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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
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,1 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.

An 1885 era u.s. bureau of ethnology depiction of a Haudenosaunee longhouse that somehow makes it look more like a factory. An 1885 era u.s. bureau of ethnology depiction of a Haudenosaunee longhouse that somehow makes it look more like a factory.
Hilariously bad depiction of a Haudenosaunee longhouse by an artist working for the u.s. bureau of ethnology, who apparently thought they lived in factories. Courtesy of wikimedia commons, november 2016.

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, can't be undone. The action can 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.

A much more reasonable depiction of a Haudenosaunee longhouse by artist Roberta Wilson. A much more reasonable depiction of a Haudenosaunee longhouse by artist Roberta Wilson.
This far better illustration of a Haudenosaunee longhouse was done by Roberta Wilson, and is featured here courtesy of the new york state museum, december 1998.

Probably the best known means of deliberately building memory into a home is through carving. Monument poles on the northwest coast are offshoots of specially carved support poles inside plank houses. To begin with, the nations who customarily carved and spoke with these poles are the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian. In those cases, two out of four support poles could 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. Further south, the Kwakwaka'wakw built, carved and painted long houses such as the Big House associated with the royal bc museum in victoria, british columbia. Their vivid crest paintings could be expanded and extended via false fronts added to the homes of especially rich and prestigious families.2 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 longhouse3 is another example of how a home can be made deliberately into a keeper of social memory. If you were to walk into a Haudenosaunee 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.

The Kwakwaka'wakw Big House at the royal bc museum. Photograph by C. Osborne, June 2011. The Kwakwaka'wakw Big House at the royal bc museum. Photograph by C. Osborne, June 2011.
Kwakwaka'wakw Big House at the royal bc museum. Photograph by C. Osborne, june 2011.

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.

Having lived so long in what is currently referred to by settlers as southern alberta, I learned at least the basics of the organization and symbolism of Blackfoot tipis. Contrary to what those of us who don't camp regularly in analogous structures such as the ubiquitous frame tent might expect, tipis were and are highly organized spaces, beginning with how they are oriented on the land. A regular tipi as opposed to a ceremonial one would be oriented based on the prevailing wind, if it is part of a circle of tipis, and so on. Inside, work spaces, storage, and beds are oriented regularly and systematically around the door on one side and the hearth and altar in the middle. Who slept closest to the door or right across from it tended to reflect seniority and prestige, but during the day who held the key spot across from it could vary depending on what the space was being used for at the time. Perhaps the owner of the tipi, who in Blackfoot country is the senior woman of the family, would be seated there while working with other women or leading a mixed meeting. Or maybe her partner would be seated there, receiving guests. Paintings within and outside of the tipi remake it into a map of the world at large and potentially the visions of especially spiritually gifted members of the family living in it. So again, a tipi serves not only as a home or workspace, but also as a map and key to social and cosmological relations.4

So let's pause here and consider what a eurocanadian house seems to say from an Indigenous perspective, an expectation that it will reflect the society and way of life of the people living in it. The most common kind I am familiar with is the most recent cookiecutter pattern forming a part of the blight of unwalkable suburbs all over canada, a sort of narrow house with a garage, two floors, and a basement.

Walking up to such a house, if we have the temerity to do such a thing rather than drive a car, the first thing we will likely see is the extensive driveway and a garage door wide enough for two cars. "Car ports" or open garages seem to have gone out with the 1980s. The front door to the house is to one side and relatively small and inconspicuous. Inside the front door leads almost immediately onto the main floor, crammed with a kitchen and dining room, maybe a door leading out to a back deck if there is more than a postage stamp back yard, a staircase to access the other floors, and maybe even a bathroom. All the bedrooms and where the television set if there is one goes, is upstairs, probably with a bigger bathroom and a laundry room. Maybe there are a few oddly sized "linen closets" that are telltale space fillers between these reshuffled standard rooms.

Well, let's see. The primary occupant of this sort of house is apparently the car or cars, because the whole house is built around them. Activities are strictly segregated on a suspiciously gender-stereotyped framework. The women's stuff is relegated to the main floor. The men's stuff goes with the car, and the entertainment area upstairs. The bedrooms are crammed out of the way in the back of the house on the second floor, out of sight, and admittedly probably out of the way of most noise. Anything "private" is firmly relegated out of sight and easy access, which is why if there is a bathroom on the main floor, that is unusual. The really public stuff, the entertaining, is placed around the car's bedroom. There are no real references to the outdoors, although a well-sited house in northern latitudes might at least face the south.

It gives a whole new meaning to 'home,' doesn't it?5

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 24, 2018 0:18:20