt, R. W. The Evolution of House-building among the Navajo Indians. Vol. xv, pp. 279-282, Plates XLI-XLIII. Washington, 1892.
  2. Shufeldt, R. W. Some Observations on the Havesu-pai Indians. Proceedings of the United States National Museum. Vol. xiv, pp. 387-390. Plates XXV and XXVI of this paper show the plans of the houses constructed by these Indians. Washington, 1891.
  3. Pacific Railroad Reports, vol. iii, p. 23, (1853-'54).
  4. Houses and House-life of the American Aborigines. Department of the Interior, United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region. Washington, 1881, pp. 104, 105.
  5. Mrs. James Stevenson, in Lewis H. Morgan's report, cited above. vol. xli. 59
  6. Lewis H. Morgan's report, p. 140.
  7. Shufeldt, R. W. Zuñi as it is. Forest and Stream, New York and London, July 2, 1885, pp. 446-448.