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Home » architecture » Inside the longhouse reconstruction at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons.

Inside the longhouse reconstruction at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons.

Below is a photo taken of the interior of the longhouse reconstruction at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in Midland, Ontario, taken during my visit there in August of 2009. I grew up on the Eastern Cherokee reservation in Western North Carolina and came to anthropology through my interest in learning more about the history of my home community. As I became interested in Cherokee history at a much deeper time depth I started to learn more and more about the related Iroquoian peoples. So the content of this blog will almost certainly end up being heavy on Iroquoian-related material.


Inside the longhouse reconstruction at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons.

The first time I saw a longhouse reconstruction (at the wonderful Ganondagan State Historic Site near Rochester, N.Y.) I was taken aback by how different it was from Cherokee domestic architecture. The Cherokee lived in small paired structures typical of the Southeastern United States, often referred to as ‘summer houses’ and ‘winter houses’ in the anthropological literature. The occupants were not a nuclear family in the suburban American sense as it was common for at least three generations to be in residence there. But I imagine that the longhouse arrangement would have felt communal in an uncomfortable way to a Cherokee accustomed to less expansive quarters.

On the other hand, I can imagine that to someone who has spent his or her life sheltered in a longhouse, the traditional Cherokee house altogether cramped and a little lonely. The term by which the Cherokee were known in the different Iroquois languages is sometimes glossed as ‘dwellers in caves.’ Given that the Cherokee winter house was semi-subterranean, a better gloss is probably ‘they live in holes,’ which also conveys, I suspect, something of the foreignness with which the Iroquois viewed that particular living arrangement.

Matthew Timothy Bradley



  1. If I’m reading the archaeological literature correctly, longhouses must have long post-dated the split between Northern and Southern Iroquoian. They aren’t present in reconstructed terminology for either proto-Iroquoian or proto-Northern Iroquoian, insofar as I’m aware, and the archaeological sequence associating even proto-Northern Iroquoian with longhouses, matriclans, and maize agriculture is now discredited. So it’s not really so surprising that Cherokee architecture is so different.


    • Mateo says:

      Just off the top of my head, longhouses are an areal phenomenon, I believe. But I haven’t chased down solid references.

      There are some semantic and theoretical issues with the notion of matriclans, in my mind. If I understand correctly, domestic dwelling floor areas of above a certain size do a good job of predicting matri-something, though whether it be matrilineal descent or matrifocality, both variously defined, seems muddled in the literature. The Cherokee have matrilineal clans—sibs, really—and their Contact Period domestic floor area did not reach the minimum floor area predicting matri-something. The Northern Iroquoians had matrilineal sibs and lineages and their domestic floor area did arrive at the minimum floor area for predicting matri-something.

      The term for ‘sib’ comes from PI *hearth, if I recall correctly (see Marianne Mithun’s chapter in the Extending the rafters collection).


      • By sibs, do you mean kindreds? It’s one of those classic British/American distinctions – I seem to remember ‘sib’ being used for ‘clan’, or something like it, in US literature, but I think of the Anglo-Saxon sibb (a large kindred) when I hear it. Interesting that the word in Iroquoian languages comes from ‘hearth’, though.

        Longhouses correlate strongly with Northern Iroquoian, if I remember correctly, but they seem to be an early second millennium CE phenomenon, not likely to be earlier. Maybe they’re an areal phenomenon, but either way, they’re a second millennium CE one. Dean Snow claimed, about two decades ago, that there was a solid archaeological sequence linking all the Northern Iroquoian groups with agriculture and longhouses, spreading out into Pennsylvania and the Great Lakes around 900 CE, which doesn’t seem reasonable for a number of reasons. First, Iroquoian is the wedge between Atlantic and inland Algonquian speakers, and they must have differentiated early, perhaps as early as 1000 BCE, meaning that Northern Iroquoian must have been there at around the same time; second, the archaeological sequence is muddled, and many of the archaeological cultures used by Snow are now considered unrealistic – see, among others, Jo Hart and Hetty Jo Brumbach’s 2003 article, ‘The death of Owasco’, American Antiquity, 68(4): 737-752, and Scott Martin’s (2008) ‘Languages past and present: archaeological approaches to the appearance of Northern Iroquoian speakers in the lower Great Lakes region of North America’, American Antiquity 73(3): 441-463.


        • Mateo says:

          I’m using sib in the way Murdock defines it on p. 47 in Social structure:

          When the members of a consanguineal kin group acknowledge a traditional bond of common descent in the paternal or maternal line, but are unable always to trace the actual genealogical connections between individuals, the group is called a sib.

          I know Dean’s work well. Given the linguistic evidence, Algonquian speakers having moved around Iroquoian speakers certainly seems more likely than Iroquoian speakers having displaced Algonquian speakers from a swath of territory.

          IIRC, no agricultural terms can be reconstructed prior to the split of what would become Tuscarora and Nottoway, and I believe that both of those peoples inhabited longhouses during the Contact and Colonial periods. Don’t know what the archaeological evidence is, though. It’s awfully sandy in that part of North Carolina and Virginia, so getting post molds can be tough.


        • I’d call that a ‘clan’, as I believe is standard in British social anthropology, but thanks for the clarification!

          Eastern and western Algonquian languages both descend directly from proto-Algonquian, so the most parsimonious explanation is that either Iroquoian languages spread into formerly Algonquian-speaking territory or that they were already there before the split occurred, with Algonquian speakers migrating around Iroquoians. Either way, Iroquoians must have been in the northern states before or at the time of the split. I wouldn’t be too sceptical of Iroquoian groups moving into Algonquian territory, though, given the documented alliance-forming tendencies of Iroquoian speakers.


  2. Mateo says:

    It would be called a clan by most U.S.-based anthropologists, as well, but I like Murdock’s usage because it allows for making the distinction between purely descent-based groups and groups which involve an element of locality/residence (such as Scottish clans).

    Michael K. Foster’s chapter in volume 17 of the HNAI on language and culture history provides an excellent review of some of the things we’re discussing here.


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