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Native American Art and Culture

College of Visual Arts

Dr. Sue Short

Architecture of California


The indigenous population of the state of California was estimated to have been more than 300,000 people in 1579, as Europeans began to arrive in the region.  Six of the seven major language families in the United States and Canada were represented there.  The architectural forms found in indigenous California are as varied as the language groups.

The northern area in California was home to the Yurok and Hupa tribes, whose villages of redwood or cedar plankhouses were located along the Klamath and Trinity Rivers.  The people of the north coast lived by salmon fishing, hunting deer, and using the resources of the Pacific ocean.

To the east of the Yurok and Hupa, the Modoc and Achumawi lived in pithouses in their home area, east of the southern fringes of the Cascade mountains.  The people of central California, including the Miwok, Maidu, and Pomo, lived in small brush or redwood bark houses near the sea, in pithouses in the valleys, and in conical redwood bark houses in the foothills.

In the southern area, the Chumash lived near what is now Santa Barbara in large, domed, wood-framed grass-covered dwellings housing multiple families.  The Cahuilla, living in the deserts of southern California, built wood framed brush houses.

Yurok architecture

Yurok houses were square and were built of redwood, considered a sacred material.   A typical dwelling was about 18 by 20 feet, but the dimensions varied. 

Yurok house entrance

The roof of the house was three-pitched with an asymmetrical profile, with the three sections of roof boards resting on two rafters, supported by notches in the front and back wallboards.  An unusual feature of the house was the circular doorway, barely large enough for a human to slip through. Various interpretations have been offered, including the idea that the door is meant to represent a woodpecker's hole, or that exit from the home symbolizes rebirth.  A practical explanation is that the door forces an intruder into a nearly helpless position, making defense of the dwelling easier.

Yurok house (L) and sweathouse (R) plans.  (Drawings based on Nabokov and Easton 1989).

The center area of the house was dug out, and the fire pit and surrounding area were about 3 feet deeper than the ground level.

Inside a Yurok house.  (Nabokov and Easton 1989:290).

The pit area was accessible by ladder from the upper level and surrounded by vertical boards holding back the earth.  The pit area was used for sleeping, cooking, and eating, while the upper levels were used for storage.

Sweathouses were an important part of every Yurok settlement.  These were redwood, gable-roofed, subterranean structures where men socialized, cleaned up, conducted ceremonies, and provided religious training to young boys.  Although the sweathouses were primarily used by men, women sometimes used them also, especially for sleeping in colder weather.

Yurok family and sweathouse floor plans (Drawing based on Nabokov and Easton 1989).

From the outside, the sweathouse looks as though the roof has collapsed, but actually, the structure is almost entirely underground.  The entrance to the sweathouse was through a circular doorway in the roof and down a ladder, and the exit was through another circular doorway at the lower level, into a trench.  The floor of the sweathouse was covered with polished redwood planks around the central fire pit.

The Yurok rebuilt the sweathouses every six years with much ceremony, showing reverence to the redwood, the material of which it was made.  The sweathouse was considered the most sacred of buildings.

Cahuilla architecture

Far to the south, the Cahuilla's architecture was quite different from the Yurok's.   The Cahuilla homes were conical earlier, then rectangular in later times, framed with wood poles, with a gabled roof.  The walls were laced with willow, arrowweed, and brush.  The walls were sometimes hardened with adobe plaster.  The roof was covered with palms or reeds. 

Cahuilla/Luiseno house (Nabokov and Easton 1989:312).

Ramadas, or shelters made for shade in the summer, often adjoined the houses.  Spiral woven granaries were also constructed for storing seeds, acorns, and mesquite beans.  Villages also included wood framed semi-subterranean bathhouses.   Ceremonies were held in open arenas surrounded by wood frame and brush walls.


Nabokov, Peter and Robert Easton.  Native American Architecture.   New York:  Oxford University Press.  1989.