If you’re like me, you love to “feather your nest” as the old saying goes. Most women and even many men love nesting, and playing around with my home’s décor is one of my favorite pastimes. So when I began research on the Seneca for The Return, I was especially interested in discovering how Iroquois longhouses were constructed, and not only how the interior spaces were used, but also how they were decorated. After all, native peoples weren’t any different from European settlers in wanting their homes to offer a pleasing appearance in addition to utility and comfort.
Iroquois Longhouse Interior
The pole framework of the longhouse divided its interior into a series of compartments from front to back, with a 10-foot-wide aisle running down its center. The compartment inside the entry at each end of the structure served as common storage for food supplies, firewood, and other items too large to be kept in the individual families’ personal living space. The rest of the compartments provided space for the families that lived there.
Two families lived in each compartment, on opposite sides of the central aisle. They shared a fire pit, which occupied the center of the aisle, so there was a row of fire pits extending from the front to the back of the longhouse, except in the storage areas. To vent the smoke, a hole was made in the roof above each fire pit, with a sheet of bark that could be slid over it in bad weather. When the smoke hole was closed, smoke collected at the high ceiling above the living space for a while, but I’m sure the atmosphere became pretty thick if the vents had to be kept closed for very long! Vents were also sometimes built into the walls to let air and light in, and these also could be closed as needed.
Each family’s living space measured about 6 by 10 feet. Wooden screens and mats or hangings of animal skins separated the families’ personal spaces along each wall and offered a certain amount of privacy. A platform built about a foot above the floor along its exterior wall provided seating, work space, and a bed. Woven rush mats and animal pelts covered the platform and the exterior wall to serve as decoration, padding, and insulation, and pelts and blankets were used as covers. Each family stored personal items like tools and clothing beneath the platform as well as some food and a small store of firewood.
A raised platform of the same size was often hung about five feet above the lower one, and a third might be added above that. These were used to store clothing and other items and for extra sleeping space as needed. Braided ears of corn and sacks of grain, nuts, and other foods were hung from the rafters, and additional household goods were hung on the walls and partitions.
It sounds like a pretty practical and efficient living space to me for wilderness areas, though it’s probably not very comfortable in cold or hot weather. When you consider the community that developed in each longhouse as the clan expanded, you gain a new perspective on the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child.” However, as one reader commented on last month’s post, think of what it would sound like at night with all those men snoring!