I have been working with Native Americans in the tourism industry for two decades. My first forays in this industry were in South Florida, home of the Miccosukee and Seminole people. Today I work at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village in South Dakota, where the ancestors of the Mandan people lived. Despite the huge geographical gap, there is similarity to how visitors imagine how these tribes may have lived.
The Miccosukee and the Seminole were originally from the area that became Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. Pushed south by their enemies, they ultimately settled in the sub-tropical wilderness of the Florida Everglades. They built simple houses, called chickees, on the teardrop shaped islands, or hammocks, on the River of Grass. The chickees were open-sided homes with a palm thatch roof. Beds and seating were elevated above the ground, a fire was in the center of the structure. Temporary walls could be dropped when the weather got cold – a rare occurrence – or when foul weather threatened.
The people who lived on the northern plains lived in lodges similar to the chickees of the Everglades Indians. The walls were permanent, however, made of daub, a mixture of mud, grasses and sticks, which hardened from the heat of the hearth fire. The roof was made of sod. One bed would be placed close to the fire in the lodge, reserved for a revered elder. Everyone else slept on the ground, presumably on bison hides.These homes, like those of the Miccosukee and Seminole, were well adapted to the climate in which these people lived.
When we welcome to visitors to these sites, quite often the first question asked is “where are the teepees?”. Literature, movies, and other media depict the First Americans as proud horsepeople who lived in great teepees. Our visitors are always surprised to learn that teepees are a relatively recent building construction and did not come about until the horse was introduced to the First Americans. Then, only a few tribes, most notably the Sioux tribes, used the teepee. The horse enabled the nomadic Sioux to move about the Plains in search of the great herds of bison.
Most Native Americans did not live in teepees. Their houses came in all shapes and sizes, from the simple iglu of the Inuit to the beautiful plank houses of the Chinook. It becomes our responsibility to teach our visitors the ways in which these people lived.