The Meskwaki have historically been a semi-nomadic culture, electing to live together in a single concentrated area during the summer months but scattering into smaller, independent areas throughout the winter season. Different types of dwellings were used for the different seasonal occupations. After the harvest had been gathered, the Meskwaki left their summer villages and traveled to their hunting grounds where they broke up into small hunting camps. Meskwaki economy combined hunting, gathering, and agriculture and did not depend on one means or another exclusively. Some other tribes were primarily agrarian or hunting-based and if those livings were threatened their entire community life was compromised. By comparison, the Meskwaki were not totally dependent on one single way of making a living and were more flexible in adapting to sudden significant changes that so devastated many other tribes.
Meskwakis lived in villages during the summer. A typical summer arrangement would be for one “village” to be designated as the center of government – a “capitol”, in a sense – surrounded by other nearby and comparably-sized Meskwaki villages. The villages tended to be a few miles apart but occasionally could be from 20 – 100 miles apart. Suitable sites for these large villages were along major rivers or lakes and were returned to year after year. Over decades, the tribe would slowly move up or down river to a new area depending on conditions of war, trade, availability of food and natural resources, or other factors such as disease or treaty terms. The villages were placed in lowlands along a river where ground could be cleared, crops planted, and transportation via waterways was relatively easy.
The villages were occupied from about May to September. The village sites were located in the center of tribal territory, surrounded by hunting grounds claimed by the tribe. Since each village was a permanent settlement returned to year after year, the dwellings were fairly permanent in their construction.
A typical summer village consisted of a core area … a large, open place called “Ma a ka ne ki.” in which ceremonial or social dances, horse races, sports and other recreational activities were held … surrounded by neat rows of “summerhouse” dwellings ranging up to a total of two hundred dwellings. Each summerhouse was rectangular and aligned from east to west having doors at each short end. There also was a cleared area at the perimeter of the entire village which was at least a few feet wide and was kept clear of brush and weeds. Near the village perimeter were gardens where women planted their crops. Also nearby, mostly on hills, were the graves of the people.
O-te-ni-ka-ni (oo DEH nee GAH nee)
The summer dwelling was a building called an “O-te-ni-ka-ni” which roughly translates to mean “town house.” A collection of these summerhouses constituted a village. A summerhouse is a rectangular-framed building with a gabled roof and covered with slabs of elm bark on the walls and roof. This building is set east to west with a door on those directional ends and measures about 20 feet wide by 40 – 60 feet long. As time went on, it became problematic to obtain elm bark so planks began to replace bark. However, the way of making a townhouse remains the same today.
Inside on the north and south walls are raised platforms approximately waist-high extending the full length of the house. Bulrush (reed) mats were placed on top of the platforms as well as hung down from the ceiling to act as a divider between single family unit living areas. Many families, usually extended family relatives, lived together under one roof but still had separate living quarters. Each family kept their own household goods in their assigned space. The platforms served as beds in the night and a place to eat, work, and lounge during the day. There were even higher platforms overhead where younger family members slept and where things could be stored away. Many bundled food items were tied even higher in the rafters.
As more Meskwaki began to live in modern style homes, they usually still maintained a summerhouse nearby to continue serving as summer living quarters. In time, a summerhouse changed from a place of residence to more of a ceremonial meeting place where clan feasts, meetings, funerals, adoptions and ghost feasts are held. A number of summerhouses are still in use on the Meskwaki Indian Settlement today, and it is not unusual to build new ones or repair or demolish the older ones just as has been done for thousands of years.
After the summer season’s crop was harvested, some of the food such as corn and squash was stashed in underground cache pits, and the rest was taken along for the winter move. The village separated into smaller groups and went out to tribal hunting grounds, camping along smaller streams of the major rivers. A winter camp consisted of a cluster of “wickiups” that varied in size holding 2 – 3 families or more.
At this time, the men trapped and hunted the fur-bearing animals in order to trade for needed goods. The women made baskets, mats, and the clothing for the family. The material used had been collected the summer before. Meat was eaten from the animals trapped or hunted, being cooked in soups along with the crops dried the past summer. This was also the time when the family held small family feasts of different types, people fasted for religious reasons, and elders told winter stories which are the backbone of the Meskwaki culture.
Before the hardest part of winter set in, the family groups came back together into larger bands to camp in a sheltered river valley surrounded by hills. This was the time when fierce winter came and the valleys helped shield them from the cold blast of winter. Traders would come and visit the camp to exchange furs or other items for goods. In late winter or early spring, the band went to their stand of maple trees and made a sugar camp to make maple sugar. Afterwards, the band returned to the summer village to join up again with the others at their main village.
A-ba-ge-ka-ni (ah bah GWAY KAH nee)
The winter home of the Meskwaki was a dwelling that was dome-shaped, circular and covered with cattail mats. These small round homes were easy to keep warm in the winter and are also called “wickiups.” The size of a dome-shaped wickiup is about 10 to 16 feet in diameter and about 20 feet in height. Another type of wickiup also used as a “Ka-no-ta” which was an oblong or rectangular-shaped structure used by larger families and measured about 20 by 30 feet in size.
The winter home was made by first driving long, slender poles into the ground. The poles are set in a circular manner. Next, the tops of the poles are bent over so that they overlapped poles on the opposite side, then tied together with bark fiber at the top, forming an upside-down “U”. Next, horizontal poles are tied across the bent poles at many levels from ankle-high to above the head, forming a web of squares. This created a dome-shaped shell which was then covered with mats, with each mat overlapping one another. In older times a bear skin generally served as a door, but blankets have been used in more recent times.
Inside, bulrush mats were placed around the inner wall as to let the cold air be heated and let the smoke go outside through an opening at the top. Bulrush mats were also spread upon the ground to serve as a floor and buffalo robes placed on top. Various articles of equipment were packed closely around the center area near the fire.
Wickiups are still made on the Meskwaki Indian Settlement even today and are often built at the pow wow grounds to camp in during the annual pow wow each August. It is not unusual for families to still have a wickiup next to their home. Some use it as a place to cook meals over a wood fire, some use it for storage, some use it as a garage for their cars or ATVs, and some just like to use it as a quiet, warm, place to go for thinking. Many wickiups today are covered with canvas, tarps, or plastic instead of bark or cattails, but the structure remains the same.
The Meskwaki economy of combining hunting, gathering, and agriculture continued into the twentieth century, but the loss of large, wild game and the changing attitude of non-Indian farmers stopped the winter hunts. However, the summer and winter homes continued to be used as daily living spaces even after the Tribe began to use the modern house in the 1900’s.
Even though modern housing is now a standard throughout the Meskwaki Indian Settlement, the tribe still values the summerhouse and wickiup and have brought these dwellings forward into the future along with many other traditions and cultural preferences.