The Earthlodge

A common stereotype is that American Indians lived in tipis. In fact, relatively few Indian nations utilized this type of housing: it was a type of housing found primarily in the Great Plains. Among the Indian nations who live along the Missouri River in the Dakotas, the primary form of housing was the earthlodge.

Mandan Lodge Curtis

Shown above is a Mandan lodge photographed in 1909 by Edward S. Curtis.  

Along the eastern portion of the Northern Plains, tribes such as the Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa had permanent villages in which they constructed large earthlodges. The earthlodges were circular structures built partially underground. They had a log framework which was covered with willow mats and then overlaid with a thin coating of earth and sod. At the top of the dome-shaped lodge there was an opening-often two or three feet across-which allowed smoke to escape. Next to this opening would be an old bull-boat or a covered wicker frame which could be placed over the hole during bad weather.

The floor of the lodge was often excavated a foot or more below ground level. Beneath the smoke hole, there would be a shallow depression, five or six feet across, curbed with stone for the fire.

The size of the earthlodges ranged from 20 to 50 feet in diameter. A typical earthlodge would have 15-25 people living in it.

It would take a group of women about a week to construct an earthlodge. The lodge would then last about 7-10 years at which time the buried portions of the framework posts would be rotting out. A new earthlodge would then be built at the same location.

Knife River Mandan Lodge

Shown above is a  reconstructed Mandan lodge of the Knife River village.

Inside the earthlodge, beds were generally placed around the wall. Each bed was a separate, box-like structure which was entirely closed in except for one small opening. The bed was raised somewhat above the floor and was covered with robes.

The roofs of the earthlodges were often used as balconies for relaxing or for seeing what was going on in the area. Village life took place on the roofs of the lodges as well as on the ground.

To provide shaded outdoor working and lounging areas, ramadas were constructed using upright posts and horizontal joists to support a brush roof. There were no walls.

In addition to the earthlodges and the ramadas, there were also numerous scaffolds on which buffalo meat was hung to dry.

Each house also had a wood mortar which was set firmly into the floor. Using a heavy wooden pestle, the women would use this mortar for grinding corn.

To provide for food storage, storage pits were dug both inside the houses and between the houses. Typically, these storage pits were wider at the bottom than at the top giving them a rough bell shape. Some of the pits were more than two meters (more than six feet) deep. The pits were lined with grass and willow shoots. If the pits became damp or infested with mice, then they were used for trash disposal. In some earthlodges there were as many as nine pits.

The Earthlodge Villages:

Catlin Mandan Village

Shown above is a Mandan village painted by George Catlin.

Mandan villages usually had an open plaza near the center. The plaza was roughly 160 feet long and 90 feet wide. In the center of the plaza was a shrine-Mni-mih-douxx (“Water Middle Mark”)-which commemorated Lone Man’s act of saving his people during the great flood. Also on the plaza was the Medicine Lodge or Tixopinic.  This was not only the largest building in the village, but it was also the only non-round building in the village. This big lodge was the center of the city’s religious, political, and social life.

In Arikara villages there was usually one large lodge which served as a ceremonial structure. This ceremonial lodge was usually located in the center of the village. This lodge would have a low earthen altar against the wall opposite the entrance. Unlike other earthlodges, the ceremonial lodges contain few storage pits.

The Hidatsa villages had neither a central plaza nor a ceremonial structure. The Hidatsa usually conducted ceremonies at temporary locations outside of the village.

The agricultural people of the northeastern area often fortified their villages with pallisades and ditches. Some villages were protected by more elaborate defensive works which included bastions constructed at carefully calculated intervals. These defensive works were constructed by the women.