Plateau Indians Pit House Information
Plateau Indians Pit House Information
by Jack Nesbit
House types found on the Plateau were the semi subterranean pit house, the later tule-mat lodge and the long lodge. The pit house, the oldest type of dwelling) most often consisted of a circular or squarish excavated pit protected by a conical roof of poles covered with brush and earth. Variation was found from area to area - the pit could be circular or square, the roof conical, pyramidical or almost flat, and the entrance either a hole (which also served as an exit for smoke) in the center of the roof or a door at the side of the roof. Although pit houses were most commonly used as winter dwellings, recent information suggests they were sometimes used at other times of the year.</p>
Plan and profile drawing of a pit house form on the Northern Plateau in Canada.
Archaeologist James Teit drew a plan and cross section of a pit house built by the Thompson Indians in the Nicola Valley during the 1890s. Note the successive layers of logs and sod used to cover the roof (courtesy American Museum of Natural History).
In the winter, it is documented that the Spokan lived in permanent villages of pit houses, which were typically located at the eastern flanks of river valleys where mountain slopes offered protection from the prevailing winds. Pit house sites have been recorded all along the Spokane and Columbia Rivers on both sides. These buildings represented a distinctive and highly effective architectural form that was widely used throughout this region for at least 3500 years.
The pit house is broadly characterized by a log-framed structure built over an excavated floor and covered with an insulating layer of earth. The pit house is regarded as perhaps North America's oldest house type, and it was widely used throughout the plateau region until its eventual disappearance in the late 19th century and the pressure from the U.S. Government for the Indian people to live in "civilized houses".
The most fully documented pit houses were those constructed by the Thompson Indians of the Nicola Valley in southern British Columbia, and closely associated in pre-contact times with the people of the Spokane, Sanpoil, Nespelem and others in the region. During the 1890s ethnologist James Teit (see sketch above) carefully recorded the design, construction techniques and beliefs associated with the pit houses of the Thompson people. Construction began with the careful measurement of the pit circumference, which ranged from 7.5 (25 foot) to 12 m (40 foot) in diameter and was excavated to a depth of about 1 m 3.5 foot) with outward-sloping sidewalls. Four logs were then inserted in holes in the floor at an angle parallel to the excavation walls. Their tops were notched to support the four main roof beams, which were sunk into the topsoil at steep angles. A webbing of spaced rafters was then lashed in concentric circles from the outer circumference to the central smoke hole at the apex of the substructure. The rafters supported a snug layer of poles that was thickly padded with pine needles or grass. In the upper Plateau (now Canada), where rainfall is heavy, cedar bark with the curved side up was laid at this stage. Finally, the excavated earth was spread over the roof and stamped down, and a notched-log ladder was lowered through the smoke hole. The following spring grass sprouted on the roof and, except for the protruding ladder, the dwelling seemed to be a living part of the landscape.
The pit house ladder was once the object of artistic attention among the Canadian Plateau. Its top might be carved into the head of a bird or animal and painted to represent the guardian spirit of the head of the household though this practice has not been recorded with in the Spokan.
A central hearth was located near the foot of the ladder - usually on its north side - and a stone slab protected the ladder from burning. When covered with a layer of snow, the insulating efficiency of the pit house meant that only a small fire was required to warm the interior.
Winter communities in the early 1900s typically had three or four pit houses, with between 15 and 30 people occupying each one. Earlier pre-contact communities were frequently much larger, containing 100 or more individual houses. Pit houses varied considerably in size, configuration and construction methods among the various peoples of the Plateau. Some, like those of the Thompson Indians, were circular, others were elongated or square, and some had secondary entrances in the side. The Shuswap living in the Thompson River valley near present-day Kamloops, sometimes used six principal posts and beams rather than four, producing a more conical profile.Only cursory study has been done on the shape and construction details regarding Spokane construction but the above description would certainly fit within the parameters of what was used by the Spokane, regional and family variances aside.
A conical tule mat and frame dwelling, the lodge was an easily moved yet substantial structure used by the all Plateau Indians. Earth was mounded around the base in winter to provide more insulation. Used historically and perhaps prehistorically, the lodge was 4-6 m in diameter at the base, tapered upward to form a smoke hole at the top, and was draped with as many tule mats (average size 3’ x 6’) as it took to cover and arranged over as many as 20 poles. The lodge averaged 7-8 m (25 – 30 foot) in height, with the entrance commonly facing east.In the winter tule mats were added to provide more insulation, which could be easily taken off as, needed. Tule is found in wetlands, often with cattails. It is harvested in late summer, and the reeds laid in alternating directions to make a mat. The ends were secured to each other with hemp cord. Tule reed is hollow and could swell with humidity adding to the insulation properties of the mat.
Long lodges were also common among the Spokane, but little documented.As with the tribes of the lower Columbia and Snake Rivers, long lodges were constructed in an inverted V-designed, pole structures with rounded ends. The frame of the house was a series of crossed poles tied together, with their ends placed in the ground. A more elaborate arrangement of poles at the ends of the house and a ridgepole connecting the paired poles provided stability. They were covered with mats of bark or tule. In the southern Plateau, they were often built over a pit about a 1 m (3.5 foot) deep. The interior was open, since there were often no central support poles or subdivisions. This open interior usually had a row of hearths in its middle. The houses could be 1.2 m (4 ft) to 1.8 m (6 ft) high and over 9 m (30 ft) long. The earliest long lodge in the archaeological record was located in the Calispell Valley of northeastern Washington and dates to c. 500 AD. There is no clear answer why pit houses were discontinued in the early to mid-1700s as family housing (though they were used beyond that as storage) but it appears through scientific dating that long lodges became the most common form of winter dwelling from about 1720 – 1850 and are still being built for special purposes in the lower Columbia region of the Plateau.
admin's note - Many of the original links and pictures in this article were no longer functional. I will need to find some more...