Credit: Courtesy of American Memory
At the time the first permanent English settlements in America were being constructed, Native American homes had already been built — and were still being built — throughout North America. How did the houses of natives and newcomers differ in design and material? How do they compare to contemporary housing? What can we learn about the nature of shelter from such comparisons?
In this unit, students will look closely at the design, construction and materials of at least one Native American house and one house built by European settlers. Students will also think about their own homes — and even their dream homes — to begin to understand why houses are designed the way they are, and to appreciate what is essential and what is desirable in any house.
What were the similarities and differences between the homes of Native Americans and the newly arrived European settlers? What connections can be made between house design, environment and lifestyle? What are the essential qualities of a house?
After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to
For Activity 4, Real Native American Houses, explore the materials and techniques used by Native Americans and European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Both had to depend largely on local materials and the labor of neighbors. Some Europeans were able to import goods, but importing was slow and expensive. There were no Home Depots. There were no power tools.
Native Americans were faced with the challenge of building their houses from available natural materials, using readily available labor. One of the solutions to the problem of materials and labor was to build a smaller house in which all of the available space would be multi-purpose. Moving was also easier with such dwellings. A wigwam could be placed on mats and dragged to a new location. Tipis are very portable.
In Activity 5, Real European Homes in North America, students will look at some of the steps required in the construction of the homes of early European settlers. How does the process compare to the building of the Native American houses? How many people were needed? What tools were needed? What materials?
According to the Pilgrim Hall Museum, a link from The Plymouth Colony Archive Project at the University of Virginia, "There is no evidence that the Pilgrims adopted Native housing, in spite of the fact that it had been developed to suit the environment, and probably was warmer in the winter."
Though European settlers had difficulty rallying materials and labor, they chose to build more permanent dwellings. Why? If desired, encourage students to develop hypotheses. Were Europeans trying to recreate in the New World what they knew in the Old? As strangers in a new environment, did the settlers feel a greater need to build homes that did more to block out their surroundings? (Consider the difference between camping out in your backyard and camping out in a forest you've never been to.)
Some Native Americans, like the European settlers, invested time, tools and specialists into permanent dwellings. An introduction to such "permanent" structures will provide a more balanced view of Native American housing.
NOTE: The images in Activity 8 were created from 1792 to the early twentieth century.
The essence of Activity 9 is to summarize the common features of the various houses discussed during the unit.
Presumably, those features serve essential purposes. Students also are invited to conduct research about how their own houses are utilized. Adjust the lesson for your class as necessary.
Note: A number of the suggested questions below provide the opportunity for students to consider that big is not necessarily better. Nevertheless, as students discuss their own houses, remain sensitive to disparities in house sizes and levels of affluence.
Shortly before you are going to begin this unit, ask students to bring in photographs of their homes, or any house. Start the lesson by encouraging students to share their pictures. As the students talk about the homes, make a list of common elements (walls, roofs, doors, windows). Once you have compiled a reasonable list, engage the students in discussion. Ask such questions as, "What is a house?" and "Why do we need houses?" as well as "What kind of house do you live in?"
If desired, ask students to draw pictures of their own homes without looking at the photograph they brought. Have students include as many elements from the list as they can. When they are done, have students sit together in a circle with their pictures. Ask questions about items from the list of common elements, such as, "Who drew a front door?" Students who drew a front door can then point to the front door on their drawing.
Children love to talk about, fantasize about and design their dream homes. Most students dream of huge, extravagant mansions. This lesson will lead them from this dream to thinking about what is essential and what is desirable in a house.
Share with the children some pictures of "show" houses from magazines. If you have enough photos, give one to each child. Get them talking about the homes. Can they find the items from their list? Can they tell what materials were used to build the houses? What do the students like about any particular show house, and in their own houses? What makes these houses so special that they are featured in magazines? Then give the students a chance to design/draw their dream houses and to share their ideas. Save the drawings.
As a homework assignment, have students take home a survey/interview with questions for an adult to answer. Include questions such as the following:
After the surveys have been completed, encourage volunteers to share answers they received to the survey questions. How have houses changed? What about houses has stayed the same?
Take the students outside to any area that is natural; if that is impractical, use pictures instead. Compile a list of the materials students might be able to utilize if they had to build a house using only items found there.
Show the class the wigwam-sized area you marked off in the classroom (a circle about eight feet in diameter; see Preparing to Teach This Unit). How many students can comfortably sit inside the circle? Would it be big enough to house 2-4 people? The size of the circle is the same as that of a small wigwam, a Native American house built in the area in which the Pilgrims settled.
With some students sitting inside the "wigwam," read to the class a book about Eastern Woodland natives, such as People of the Breaking Day by Marcia Sewall or An Algonquin Year: The Year According to the Full Moon by Michael McCurdy.
