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Art and Architecture

Native American Architecture

wickiups, domed roof, wigwams, Chipewyan, cone shape

Deeper web pages:

>  Prehistoric Earthwork Architecture

>  Traditions That Shaped Native Buildings

>  Southeast Culture Area

>  Northeast Culture Area

>  Great Plains Culture Area

>  Arctic Culture Area

>  Plateau Culture Area

>  Northwest Culture Area

>  California Culture Area

>  Southwest Culture Area

Native American Architecture, traditional architecture of the peoples of who lived in North America before Europeans arrived. In traditional Native American culture, the dwelling was far more than a physical shelter or what Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier called “a machine for living.” For many Native Americans the house was a physical and spiritual representation of the universe. This article covers the architecture of indigenous (native) peoples in what is now the United States and Canada.

Subarctic Culture Area

Most of what is now Canada belonged to the Subarctic Culture Area. Across central Canada Algonquian-speaking tribes such as the Cree predominated, but in the West, Athapaskan languages—spoken by the Beaver, Chipewyan, and Kutchin—dominated. Short subarctic summers provided too brief a growing season to enable agriculture. Life was instead sustained by hunting caribou, moose, and other mammals; fishing; and gathering such foods as berries, nuts, and roots. Houses from the Atlantic Coast to the Rocky Mountains were variations on the wigwam common in the Northeast. Grasses protected by hides covered subarctic wigwams, in contrast with the bark or woven mats used in the Northeast. Some subarctic wigwams had a cone shape, rather than the domed roof of the Northeast.

Great Basin Culture Area

The Great Basin Culture Area, south of the Plateau, extended between the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Sierra Nevada to the west. This desert region covered what is today Nevada, Utah, and eastern California. Because the Great Basin was so dry and had little plant life, the native population was limited and widely scattered. Nearly all the people spoke Uto-Aztecan languages, including Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute. These tribes led a nomadic life, moving from place to place during the year so that they did not make excessive use of the game or plant life in any particular location. Because of their movement they needed dwellings that could be quickly made and abandoned when they relocated. The wickiups they erected were dome-shaped houses built with a light frame of bent, slender saplings. The frame was covered with brush, grasses, or other nearby plant materials. Wickiups resembled the wigwams of the Northeast.


Roth, Leland M., B.Arch., M.A., Ph.D.

Marion Dean Ross Professor of Architectural History, University of Oregon. Author of "Concise History of American Architecture" and "Understanding Architecture".

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