The People of the Birch Bark House

101_0161

101_0162

We came upon this reconstructed Iroquois longhouse when visiting the Museum of Ontario Archaeology in London, Ontario. It stands next door to the museum, on the Lawson site, where the remains of a 500-year-old fortified Neutral Iroquois village were discovered in the 1920s. Since then over 30,000 artefacts have been recovered, along with traces of 19 long houses and a long section of palisade. It is thought that around 2,000 people once inhabited the five acre site.

The village sits up on a flat plateau above Medway River and Snake Creek in northwest London, a good defensible position with access to fresh water and fishing. From the late 1400s there seems to have been an increase in inter-tribal conflict, made worse later by the arrival of Europeans, who among other things, sought to control the fur trade. Around the 1650s the Neutral Iroquois were defeated and dispersed by the New York State Iroquois, leaving south western Ontario empty until the early 1700s when the Ojibway moved into the area.

The Iroquois called and call themselves Haudensaunee. (See the Haudensaunee Confederacy website for more about their culture). I read that this name translates as: ‘People of the longhouse’. It is a fitting name for a culture whose architecture so clearly defines their communal ethos.  Traditionally, longhouses were as long as there were extended family groups to occupy them – between 60 and 300 feet. The frame was made of bent saplings with a span around twenty feet wide and high. On either side the door, platforms ran the length of the house, with one family to every section. Every two families facing one another across the corridor shared one of many central hearths. The Lawson example, though, is apparently more typical of longhouses found in northern Ontario since it uses a covering of birch bark rather than elm that was used in the south west.

It was strange, but the Lawson longhouse felt very lonely. Perhaps it was because there was only one house on a site where there should have been several. Inside, too, there was a curious sense of abandonment, and this seemed odd for a reconstructed exhibit. There was no one else around on the day we visited, just the spring breezes in the surrounding scrubby woods. Even now, several years on, I can still feel the great sense of sadness that I experienced as I walked around the site. I had earlier been told at London’s Fanshawe Pioneer Village that before the European settlers arrived, south west Ontario was a land of monumental trees, and as soon as I heard this I began to regret their loss. It was also a land of peoples whose values and customs were often greatly misrepresented and wilfully eradicated by the newcomers. I felt the loss of them too, and also the sense that we had missed something very important by not understanding better how the ‘first people’ lived in the once majestic landscape, that is now so very cleared and broken in, and in many places, downright ugly with viral shopping malls, diners and freeways.

© 2015 Tish Farrell

Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: Wood