NATIVE AMERICAN WIGWAM

This traditional Shinnecock, Manhansset, or Montaukett house, or wigwam, ("witu" in Wampanaug) is built with green locust poles and phragmites reeds and sisal cordage.These are substitute materials for the traditional materials which would have been white cedar poles and sea grass or meadow grass thatch covering with cordage processed from inner bark or hemp twine. The style and accoutrements are from the 1750 to 1850 period. This was a transitional time in which post-contact (European) material culture had been acquired and used with the pre-contact dwelling style combined together. This wigwam will have two doors which would have been covered originally with blankets, a leather hide, or a rolled up woven mat for privacy. There is one fire pit inside. Outside the wigwam is another fire pit that also would have been used to prepare the meals for the work to be done outside. Cooking pots by this time would have been mostly iron, but originally they would have been handmade of clay fired with shell temper. 

This dwelling would have been used by a single family and contained a U-shaped sleeping bench inside which served as a bed and a platform to hold the household supplies such as wooden chests, eating utensils, clothing and work tools such as farming implements, fishing implements and other hunting supplies. The food was cooked in a fire inside with the smoke being emitted from the opening in the roof. Firewood would have been stored under the bench. The bed would have been covered with furs, leather hides, cattail reed mats and bark supported under with straight poles. 

The three main local tribes would have originally used three types of covering for the structure, elm bark or types of bark for the winter, and cattail reed woven mats or grass thatching for the spring and summer. The inside walls would have been covered with elaborately woven bullrush mats that would have been dyed with plant dyes to create decorative designs. The mats would have been installed on the inside walls as a liner to help retain heat in the winter. This wigwam will have either simulated decorative reed mats arranged as the originals would have been or supplemented by blankets which would have been acquired originally by purchase or trade. 

The three local tribes villages would have been made up of several of these wigwams placed around a central clearing in which public activities would have taken place such as work, ceremonies or planting gardens. Each village may or may not have included one or more clans represented by different animals such as eagle, deer, turtle, etc. Each clan would have been led by head-men, women or clan-mothers, medicine people, hunters, fishermen, etc. People had different roles to play and each did as tradition dictated with knowledge passed down orally from elders to youth. Medicine people could see visions, cure by herbs, and different rituals. The whalers and fisherman knew intimately the behaviors and habits of each species and food was prepared and stored in below ground pits in the earth. There was a picto-graphic language or sorts invented for use in the wampum belts which were made of beads of the quahog clam-shell in purple and white color. The designs of these beads woven together served as a memory device for commemorating ceremonies, treaties or political agreements, as well as social occasions and spiritual rites. The people were semi-nomadic, meaning they moved short distances following the seasons and the game as needed and rebuilding different houses in different places as needed, or building more temporary structures such as triangular, pit-houses which were partially undergrounds, or over-head arbors which created workstations covered with tree-brush. 


Text partially provided by:

David Martine
Curatorial Research Fellow
American Indian Artists Inc. (AMERINDA)