Around the Medicine Wheel
Engaging with the Past in the Present
As you don your virtual reality (VR) lenses or watch the immersive experience on a screen, you’ll be able to virtually wander through the longhouse, home to members of the Wendat community. You’ll see the bunks where they slept lined with soft furs, you’ll see the roaring fires where families warmed themselves and cooked their meals. As you walk through the longhouse, you get an immersive, intimate sense of the lives of the people who lived in these homes.
First, we’d like you to consider how the simulation was made. How did Dr. William Carter recreate this longhouse? The simulation is the culmination of a significant amount of primary and secondary research. Dr. Carter conducted archeological fieldwork and consumed the research of specialized archeologists to create this prototypical 16th century Late Woodland ancestral Northern Iroquoian longhouse.
Dr. Carter acknowledges in his research that his own implicit biases and lived experiences was an impediment to envisioning the longhouse. He describes himself as a “virtual artisan wayfarer” (Carter, 2017, p. 2), and as such, his approach was one of open-mindedness and a relentless drive to find the truth of these residences. This involved field research at archeological dig sites many discussions with First Nations community members and significant amounts of research into varying first-person accounts of life in the longhouses.
What you’ve experienced (or as you are about to experience) is the culmination of years of work and research.
The longhouse for the Wendat was one of the prevalent structures within their communities these longhouses were communal, multigenerational dwellings (Carter, 2017, p. 59). This was a residential dwelling that was in used and perfected over 1,000 years. Longhouses were not only used by the Wendat but are prevalent in many cultures around the world.
Based on the research, the historical and archeological consensus was that the average mean width of the longhouse during the 1500-1650 A.D. timeframe was 6.5-7.5 metres. That’s about 21 to 25 feet wide. These measurements are estimates based on plotting potholes found in soil samples. Researchers could plot rough 2-D drawings based on the discolouration in the soil from the postholes and base their findings on that data.
Some longhouses had about 3-5 hearths or fires where meals were prepared and residents warmed themselves; with two family units sharing each hearth (Bartram, 1751; Carter, 2017). Each family had a distinct bunk that was, more often than not enclosed in some way with woven bark or other covering (Carter, 2017, p. 79).
The bunks were raised off the floor by about 1.2-1.5 metres or roughly 4 or 5 feet (Carter, 2017, p. 80; Champlain, 1907). Each families’ firewood and possessions were stored under the bunks (Hedenreich, 1972).
Longhouses were more than just a place to sleep. They were key to the agricultural, social, material and cultural life of their communities. According to the research, to be excluded from the longhouse because it was an “annonchi” or an “insult beyond repair” (Carter, 2017, p. 59).
Multigenerational families lived within these bunks. Indeed, many extended families lived in longhouses (p. 70). It was local networks of longhouse memberships that helped to create political, economic and social cohesion in the Iroquoian community. The longhouses were housing technology refined over the course of 1,000 years. Each dwelling could last decades or more with generations living in the same dwelling from infancy to adulthood (William-Shulle and Allen, 1998).
The placement of a longhouse settlement was based on a few key criteria. The builders wanted to ensure that longhouses built in a place which had:
- A good defensive position, occupying higher ground than the surrounding area
- A clean water source
- Proximity to arable land for planting crops
Who were the Wendat?
You can learn more about the Wendat with this outstanding overview created by the Whitchurch-Stouffville Museum & Community Centre. You can view the virtual exhibits and learn more about this great nation.
Photo: Daderot, 4 July 2013, 11:34:17, Retrieved by https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Huron_moccasins,_c._1880_-_Bata_Shoe_Museum_-_DSC00641.JPG Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.