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Topic – Tipis, Longhouses, and Igloos

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Tipis, Longhouses, and Igloos

Across Canada, Indigenous people built many kinds of houses. They used the trees, animal skins, and other building materials around them to create homes that worked well in their environments.

Home on the Move

A Siksika (Blackfoot) tipi. The dark portion at the top represents the sky, the dark band at the bottom represents the earth.

The most famous Indigenous house is the tipi. These were built by many First Nations, but especially those who lived on the Prairies, such as the Nehiyawak (also known as Plains Cree), Pikuni (Peigan), and Siksika (Blackfoot). Tipis were built using a number of poles made from pine trees. They were tied together at the top, then stood up to form a cone. A buffalo hide was draped over the frame and fastened in place at the top.

Tipis were easy to transport and could be set up quickly. The people of the Plains built tipis because these people travelled a lot, following the herds of buffalo.

Pit Houses

An example of pit house

The First Nations who lived in southeastern British Columbia built lodges, tents, and tipis, like many other First Nations. But during the winter, the Ktunaxa (Kootenay), Secwepemc (Shuswap), Stl’atl’imx (Lillooet) and other peoples of the area created pit houses that were partly underground.

Pit houses were dome shaped, with only the top part of the dwelling visible. The roof was framed with poles, then covered with tree boughs and earth. This home had a side door, as well as a hole in the roof. A ladder made from a notched log led down from the roof hole to the floor of the home. Several families might live in each pit house, sharing a cooking fire in the middle.

Homes Built of Snow

Copper Inuit building an igloo, Nunavut, 1915

Another well-known Indigenous dwelling is the igloo. In the Arctic there are no trees, so the Inuit had to use another building material: snow. Carefully selecting snow—it had to be soft enough to chop into blocks but packed enough to be easily moved—Inuit cut snow blocks with specially designed knives made from ivory, bone, or metal.

Skilled snow cutters chopped each block so it would fit perfectly into the igloo’s dome shape. Soft snow was packed into the cracks between the blocks and a vent hole at the top of the dome let heat and smoke out.

Some Inuit used igloos only when travelling. Others lived in them through the whole winter. Sometimes an igloo took only 40 minutes to build! But if they were going to live in it all winter, the Inuit built a bigger igloo. This could take up to two days.

Watch a real igloo being built on this website.

Life in a Longhouse

An authentic reproduction of an Iroquois longhouse

First Nations who lived in central Canada (today’s Ontario) and on the west coast all built large houses called longhouses. On the coast, the houses built by the Gitxsan, Haida, and Nisga’a could be big enough to accommodate up to 60 people. These boxy structures were made from cedar trees and usually had one doorway, which faced the shore.

Iroquoian peoples, including the Cayuga, Onondaga, and Wendat, also built longhouses, but these were usually just for five or six families. Like the west coast longhouses, they were rectangular; however, these featured rounded roofs that were covered with elm, ash, or fir bark.

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