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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Laura Nagy describes how cattails are used for a door curtain on the longhouse being erected by the Miami Alliance at the Chief Richardville home.

Gathering place takes shape

Miami Alliance longhouse will take few years

Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Laura Nagy describes the interior of the longhouse being erected by the Miami Alliance at the Chief Richardville home. It will be about 20 feet by 40 feet, smaller than a one-car garage.
Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
A model of a longhouse is on display at the History Center, 302 E. Berry St., as part of a Miami Indians exhibit.

As the celebration of Pilgrims and American Indians approaches, many of us remember how the two groups sat down together for a feast of thankfulness.

But did you ever wonder where the Anerucab Indians that inhabited our region might have assembled for their own celebratory gatherings?

The answer to that question is starting to take shape on the grounds of the Chief Richardville House along Bluffton Road between Foster Park and Waynedale, where some descendants of Miami Indians have begun constructing a longhouse.

Longhouses “were used for multiple purposes, like a community center,” says Laura Nagy, a project participant and descendant of Richardville’s daughter.

The structures “were built to have a fire in the middle, where men would gather as a council and discuss the issues and politics of the tribe,” says Nagy of Fort Wayne. “And yes, if there was feasting, it would have been done there.”

At present, the longhouse, which is oval and about 20 feet wide and 40 feet long, smaller than most one-car garages, is just a frame. Saplings about 2 to 3 inches wide are lashed together in a grid and bent at the top and over a doorway which faces east, says Gary Shoemaker of Kokomo, who helped with the construction.

Willows or birch trees are likely to have been used, although the American Indians might have also used other trees, soaking the wood until it became more flexible, he says. Then, Nagy says, the frame would have been covered with woven cattail mats with animal skins or furs placed around the bottom of the walls to keep out drafts.

The roof would have been made of sheets of bark, matting, skins or thatch. “Those would have been the only four choices,” says Robert McCullough of Fort Wayne, an archaeologist who has documented structures of regional American Indian groups dating from the 1100s to the 1400s and has consulted with the Miami descendants.

He says knowledge about the groups’ buildings comes not only from early histories written by Europeans and handed-down stories and traditions, but also from scientific excavations of sites, including ones at Strawtown in Hamilton County in central Indiana.

“We know what the basis of them (longhouses) looked like from the pattern of the post holes,” McCullough, 57, says. “If you’re careful while you’re excavating, you’ll see evidence of staining in the ground from where the posts were placed.”

McCullough says the use of the matting shows that the area’s Indians used their structures on a semipermanent basis, unlike in more Southern settlements where mud was used in building walls. The Indians of central and northern Indiana were both hunter-gatherers and farmers, he says, and they tended to move around because fertile land was plentiful.

Indeed, farming was very much tied to the structures’ materials, McCullough says. Indians would use slash-and-burn techniques to clear forests for open land to cultivate crops.

Then, when soil fertility began to decline in a few years, they would allow the land to lie fallow, at which point, natural succession would take over, and small trees would begin to grow again.

That would mean an abundant supply of saplings – all relatively the same size and in one place – for frames, he says.

Nagy and Shoemaker say the Miami traditionally orient their longhouses toward the east, toward the sunrise because of its spiritual significance of new beginnings.

However, McCullough says others have been found facing a central plaza lined with similar smaller structures that likely were family homes. Some longhouses were probably used as homes by larger families or clans, he says.

Nagy says completion of the longhouse on the Chief Richardville property will take years because of the time-consuming task of making cattail mats.

“It’s very tedious and focused work,” she says, as she shows a visitor how the wide leaves must be scraped, dried and carefully folded over cordage at the top and bottom in at least two layers.

Then more cordage is weaved horizontally through the leaves at intervals of about a foot to secure them to each other.

Layers of mats were probably placed both inside and outside the frame, she says. “It becomes like a curtain,” she says, adding that making mats was likely women’s work. “It’s natural insulation and it repels water.”

Another factor in the project’s completion – it’s harder and harder to find abundant cattails as wetlands around Allen County succumb to development pressure, Nagy says. “It may take a couple of years just to get the materials together,” she says.

But project leaders will persevere, she says, as the sounds of Indian drumming echo across the Richardville property during last month’s Miami Heritage Days celebration.

When visitors come to the site, Nagy says, they hear that Jean Baptiste de Richardville, born of a Quebecois fur trader and the sister of a Miami chief, was a leader who negotiated many treaties on behalf of the Indians.

But, she says, they see a European-style brick treaty house, the first in Indiana to be built in Greek revival style – a structure that looks transplanted from Colonial Virginia or Pennsylvania. It’s not what the Miami of Richardville’s time lived in.

It’s impossible to tell whether there were longhouses on the property that has now been preserved and named a National Historic Landmark earlier this year, Nagy adds.

But because Richardville was a chief, she says, it’s likely there were gathering spots nearby because clan members and others seeking his counsel would have traveled to see him.

“It’s very important to have a native (American) presence here. … We feel we need a longhouse here as the people we are now and to show how our ancestors lived,” Nagy says.

“The longhouse is a very important center to our culture. It’s a symbol of our culture, really.”