Earthlodge Perfect for Climate
The earthlodge is the main type of dwelling among the agricultural people of the Missouri River valleys.
Because the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara have permanent villages, the earthlodge is a large, unmovable structure that suits their housing needs very well. The lodges are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Most often a family has a summer lodge (on high ground) and a winter lodge near the river where wood is plentiful. Often spring floods wash away the winter lodge so the people consider the summer, better-built, earthlodge as home. Summer lodges can last for up to ten years.
Although there are some differences in construction among the people, the general characteristics are the same whether one is building a Mandan, a Hidatsa, or an Arikara lodge. The erection of a lodge is complicated and requires the work of many people.
First, a one- or two-foot deep foundation is dug. Then four large posts, about twelve to fifteen feet long, are set up as a square-about ten feet apart. Along the outer edge of the foundation as many as sixteen shorter posts (five to six feet in length) are set up and attached to each other. Then large rafter posts are tied into the four main posts. Lighter poles are placed between the large posts and the smaller posts along the edge of the foundation. Now the frame is completed.
Over this framework the people lay a thick mat of willow branches and dry grass. Finally, a two-to-three foot layer of earth is placed over the entire structure. An entryway about ten feet long is then added. Earthlodges vary in size but most are between thirty and sixty feet in diameter.
Although men help put up the large posts, women design and do most of the work in the building of the earthlodge. The home belongs to the woman.
The earthlodge has a well-organized and efficient interior. In the center is the fire pit which keeps the dwelling warm in the winter and provides a cooking area. Smoke rises through a central opening in the roof. Near the fire rests an earthen pot filled with water for washing up in the morning. Usually, a pot of buffalo meat or corn and beans cooks on the fire in case visitors arrive. They are always offered a meal. Beds, enclosed hides over a pole box-like framework, are arranged along the outer wall. From the outer ring of posts hang the man’s belongings such as bow and quiver, war club, medicine bag, shield and headdress. Cooking equipment and other household goods hang from the center posts. The far back is reserved as a sacred area for items of spiritual importance. During terribly cold weather the family’s horses would be allowed inside the lodge just to the side of the entrance.
The women keep the earthlodge neat and clean. On sunny days they air out the buffalo-skin bedding; after breakfast they sweep the lodge with
buck brush brooms. Regularly a tribal group inspects the earthlodges for cleanliness.
The earthlodge is a well-built and homey place. It uses natural materials that are readily available. The lodge is a part of nature. That is why the lodges have a spiritual meaning to the people who live in them.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.