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Building Hank's House

drawing of cross-sections through a Hidatsa earthlodge
Cross-sections through a historic Hidatsa earthlodge in South Dakota. From Wilson, 1934.
cover of Wilson's 1934 study of the Hidatsa earthlodge
Gilbert Wilson's 1934 study of the Hidatsa earthlodge (or earth lodge) was done around the turn of the century and is based on interviews of tribal elders and close examination of "modern" Hidatsa earth lodges. The Hidatsa speak a Siouan language and are closely related to the Crow Indians. They lived in the Northern Plains where winter conditions demanded a more substantial shelter than that needed in the Southern Plains. Still, the basic techniques were shared by many Plains groups speaking Siouan and Caddoan languages.

Click on images to enlarge

drawing of two styles of doors
Two styles of doors of Hidatsa earthlodges. From Wilson, 1934.

During the excavations, we spent a lot of time pondering the question, "How was Hank's house built?" We were able to figure out some things while we were digging, like the pattern of the posts along the walls, but other facts remained elusive until long after the excavation was over. It was not until the analysis phase that many of the important details, such as what types of trees and grass used in construction, became known. When all of the archeological data are considered together, we can reconstruct the story of how Hank's house was built with a fair degree of accuracy. While we cannot be sure of the exact sequence of events, the overall picture of what had to be done to build such a house is clear.

The story of building Hank's house, a sort of "construction reconstruction," is based on four types of data: (1) the archeological details; (2) information learned from other archeological investigations of similar houses; (3) construction techniques learned by archeologists making full-sized or scale model reconstructions of ancient houses; and (4) ethnohistoric accounts of how other peoples built similar types of houses.

One written account of how the Hidatsa Indians who lived in the Northern Plains (South Dakota area) built their houses was particularly informative. From 1906 to 1918, Gilbert L. Wilson observed how the Hidatsa constructed earth lodges at the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and he interviewed elders who remembered what life was like before the reservation. This information was published in 1934 in a study called "The Hidatsa Earthlodge." Although the Hidatsa earth lodges were basically surface houses (with only a foot or so of fill removed) that were round and much larger than the pithouse at Hank's site, there are many similarities and Hank's house was undoubtedly built using many of the same techniques. Illustrations from Wilson's study accompany this section.

The first step in building a pithouse like Hank's began long before the actual house construction. The juniper trees to be used in building the house were probably selected, cut down, and trimmed to form posts many months, perhaps a year or more, before the house was to be built so the posts would be cured (completely dried). To build a pithouse like Hank's, you would need to cut, trim, and cure the following posts:

drawing of a section of a Hidatsa earthlodge
Detail of section of a Hidatsa earthlodge showing roof construction details. From Wilson, 1934.
plan view of the roof timbers
Plan view of the roof timbers of a Hidatsa earthlodge. From Wilson, 1934.
drawing of roof details
Details of central roof and fire hole construction in a Hidatsa earthlodge. From Wilson, 1934.

Number and Size of Posts Needed

Approx. Diameter (inches)

Approx. Length (feet)

Construction Use and Orientation

4 large

6 to 8


central roof support posts, vertical

2 large

5 to 6


long stringer beams for central frame, horizontal

2 large

5 to 6


short stringer beams for central frame, horizontal

37 medium

3 to 5


wall posts, vertical

2 medium

3 to 5


stringer beams, along E-W walls, horizontal

2 medium

3 to 5


stringer beams, along N-S walls, horizontal

10 medium



entryway posts, vertical

5 medium



entryway beams, horizontal

38 medium

3 to 5

11 to 13

roof rafters, angled on stringers


When you were ready to start construction, many people were needed to help and someone had to be in charge of the entire operation. In modern terms, this person functioned as the general contractor to oversee all phases of the house building and direct the work. Among the Hidatsa, lodge building was a community effort, and a respected elder woman was put in charge. The family who would live in the lodge was expected to throw a feast for everyone when the house building was completed (the same practice was followed by the Caddo, the Wichita and other Caddoan groups). But before you could feast, you had to build the house. The steps in the construction process are outlined below:


(1) Preparation

  • Select the house location.
  • Gather all of the juniper posts that were previously dried and cured at the construction site.
  • Cut and gather hundreds of small branches, 0.5 to 1 inch diameter and various lengths, for the roof.
  • Cut and gather hundreds of bundles of yellow Indian grass for use in the roof.
  • Gather lots of rope—strips of buffalo hide, tree bark, or twisted plant fibers—for use in lashing poles together.

(2) Prepare Foundation and Construct Frame

  • Dig a rectangular pit the size of the house about 3 feet deep, piling the dirt around the edges.
  • Dig the deep holes for the four central posts (the main roof support posts).
  • Set the four central posts into the holes and pack soil around them until they are firmly planted.
  • Set the framework of four horizontal stringer beams that rest on top of the four central posts. (The Hidatsa considered the four central posts and beam frame on top to be sacred.)
  • Dig the post holes for all of the wall posts around the edges of the pit.
  • Set all of the wall posts firmly in place.
  • Set the framework of horizontal stringers that form the top of the walls.

(3) Construct Roof

  • Set roof rafters, each one extending from a wall stringer to a central stringer.
  • Construct a small framework to form a smoke hole at the top of the roof.
  • Set small branches (juniper, elm, and other woods) perpendicular to the rafters to form a solid single layer.
  • Add a layer of yellow Indian grass, 2 to 4 inches thick, by lashing closely spaced bundles atop the small branches. The grass runs perpendicular to the small branches and parallel to the rafters.
  • Add layer of sod (topsoil layer held together by roots), probably 4 to 6 inches thick, on top of the bundled-grass layer.

(4) Construct Entrance

  • Dig the ramped entryway.
  • Dig and set vertical posts and horizontal stringers to form the entryway frame.
  • Set vertical slats to form entryway walls.
  • Add clay plaster to the entrance ramp and entryway step.
  • Add clay plaster to lower interior walls.

(5) Finish Interior

  • Dig out a few inches of soil from rectangular area to create the central channel.
  • Dig the central fire hearth and line it with moist clay.
  • Add clay plaster along the edge of the channel to strengthen the channel lip.
  • Add clay plaster to the interior ceiling around the smoke hole for fire safety.

(6) Celebrate Completion with Feast

Follow Hank's House to Burning Down the House