The Iroquois (The History & Culture of Native Americans)

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The length and interior space of the longhouse was divided up into compartments or apartments, which were 20 feet long. Two families lived in each compartment, one on each side of an aisle that ran down the center. The aisle extended from one compartment to the next and ran the full length of the longhouse.

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The aisle was 10 feet wide and was a common space used by both families in the compartment. A fire was placed in the middle of the aisle in the center of each compartment for heating, cooking, and light.

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Smoke escaped from a hole left in the roof above it. A sheet of bark could be adjusted to cover the smoke hole in bad weather. When the smoke hole was closed, the high ceiling in the building allowed some of the smoke to rise above the living space. The two families shared the fire and the central aisle. Each family had its own space on one side of the aisle for sleeping and storage of personal items.

In the family space, a platform was built a foot or so above the floor to form a bench where they sat, slept and worked. It extended for most of the compartment's length. The platform bench was closed at the ends by partitions. Storage closets filled the spaces along the wall that were not occupied by the benches. Another platform of the same size was built about five feet above the bench like a bunk bed. This shelf completed a cubicle, which was heated by the fire that was in the aisle.

The inside of the wall was lined and insulated with woven mats or furs. The benches were also covered with mats and furs for comfort. The space under the bench generally was used to store firewood. The shelf above it was used to store clothes and other items. Braids of corn and sacks of other foods were hung in the high ceiling space. Other household goods were hung on the walls and partitions.

The forests where the Iroquois lived provided them with plenty of posts, poles and bark that were the basic components of longhouse structure. Because the trunks of the large trees of a virgin forest are much too large to handle without machinery, the Iroquois harvested their materials from second growth forest. Such forests arise in clearings in the old growth forests where the trees were killed by fire or by girdling their trunks. Here small trees grow close together with tall straight trunks that can be fashioned into framework components by merely cutting them to length.

The large trees in the adjacent old growth forest could provide bark in large sheets, to be used for covering the structure. Framework: The framework of the longhouse started with rows of posts that were set into holes dug into the ground. The posts were set vertically and formed the frames for the outside walls.

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  4. There were interior posts as well that formed the center aisle. All posts had to be strong and stiff and set firmly in the ground because they were the foundation of the building. Horizontal poles lashed to the posts, both across and along the length of the longhouse, greatly strengthened the structure.

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    The roof was supported by poles that were attached at the tops of the posts and were bent into an arch that reached from one wall across the building to the opposite wall. These roof supports are called rafters. They had to be strong and flexible. Other poles were fastened across the rafters along the length of the longhouse, to make the roof stable.

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    When it was finished, the framework made a grid pattern. This framework was the skeleton of the building to which sheets of bark were attached to complete the roof and walls. The parts of the frame had to be close enough together to support the sheets of bark, which were peeled from large trees. The posts and poles came from small trees saplings that were tall and straight. These trees were cut to the proper length and the bark was removed from the posts and poles to reduce insect damage and decay.

    This bark was peeled off in narrow strips, and was saved for future use. Different types of trees were used in various parts of the building. For example, a strong, stiff tree would be used for the outer posts.

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    A strong but flexible tree would be used in the curved rafters. The Iroquois probably bent their rafters from freshly cut trees, because green wood is much more flexible than dry.

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    Fasteners: Holding the parts of a building together is an essential part of construction. Modern wooden houses are held together with steel nails, but the Iroquois had no nails. Instead, they tied or lashed their buildings together with long strips of bark, or with ropes made by braiding strips of bark. When the bark is fresh and wet, it is flexible and can be wound around poles and posts to tie them together. When it dries, it shrinks a little and becomes stiff, thereby tightening the joint.

    Useful strips of bark can be pulled off some trees for a brief period in the spring when the sap is flowing freely. Basswood and hickory trees are good. Because the sap did not flow all year, the Iroquois probably harvested the bark when they could, then kept it under water until needed. Covering: The framework of the longhouse was covered with sheets of bark. Trees whose bark could be peeled into large sheets were preferred because big sheets made the job easier. The Iroquois used elm bark if it was available.

    Bark must be harvested in the spring while the leaves are still small, because that is when it is easily peeled off the tree. The sheets must be flattened out and held with weights while they dry to keep them from curling up.

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    A sheet of elm bark that has been flattened and dried is quite strong, like a piece of plywood. The bark of an elm tree has deep grooves or furrows in it that run up and down along the trunk. However, the Iroquois usually lashed the bark to the frame of the longhouse with these groves running horizontally. This probably was done because it was easier to keep the bark flat by pressing it against the vertical posts.

    There is an eyewitness report of the Iroquois using an adz to smooth out these furrows so that they wouldn't catch the rainwater as it ran down the roof and sides of the longhouse. After the bark was hung on the frame it needed to be held down to keep it flat and to keep the wind from lifting it. The Iroquois put another framework of small poles on the outside of the bark for these purposes. Archaeologist Dean R. Some personal and official accounts were not published at all.

    Fortunately, during the past century, interest in these descriptions led to their re- publication in English translation, with additional notes provided by their translator and editor. As you can see from the list of references above, Dr. Snow relied upon recent editions of these works, since these are more readily available. It does seem strange, however, to be reading a firsthand description dating to the s of an Iroquois longhouse, and then see that it was published in the s.