When most of us consider Indigenous Americans, our minds conjure up images of teepees as their place of residence, not the wigwam.
The renowned teepee has been a popular feature at fairs, rodeos and other areas that are known to have a native American influence.
However, the tepee wasn’t used by all Indian tribes. Teepees were created in order to easily put up and down as the tribes followed herds of buffalos. They served a specific purpose.
The teepee was also built using lots of buffalo skin, which meant that it was only plain Indians that were able to build the structure as they were truly nomadic. Meanwhile, in the northeast, they were building a different type of home called the wigwam! These homes were permanent huts and were typically made out of tree bark and saplings.
The Eastern tribes used materials that they found in their habitat and the homes generally blended into the environment well. So, how did they actually build the structure?
Shape and Materials
Wigwams are pretty simple designs. Materials were sourced from local woodlands. They would gather together around 20-30 saplings that were 10-20 feet high. They would cut the saplings and place the sharp end in the ground.
The structure would usually be 10 feet wide but larger ones were also constructed sometimes in an oval shape. The smaller ones were more dome-like. The large ones were able to have straight walls that allowed for more space internally.
Before construction commenced the ground needed to be prepared. All stones and debris would be cleared and the ground levelled out. The saplings were then driven into the ground. When they were stable the tops would be secured and tied.
Sometimes they were bent backwards until they reached the other side. Next, the wigwam was banded with rows of saplings roughly surrounding the structure. They were then fixed to the other saplings in order to support them and help hold their shape.
Wigwams were typically covered by the bark of a birch tree. The advantage of using birch is that after the bark is peeled off it continues to live, as long as the inner bark remains fixed.
The birch tree bark is also super flexible meaning it’s an ideal material for creating wigwams and other structures such as boats. In pastimes, if birch was scarce the tribes would use large plants with long thick leaves.
In some cases, they would use skins of the animals they had killed. The cover would then be attached and fixed to the frame and a cord attached from a hide. They would leave door openings and generally cut a hole from smoke to exit.
The covering was fitted from the bottom so they could overlap them in layers which helped disperse water from rainy days. This process allowed water to always fall on the lower layers and eventually settle on the ground.
This also protects the inside from getting wet. During winter and colder weather the hidden doorway was stretched to cover the opening to keep the wind out, and the wigwam warm.
Compared to today’s insulated houses and heating they didn’t do a great job at keeping in heat, so they relied greatly on fire for warmth.
How To Make a Wigwam?
As a project how could you recreate a wigwam and get a taste of house building from times past? Let’s consider some steps:
Firstly, decide where you want your wigwam positioned. Don’t choose any area of ground that is too soft as the poles will be unstable. Clear the ground of any rocks, stones, leaves and other debris. Using a stake or large stick make a circle in the soil to mark out where you want the wigwam to be.
Using the stake find the centre of the wigwam and drive it into the ground. Tie around 7 feet of string to the stake and connect a small stick to the end of the string. Using the stick, walk around in a circle to map out the area. Next, you should mark our 16 points around the circle.
Next, create some openings in the ground using another stake and use a hammer to penetrate the ground until the holes are 6 inches or a foot deep. Gather together the saplings in the same way they did in times past. How many will depend on how big you want your wigwam.
If you want a 14-foot wigwam that’s 7 feet high then sapling poles should be around 15 feet. Choose flat saplings and trim the branches if needed. Cut small holes on the sapling bases so they easily fit into the holes.
Tie the ends of each 2 poles together in two areas. Do some research on parallel lashing techniques to help you or use a YouTube tutorial. In times past they would have been tied with inner bark but it may be easier for this project to use twine or heavy-duty string.
Place poles in the remaining holes. Using extra saplings create hoops around the outside of your structure in four places which will help hold the wigwam in place. Again, utilising a youTube video will really help here.
The next bit is the exciting part. Now you have a structure in place you can focus on the inside. You should have a central area that’s acts as a hearth around 3 feet long.
In the old days, this would have acted as a heater and cooker in cold and rainy weather as mentioned earlier. Create a hole in a circular shape and place stones inside, enough that it could contain a fire. Next, use hard branches to create sleeping areas.
You can just square them off so it looks like a bed or, if you want to get really complex, you can create a complete internal structure with help from some trusty google ‘how to’ guides.
Once completed, you can decide what you are going to cover your wigwam with. it’s unlikely you’ll be off to slaughter some buffalo so, although not quite as authentic, an old sheet of other covering will suffice to complete the look.
So now you know how to create a wigwam, you can get cracking with your project, you never know, you may fancy sleeping in it tonight, wouldn’t that be an adventure?