Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Building a Traditional Native American House

This summer, I am helping to build a model Native American village with the Kumeyaay people. I realize that when I say "model," you might think that it will be small. Oh no, this is all full-sized. The traditional Kumeyaay house is called an 'ewaa, and we are building four of them. We began today with the first one, using all locally obtained native plants and stones as our materials plus a little bit of modern help.

The Kumeyaay people traditionally lived in San Diego county and as far south as Baja California. During the year, they moved in an east-west pattern to follow food, water, and good weather. I can't say I blame them. When it gets hellishly hot in the summer, I'd like to head for the cooler weather of the mountains too!

Today, the Kumeyaay are divided into several different bands, each with their own reservation. San Diegans will recognize several different bands - Viejas, Barona, and Sycuan - because they've all got casinos.

The Kumeyaay recently purchased a new property very close to the Sycuan reservation. And it's GORGEOUS. That's where we're building a model village. I believe it will be used for education and for ceremonies.

The land includes a lake. The borders of the lake are lush with cattails and tules. All around the lake are willows, cottonwoods, and perhaps some mulefat. A little further from the lake, you'll find elderberries. And you'll find some invasives too - Peruvian pepper tree, Eucalyptus, tree tobacco. Hopefully those will be removed as they fix up the area.

The lake

Step one was building a staircase between the village site and the lake. The amazing landscape crew at Sycuan did that:

This is where the first house goes

When we arrived today, a circle was drawn where the first house would go. A few guys from the landscape team brought over an auger and began digging the holes needed for the house. This is, um, not a very traditional method. Can you imagine digging 12 two-foot deep holes with nothing but stone, wood, and bone tools?

Digging the holes

Once the men with the auger dug a hole, others poured water in each one to soften the soil and then began digging with shovels.

The landscape crew assembled a large number of long willow branches and a huge pile of cattails before we arrived today. While one group dug the holes, the rest of us trimmed the leaves and smaller branches off of the willow so that we would have the long poles we needed.

Trimming the willow

When the holes were dug and the willow was ready, it was time to start building the house!

We began by assembling four very tall, thin willow branches and testing their ability to bend sufficiently to serve as the frame for the 'ewaa. With that done, two willow poles were set into holes opposite one another and bent until they met in the middle. We needed a very tall man to hold them together in the middle to make sure our house would be tall enough. Once we got the poles in the right position, we used yucca or agave twine to tie them together. Traditionally, the Kumeyaay made their own cordage, of course, but thankfully we didn't have to make our cordage as part of our housebuilding adventure.

The first two poles

As soon as each pole was set in place, we filled up the hole around it with rocks.

A second two poles were set in place, parallel to the first two. We made sure that they were the exact same height before tying them down. The space in between these two arches will serve as the front door.

Next, we made five arches going in the other direction:

The view from the front

With that done, we fitted some willow poles to serve as the door:

Making the door

Next, we began wrapping large willow branches around the house and tying them down with twine. We left the space for the door open in the front. As you can see, it almost looks like a grid. In the end, there were four rings of willow going around the house.

The view from the front door

Woohoo! That part's done! Now, we thatch.

The thatching was done with cattail. I realize this will make little sense but I'll attempt to describe it anyway. You grab a large handful of cattail and make sure that it's all even on the bottom. Lie it against the house and then fold it in half over the horizontal pole. Then pull the top of the cattails forward so that they are all outside the house.

Ahead of time, we had someone wrap large lengths of twine around a stick. That made it easier to handle the twine, wrapping it around the cattails to secure them to the house and pack them tightly together and tight against the house.

If that made no sense, just look at the picture.

The thatching, secured with twine


And, phew... it's done:

Photo credit: Jennifer Beecher

That is, that part is done. As you can see in the photo, it was beginning to get dark. Our time was up for tonight. Next week we'll finish thatching this house and begin construction of the next.

This house is small and cozy, and it would be for a young couple who did not have kids yet. As you can tell, making this house was a lot of work, and it would have been even more work if we did not have metal knives and shovels, trucks to transport the heavy willow poles, and that wonderful, wonderful auger to dig the holes. The Kumeyaay did not stay in one place all year, but this 'ewaa is not the sort of thing you'd want to build every other week. Clearly, they would stay put in the same place for long periods of time, even though they did move seasonally across the many different ecosystems encompassed within their territory (coast, mountains, desert).

More pictures to come when we finish the 'ewaa next week! I hear we'll also build a ramada and a granary.

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