NATIVE AMERICAN ARCHITECTURE


NATIVE AMERICAN ARCHITECTURE
   Although most Native Americans today have abandoned their traditional homes in favor of housing based on European models, textual and visual sources can tell us much about the earliest truly "American" dwellings. Native Americans inhabited North America for many centuries prior to European intervention, and since they lived in diverse communities across the entire continent, their architecture is extremely varied. In general, Native American architecture consists of monumental and permanent ceremonial centers and domestic dwellings, which were typically built as temporary or seasonal shelters. While nothing remains of the earliest Native American dwellings, giant earthworks that date to before 1000 BC have been excavated and reconstructed. Much like the Prehistoric burial mounds found at Newgrange, Ireland, or the later Etruscan burial mounds, early Native American ceremonial centers reveal funerary mounds where the deceased were buried with a variety of precious objects. Objects found in surviving mounds located across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Ohio reveal a rich culture of trade. Copper, stone, shells, and other goods from diverse regions of the continent were used to make jewelry, religious objects, and tools. By the time of the Mississippian culture (c. AD 900-1500), mounds had developed into complex ceremonial centers. The Great Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio, dates to around 1070 and reveals the shape of a giant snake formed out of the earth. Twenty feet wide and 1,250 feet long in its writhing shape, it appears to slither up a ridge to a mound of rocks shaped like a giant egg.
   Cahokia, in East St. Louis, Illinois, is perhaps the largest known early Native American urban center in North America. Dating to around AD 1150 and built where the Illinois, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers come together, the reconstructed site features six square miles of construction, including an enormous earth mound in the center of the complex, an open plaza in front, and smaller mounds at the periphery of this central area enclosed by a wooden fence. Housing encircled the ceremonial center and accommodated up to 20,000 people. The central earth mound, covering 15 acres, was built up in four elevations, with a flat summit that featured a rectangular temple and a platform that might have been used for sacrifices. A circle of wooden posts oriented to the cardinal points allowed the inhabitants to anticipate the changing of the seasons, much as at Stonehenge. A victim of urban encroachment, Cahokia is in urgent need of restoration. The Pre-Columbian site of Spiro, located in eastern Oklahoma, is an equally important mound site located at the center of the vast Mississippian trade route. Inhabited from c. 850 to 1450, this 150-acre area consists of 12 platform mounds; burial sites have been looted through the 20th century and are in need of protection.
   While mud brick and wood were primarily used for architectural construction in the middle of the North American continent, in the Southwest, stone remains reveal complex communities. The Mogollan people lived in the mountains of New Mexico, and the Hohokam of Arizona were known for their sophisticated system of irrigation, but it was the Anasazi peoples who constructed what are called the great houses of the Southwest. The Anasazi culture, in the corners of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona, dates to around 900-1400. Known for their sophisticated masonry, wide paved roads that linked together over 70 communities, large stone dwellings, and kivas, the Anasazi are the best known of all ancient Native American cultures for their architectural achievements. Their great houses were essentially multilevel apartments that sometimes reached five stories and were made of stone with timber roofs covered in thatch. Kivas, or ceremonial gathering centers, were built underground and feature circular rooms with seating platforms that run along the walls. This subterranean room is entered via an opening in the roof, where a ladder can be pulled down or up to monitor access. Near the entrance, a square hole was dug into the ground to symbolize the navel of the earth. At Chaco Canyon, one such great house complex has 30 kivas, interspersed with living areas and rooms used for food storage. Today, the Hopi and Zuni peoples maintain multistory mud-brick pueblos that hark back to the Anasazi dwellings and are used as either permanent dwellings or for family gatherings.
   When the Europeans settled in North America, the displaced Native Americans began to move westward and adopt a more nomadic lifestyle that included the tepee. The tepee, a temporary dwelling that is light and can be assembled quickly and repeatedly, is constructed with three or four long poles placed on a vertical tilt and lashed together to form a point. The posts are then filled out with additional poles and covered with animal hides to form a protective barrier against adverse weather. A smoke hole opens up at the top of the tepee, which has a hearth in the center of the interior dirt floor. Tepee linings were often painted, beaded, or embroidered with personal and symbolic images and stand as testament to the aesthetic value of these dwellings.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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