Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Home Sweet Home
For those of us fortunate enough or unfortunate enough to both have been taught the mainstream north american view of homes and to have always had a place to live, the actual buildings we live in are simply inanimate places. Until we move in and dress them up with our furniture and the decorations we like best, they are almost like shells. Our homes affect us in that they protect us from the weather, and can be too big or too small. Unless we have lived in a particular building for a significant part of our lives, or the building is an old and well-loved house maintained in the family for years, we don't tend to get too attached to them. The buildings we do get attached to have more special features than age. Memories and stories become tied up in specific rooms, in do-it-yourself remodelling jobs and home inventions. For the most part, we don't tie stories or memories to our homes in a systematic way, nor do we necessarily see a strong connection between our homes and the local environment. In fact, in mainstream terms we are actively discouraged from doing such things. Indigenous approaches are customarily more deliberate, although those approaches can't always be applied to EuroCanadian housing styles.
The first ties between story and home begin with creating connections between the land, the home, and the people who will live in it. This means more than carefully choosing a building site; it also means using local materials. By using what the land gives, be it tall cedars, paper birches, or bison hides, the builders demonstrate their capacity for care and attention. Most importantly, they demonstrate respect for the land by attempting to minimize the changes they make to it, be it by introducing new things or restructuring it. If you've read any Nanabush or Napi stories, you may have noticed that an action, once done, couldn't be undone. The action could be modified or mitigated, but never erased. So when Nanabush found out the Beaver Family had built a dam at one end of Lake Superior where he didn't want it, he was furious, and stomped on the dam to break it up. Yet he couldn't stomp hard enough to get rid of the whole dam, and that's why Lake Superior has rough waters where it meets the other Great Lakes.
Probably the best known means of deliberately building memory into a home is through carving. Totem poles on the Northwest Coast are offshoots of specially carved support poles inside plank houses. Usually two out of four support poles would be carved with the lineage and history of the clan that owned the house. The house has its own name, and becomes interwoven by name into the history and lineage of the people who live in it. The Maori of Aotorea have created a sacred house form, the Wharenui, an elaborately carved meeting house that serves as an avatar of a revered ancestor and the historical and genealogical archive for a given community. Every carving is tied to a story, so Northwest Coast and Maori carvers alike take great care before introducing new elements.
The Haudenosaunee longhouse is another example of how a home can be made deliberately into a keeper of social memory. If you were to walk into a longhouse, you would see that each family has its own space and its own individual fire. The spatial divisions are created by no more than hide or bark screens usually put up only at night, and mutual respect. After your stroll through the longhouse, you would be equipped to understand how the metaphor of a longhouse helped the Haudenosaunee establish their confederacy.
A map of the territories of the members of the Confederacy before the arrival of Europeans shows an unexpectedly modern set of straight boundaries between each of the original Confederacy members.
Furthermore, each member nation is arrayed on the land in the same order as their names are traditionally listed: Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk. Figuratively, each nation is a family, which in turn is part of the same overarching clan. So each nation has its own fire, its own living space, and the same obligation to respect the living space and needs of their neighbours as individual members of the nations would have in their own homes. Simply waking up in the morning in a longhouse would be a reminder of the story of how the Confederacy was established, and how the most ordinary daily actions are part of maintaining it.
It gives a whole new meaning to 'home,' doesn't it?