When we think of modern housing we think of comfortable European style homes. When we think of traditional aboriginal housing, some think of the tipi, but the Mi'kmaq never used the word tipi or teepee as it comes from a different native language and usually refers to a tent covered with skins, not bark. The Mi'kmaq called them wigwams. Its root word is "wikuom". The Mi'kmaq made many uses for birch bark and it also made a good cover for their dwellings since it was waterproof and portable. When a family moved they took the birch bark sheets with them.
This basic conical shape dwelling was used across North America (or Turtle Island as it was known in ancient times) because of the ease in which it could be assembled and quickly disassembled when moving from place to place-, as was the migratory nature of the indigenous people. These homes were easily put together in a couple hours. The structure of the wigwam involved at least five wood poles, lashed together at the top with split spruce root and spread out at the bottom. A hoop of moosewood was tied under the poles just down from the top to brace them. Shorter poles tied to the hoop all around provided supports for the birch bark cover. Birch bark sheets were laid over the poles like shingles, starting from the bottom and overlapping as they worked up the wigwam. Extra poles laid over the outside helped hold the birch bark down. The top was left open for fireplace smoke to escape. A separate bark collar covered the top in bad weather. The floor was lined with fir twigs, woven mats and animal furs and a large hide acted as a door cover. Wigwams were painted with figures of animals and birds. The largest conical wigwams housed 12-15 people; for bigger families a longer style with two fireplaces was built. There were basically two types: the smaller, conical-shaped style was used in the winter; and the larger, oblong variety during the warmer months.
Once the wigwam was completed, with a fire burning, the Mi'kmaq rested. The Jesuits Missionaries were amazed at how comfortable these portable homes were and Father Reverent Pierre Baird, in 1614 wrote:
"Upon this they stretch themselves around the fire with their heads resting upon their baggage; and, what no one would believe, they are very warm in there around that little fire, even in the greatest rigors of the Winter. They do not camp except near some good water, and in an attractive location. In Summer the shape of their houses is changed; for then they are broad and long, that they may have more air; then they nearly always cover them with bark, or mats made of tender reeds, finer and more delicate than ours made of straw, and so skillfully woven, that when they are hung up the water runs along their surface without penetrating them."
Many Mi'kmaq hunter and trappers still practice the art of wigwam building when camping. More often they are used today for ceremonial purposes. As symbols of our culture, I would love to see wigwams on display, even if only for tourism purposes, built throughout the St. George's Bay, Port au Port Peninsula area and surrounding area.
Compiled by Jasen S. Benwah
Local Mi'kmaq Researcher
Cape St. George, NL.(Ktaqamkuk)
As appeared in The Georgian Newspaper, Feb 3, 2004
Website Copyright © 2004 Jasen Sylvester Benwah