Native American Shelters

The shelters built and inhabited by different cultures of Native Americans were as diverse as the cultures themselves. Determined by the natural resources available in an area, a culture’s shelter might have been a portable wood structure, a masonry shelter, a conical-shaped structure covered in animal skins or an underground pit. Religious beliefs often determined the location of the structures within a village.

Northwest Culture

With abundant trees and water sources, Native American shelters in the northwest were constructed of wood planks and, with the upside down v-shaped roof, designed to stay dry in the climate’s rainy weather. These structures were called plank houses. Plank houses had a central living area, but private family sleeping quarters. Totem poles, ornaments, and baskets often decorated the outside of these structures.

In the winter, plank houses were typically near the ocean, but in spring, were disassembled and moved to rivers where salmon spawned. The portability of these structures allowed the Native Americans in the northwest to go where food was plentiful.

California Intermountain Culture

Several types of housing were used in the west coast and the intermountain west regions. The Mogollon shelter, named for the Mogollon tribe, or pit house, was built partially underground, providing insulation and protection from extreme heat and cold. Because of the abundance of trees, pit house shelters were constructed of small tree frames and mud plaster roofs. 

Another common type of housing was a type of teepee, with a conical shape made of tree poles. The poles were tied together with vines and then covered by brush. Small and well insulated, this kind of teepee held up well in most types of weather. Teepees and pit houses were designed for small family groups. 

Southwest Culture

Built on cliff walls with adjoining caves, the masonry structures of the Native American cultures in the southwest were intricate and complex. Religious beliefs played an important part in the construction of these masonry villages. The semicircular construction of structures within the village was planned to take advantage of different phases of the sun and moon, which symbolized birth, life and death.

Each living space had several doors, leading up or down to the dwellings of family or other tribe members.


The Plains Native Americans used the well-know teepee, or tipi. The word teepee comes from the Lakota meaning to dwell. Because the Plains cultures followed bison and other large game, the teepee was built for easy transport. A conical shape, made of three or four wood poles and covered in animal skins, teepees were durable and very comfortable amid the winds and temperature extremes of the plains. Many teepees were painted in bright colors by their inhabitants and often contained a fire pit for cooking. Teepees were typically arranged in a circle, with a larger fire pit in the center of the village to be used as a meeting place. Teepees generally housed small groups of family members.

Eastern Woodland

Wigwams were common in the eastern woodland regions. The word wigwam comes from the Algonquian tribe, meaning their dwelling. The wigwam was a circular shape, framed by bending cut saplings and tying them together. Stripped bark formed the roof and walls. Wigwams rivaled settler cabins in durability and warmth.

In the winter, some Native Americans in the northeast built a shelter called a longhouse. Similar to a wigwam, trees were bent into arches, tied together and covered in stripped tree bark. The ends consisted of tree trunks. Longhouses contained several fire pits and had holes in the ceiling to vent the smoke. Several families would spend the winter together in a longhouse. Typically, longhouses were 50 feet long, but ceremonial longhouses were often as long as 200 ft. and as high as 30 ft.

Native Americans used what the land gave them. Most cultures had a deep reverence for the earth and natural resources they used and these resources were rarely wasted.

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