Now share with the students Building Our Wigwam on NativeTech, a link from the EDSITEment resource NativeWeb. How is the wigwam being made? What's good about this construction method? (Materials are at hand, the dome-like structure is surprisingly strong, shelter can be erected quickly, no outside specialists are needed, only one special tool is needed, and so on.) What are the disadvantages? (Small in size, and so on.)
If desired, give students the opportunity to construct a small model of a wigwam using authentic materials (flexible sticks, bark). Construct the wigwam on a base of soft clay so you can put the "saplings" in the "ground." If practical, make the saplings about 14 inches long to construct a house 1/12th the scale of the wigwam shown. Bark soaked in water may adhere to the framework; otherwise, use glue.
Let students know that they will soon look inside a wigwam to get an idea of what else this house does for those who live in it.
For further exploration, you can show the class another style of Native American house — the tipi. Though the earliest drawing listed below is from 1837, the basic design and construction of tipis has remained constant to this day. The lifestyle related to tipi-dwelling was made possible by the introduction of the horse to North America by the Spanish. The following images are all available via a link from the EDSITEment resource NativeWeb unless otherwise noted.
How is the tipi framed? How is it covered? What's good about this construction method? (Materials are at hand; the structure is surprisingly strong; shelter can be erected quickly; no outside specialists are needed; can be painted for beauty; can be disassembled, carried with you and easily re-erected; and so on.) What are the disadvantages? (Small in size, and so on.) Why was animal hide used to cover the tipi?
It would be possible to construct a tipi in the classroom or to denote an area the size of a tipi, as with the wigwam. Tipis have heights of about 12-25 feet and diameters of about 10-25 feet.
If desired, give students the opportunity to construct a model of a tipi using similar materials (sticks, cloth or leather). Construct the tipi on a base of soft clay so you can put the sticks in the "ground."
Let students know that they will soon look inside a tipi to get an idea of what else this house does for those who live in it.
On The Plymouth Colony Archive Project at the University of Virginia, an EDSITEment-reviewed website, there is a photographic record of a project in which authentic building materials and techniques were used to meticulously construct a house from the Plymouth colony, as might have been done in 1627. (For detailed background on this house and its construction, see the essay Seventeenth-Century Timber Framing.) Select as many or as few of the following images from the record as you deem appropriate to share with students. The images are listed here in order of construction; the starred items are recommended.
Compare the construction of this house to that of a wigwam or tipi. With all materials properly prepared, a tipi can be raised in less than an hour. The basic frame of the European house only took a day to erect, but what part of the work is not shown? How many people appear to be involved? What tools were necessary? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such construction? How does this house compare in size with the wigwam and/or tipi? (It's only slightly bigger than the small wigwam, though there is an additional loft.) Why didn't the settlers build houses like their Native American neighbors?
Which house design — wigwam or European frame house — would students build if they had to make a home quickly? Which would they rather live in? What does each house do for the people who live in it? What don't these houses do that our houses do today?
If desired, students can conduct a home survey, with the help of parents. What materials went into the construction of their homes? When discussing their findings in class, emphasize how much processing the materials in a typical contemporary home require.
If there are any homes under construction near your school, students could see how contemporary homes are framed. The Pilgrims used post-and-beam construction, in which large pieces of lumber were notched into one another; most contemporary houses are framed using studs and joists nailed to one another.
Note: Building a model of a frame house might be accomplished with Popsicle sticks, but only with great difficulty and, most likely, a lot of glue (which was not part of the construction technique of the time). The difficult construction is quite to the point since the European construction was much more complex and labor-intensive than the Native American.
What might you find in a wigwam? What was done inside wigwams? What surprises you about wigwams? What did people do just outside wigwams?
What might you find in a tipi? What was done inside tipis? What surprises you about tipis?
Have students take a closer look at an artist's representation of the interior of the Plymouth house — Henry Glassie's drawing of the proposed Billington house (1973), available on The Plymouth Colony Archive Project at the University of Virginia, an EDSITEment resource. What does this house have that the Native American houses do not? (Not much ... it's hardly bigger, has no kitchen or bathroom facilities, locates the bed on the floor, has little in the way of windows and so on. Note that the fire is central to all the houses.)
Show the students the following images without identifying them. Only one is not a Native American house. Can the students tell which it is? On what do they base their hypotheses?
Take another look at students' dream houses. Then consider all of the housing designs discussed in this unit. What did the dream houses do for their occupants that the other houses did not? Which of those things were really important? What did the wigwam and Pilgrim house do for the people who lived there? Did they provide shelter from the elements? A place to work? A place to sleep? Which houses did the students consider most beautiful? What other things did they like or not like about the various houses?
If desired, have students conduct surveys of home usage as a homework project (adjust the complexity of the project depending on the class). For example, ask students to spend time in one or more public room of their house and to keep track of the activity in that room. Which room gets used a lot? For what purposes? Which rooms are hardly used?
In a world of limited resources and limited space, how would students redesign homes to avoid waste? Would some students now change the design of their dream house?
Recommended reading from the Learning Page of American Memory
Recommended reading from Native Web
6 class periods