INTERPRETING TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE
Native Americans have a strong tradition of architectural form varying in size, shape, permanence, structure and material. Each Nation has developed its own unique architecture throughout history in order to best suit their needs and the requirements of their climate. Their buildings address the primary need for shelter in an environmentally conscience and contextually responsive manner. The shape, form and materiality of all the buildings formed across North America are different depending on the location of the site and the materials that were immediately available. A Native American concept of architecture, historically, has always been site responsive on all scales. The architecture is conscious of the sun and moon, constellations, changes in season, fluvial processes, prevailing weather patterns, migration of animals, and the fertility of the soil. Buildings were responses to the need for survival of not only the builders bodies but also their spirituality and culture, thereby producing the built form as not only a place to live but a place that documented their way of life including their beliefs in relation to each other and the world around them.
The longhouse, used by the Iroquois and Wendat, is a built form but it was also, in the case of the Iroquois, a symbol for the connection between the Five Nations. Physically, the building was an elongated rectangular house which accommodated an extended family. Located at the east and west ends were the only entries into the house. Symbolically, the Longhouse represented the people of the longhouse or Haudenasaunee, linked as one large family with the Mohawk in the east and the Seneca in the west protecting their respective doors. Symbolically, the built form was not only used for shelter but was representative of their beliefs, planning and processes.
The Kiva is another building which caries in its form allegory and metaphor. In the Kiva, formed by the people of the Pueblo , there was a distinct connection between the built form and the emergence of life. The Kiva is in the shape of a cylinder, the circular form representing the continuous cycle of life. The floor of the Kiva is sunk approximately four (4) feet into the ground symbolic of the underworld. The entrance to a Kiva is through an opening in the ceiling, climbing down a ladder with poles that extend high into the air. The ladder is called a sipapu from the Hopi word for the mythic place of emergence. Combined with the ladder a Kiva symbolically represents the accent through the procession of underworlds into the present.
There are many symbols present in Native American history. All are important to their individual Nations and all are symbolic of the connection between the people and earth. A number of animal forms are considered symbolic in Indigenous cultures including; eagle, thunderbird, eel, bear, turtle, wolf, deer, snake and beaver. These forms and figures can be found on, and in, many of the Indigenous structures still standing in North America . Located just outside of Atlanta there is a stone effigy of an eagle constructed of limey quartz stone over 2000 years ago. This effigy is believed to be related to the Hopewell site which contains many earth mound formations includes a snake form approximately six hundred (600) feet long. Extremely visible are the effigies found in totem poles in the North West Plank houses. The totems contain mythical forms often morphing into and out of each other; bear becoming frog and then bear again. The figures contained within the totem are representations of the important icons directly related to the North West cultures and contain a symbolism that would be hard to understand if one was not fully immersed in the culture. These effigies serve as a reminder that Indigenous people have been active participants on this land for thousands of years.
Also, there is a direct connection between Native American architecture and the cosmos. Representational symbols and forms of seasonal cycles, including the sun and moon, planetary alignment, summer and winter solstice, and the alignment of the stars have all been found in historic Indigenous architecture. Also, primary forms including the circle, square, and pentagon are present in almost all of the indigenous structures. Form and figure are present, either in the massing qualities or in the application of patterning and graphics. The forms are simple representations that carry an entwined meaning that is only relevant to those who understand the culture completely. There is less literal interpretation and more implied meaning in the symbolism which allows for the constant evolution of meaning within the cultures. One may say that the story should be told by the architecture rather than read by the viewer.
The Haudenasaunee people have many symbols and metaphors that are very relevant to their daily life and culture some of which include; the tree of peace, the 9 clans and their animals, sky world, the four cardinal directions, turtle island, and the eagle. All of these characters have a larger meaning that is inherent in the essence, meaning and metaphor of the symbol.