On the eve of Drake's appearance the region held more than 300,000 people- perhaps thirteen percent of the entire continent's native population. (This figure is one estimate) It was also a culturally diverse population-six of native North America's seven major language groups were represented in California, divided into more than one hundred dialects.
Pit house floors usually were excavated in spring before the summer sun hardened the ground. Maidu and Miwok pits were generally 10 to 15 feet across, but tribelets of the Patwin dug them somewhat wider.
Posts and radiating beams framed the ceiling, then tule mat, or bunched grass were laid above smaller sticks. Packed earth from the original excavation finished the roof. One usually entered and left through the smoke hole by a notched log ladder, but people also crawled out through the side shafts used for ventilation. Sleeping pallets decked with willows were supported by stakes driven into the floor. Mattresses were made of fine twigs, pine needles, and tule mats.
Among the Pomo, influential men such as hunting or war leaders, lucky gamblers, or medicine men sometimes hired builders to construct oversized homes. Their floors, which could be 15 feet below ground, were entered by short tunnels that led through extra storage chambers. Their roofs were framed of radiating poles carefully layered with brush, grass, and mats under the 3 to 4 inches of earthen covering. A final plastering with wet clay was smoothed by hand over the exterior and allowed to set.
Among the Miwok, men's sweathouses were simply reduced versions of their domestic pit houses. From 6 to 15 feet in diameter, they were usually the height of a man bent over. Dry rather than steam heat from a central fire was used; the small smoke hole helped to retain warmth.
In most Pomo settlements, both sexes and all ages used communal sweathouses. Between 15 and 20 feet across, they were built much like their earth-covered dance house, but they were accorded little sacred significance.
Religious life focused around community dance houses built by the Pomo, Maidu, Miwok, Patwin, Nomlaki, and Wintu. According to California Indian scholar, Robert E Heizer, they represented aboriginal California's most 'complex architectural achievement.'
Among the Pomo these earthen assembly halls extended from 40 to 60 feet in diameter. They featured one or two long, tunnel entrances, a smoke hole, and a hollowed-log drum in the rear that was played by men wielding 5-foot-long drumsticks. One or more painted hardwood posts stood in the middle of the the floor, the sacred center of these "buildings." The Pomo even outfitted their elaborate halls with trapezes from which performers would swing during certain dances.
A Nomlaki account describes the ritualized construction of such a ceremonial chamber. Harvesting the poles took a full month, with special care given to finding the central oak post, which was chopped down last. Every piece had its name, and all joints were prefitted so the entire building could be erected in a dwelling celebration. Participating groups excavated the side of the pit closest to their own hamlets-breaking up the earth with digging sticks and removing it in conelike baskets as if to make the building a microcosm of the wider Nomlaki world. When, after about three hours they had dug a 4 to 7 foot hole, six to eight men, singing together, carried in the sacred center pole on a grapevine litter. Once it was raised, two "brother" poles, all the side posts, and the entire frame of rafters were lashed with green grapevine,which hardened as it dried. Wormwood was laid atop the rafters, and the crevices were stuffed with moss. Finally the 3 to 4 inch earthen roof layer was tamped down by foot.
After the 1870's, the use of these ceremonial buildings was revived when the so-called Earthlodge Cult, often described as a California form of the Plains Ghost Dance, attempted to reaffirm Indian identity in the face of Anglo-American oppression. Central tribes flocked to these rituals; the halls, which reached 70 feet in diameter, held over three hundred celebrants.
The Maidu and Miwok, whose dances with elaborate costumes were held between October and April, developed a variety of ways to support their roofs using two and four central-post frames and extending the sloping vestibules. The Central Miwok decorated the interior walls and posts of their lamma, or ceremonial dance house, with horizontal black and white stripes and cushioned the clay floor during their ceremonies with willow ' branches. They believed that as the blazing central fire projected the shadows of the costumed dancers, the central posts became conduits for communicating directly with the spirit world and for transmitting dream songs to the participants, such as this Wintu lyric from the Earthlodge Cult period:
At the mystical earthlodge of the south.
Spirits are wafted along the roof and fall.
There above, there above,
Spirits are wafted along the roof and fall.
Flowers bend heavily on their stems."
(Thanks to Michele Lord for scanning support.)
|(360k .gif) Click the image
to see a large photo of the prepared site for the Indian Canyon Roundhouse,
Elena Sayers' home was originally located on the same site until it burned down in 1976. In a short video clip, the pit is seen.
|Esselen leader Tom Nason generously lets us share photos of the Roundhouse and Conference Grounds in the Santa Lucia mountains.||A view of the center posts and smokehole.|
|Walk down from the West into the entry. (113k .gif)||A new Arbor, or Ramada in June, 1996. (95k .gif)|