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Miwok Material Culture: Indian Life of the Yosemite Region (1933) by S. A. Barrett and E. W. Gifford


The large, semi-subterranean assembly and dance house (hanē'pū, P; ha'ī, N, C, S) characteristic of central California, was constructed by the Miwok. It was never used as a dwelling or even as sleeping quarters for the men, except sometimes when a ceremony was being held in the village. It was in charge of an official fire tender (wk'ppe, P, N). The assembly house was for social and ceremonial gatherings. It was the place where gambling and dancing were conducted. Frequently when people cooked meat or acorns they took some to this house to distribute to other people.

A large pit, forty or fifty feet in diameter, was dug to a depth of three or four feet. Over this was erected a roof in the form of a low cone, supported by heavy beams. These in turn were supported by means of four center posts (to'le, tco'e) and eight side posts (text-figure 28).69 The edges of the cone rested on the edge of the pit. This cone was covered with thatch and earth, which made the roof air and water tight. In having four center posts the structure resembled that of the Southern Maidu,70 but resembled the Pomo structures in the eight additional posts and octagon of stringers.71

One of its chief adjuncts was the large foot drum (tū'mma, P, N); five to ten feet long, made from a section of a log. Various woods were used, though the accidentally hollowed trunk of a white oak was preferred. Further hollowing was by burning. Half of the log, forming a semicircle or less in cross section, was placed over a pit two or three feet deep, between two of the rear posts, and tangent to the rear wall of the house, but within it. The pit served as a resonance chamber, both ends of the drum being left open. The drum was stamped upon, the drummer at times steadying himself by means of an adjacent post. Drums were replaced only when rotten. The space around the drum is called adja (C) and, during ceremonies, is occupied by the singers. The floor where the spectators sat was covered with pine needles or sedge (Carex), kissi (C).

After the timbers for the building had been gathered it took only four or five days to erect the building, everyone in the village helping. The wood used was oak, usually obtained by burning clown the trees. If only two or three men were employed in obtaining the timbers, it took them two months.

The first step in the actual construction of the house was the excavation. The size of the area to be excavated was carefully measured. The measure of the radius was called oyisa yaa, literally “four men.” Four men actually stretched out on the ground, the head of one man touching the feet of the next man. If we consider the men as averaging five and a half feet, the diameter would be forty-four feet. The excavating was done with digging sticks.

Next the four center posts which supported the roof were put in place, forming the four corners of a square, each side being the reach of a man in length. Four horizontal pieces were tied with withes to the tops of these posts. From these, radial beams were laid sloping to the sides of the pit, but supported midway by an octagon of stringers resting upon the eight side posts. (See diagram, text-figure 28a.) The

Fig. 28.--Roof plans of assembly houses.
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Fig. 28.—Roof plans of assembly houses.
four center posts were each about one foot in diameter, the eight side posts smaller. The stringers were about six inches, the radial roof beams about five inches, and the numerous horizontal closely laid cross sticks upon which the roofing material was laid about three inches, in diameter. The posts were of oak, the stringers and roof beams of buckeye or willow. The four center posts were imbedded two feet, the others one foot. The two rear center posts were treated with “medicine” and only dancers could approach them closely. Posts were either notched or naturally forked at the top to hold the stringers.

A thatch of brush, topped with Digger or Western Yellow Pine needles, never Sugar Pine needles, was next put on. This was followed by the final covering of earth. Altogether the roof was a foot and a half or two feet thick. The opening in the top of the conical roof served as the smoke hole, the fire being built directly under it. The entrance was on any side.

Certain niceties appear in placing brush and earth on the roof. The first layer of brush, which was laid radially over the numerous horizontal roof timbers, was of willow. On this another layer at right angles was placed. The third layer was of a shrub with many close parallel twigs that kept the earth covering from leaking through and resisted rot. The proper depth of the earth layer was four or five inches and was measured by thrusting in the hand. The proper depth came to the base of the thumb.

The digging of the fireplace in the center of a new assembly house took place at the celebration following its completion. A digging stick was the tool; the depth to which dug was about a foot; its diameter between two and three feet.

At Chakachino, a post-Caucasian village near Jamestown, there have been four assembly houses within the memory of the informant, Tom Williams. When one became old and rotten it was torn down, the occasion being one for merrymaking. Also, the death of a chief was followed on one occasion by the burning of the assembly house as a mourning observance, as was the usual Miwok custom. Following the construction of each new assembly house at Chakachino, Miwok from various villages came to the opening ceremonies.

The following notes refer to a semi-subterranean assembly house (plate XXXVIII, figs. 1 and 2; text-figure 28b.) at Jackson valley, near Ione, Amador county, in Northern Miwok territory, as it appeared in 1917. It was built in 1913. In 1927 the roof had rotted and was replaced. Only the points in which it differs from the type described above are noted.

Diameter 36 ft. Depth of excavation 3 1/2 ft. to 4 3/4 ft., depending on slope of ground outside. Door on east side. The south side had been washed out and repaired with a stone wall, and mud mortar, a modern innovation. All of the posts are of white oak and water oak. The stringers are not radially arranged, but extend from front to back, overlapping the edge of the pit, in some cases over three feet. Where stringers overlap over a post they are beveled to make a snug joint, and spiked. The center posts are 8' 8" high, the posts at the walls 4' 6", all others intermediate. The short roof beams across stringers are five to three inches in diameter, in five rows, and total 265 individual pieces. The center row is nine feet wide, the two rows flanking it each eight feet wide, and the two outside rows of varying width owing to the curvature of the side of the pit. This means that the two center lines of posts and stringers are nine feet apart, and the two sides lines each eight feet from these. The smoke hole is at the peak of the roof between the four center posts, as in Maidu assembly houses. The entrance passage is 6' 10" long, 5' 10" high, 5' 6" wide, and brush and earth-covered. It is closed by a modern, hinged, board door.

At Big Creek near Groveland two pits encircled by rings of earth indicate two former assembly houses. The present circular assembly house72 is the modern wooden substitute, without excavated floor and earth covering. It is called tapla utcu (C). The inside diameter is thirty and one-half feet. The main radial rafters divide the roof into five sectors. These are crossed by five concentric sets of stringers resting on posts. A sloping ladder runs up the roof to a small platform, from which the chief or orator addressed the people.

No evidence was obtained among the Miwok to indicate that the smoke hole formerly was used as an entrance, or that the side entrance developed from an original draft opening. Whether this negative evidence means that this type of house reached the Miwok only after the smoke hole entrance had gone out of use, or whether the evolution of the features mentioned occurred too early to be remembered, we are unable to decide.

The distribution of semi-subterranean earth-covered houses is wide, but only in California is the foot drum employed as an adjunct of the house in its ceremonial form. It seems likely that the original diffusion of the house to central California was as a dwelling. With its adaptation to the needs of the god-impersonating cult, came the introduction of the foot drum and the attribution of sanctity to certain of the posts of the house. Whether the foot drum is a central Californian invention or an importation from elsewhere is not evident. However, the possible connection of the pit and foot drum with the sipapu pit and board covering of the Hopi kiva suggests itself.

69See also Kroeber, 1925, fig. 39.
70Dixon, 1905, fig. 41.
71Barrett, 1916, fig. 2.
72 For view of this assembly house, see Dorsey, 214.

1. Typical foot-hill region of the Sierra Nevada. 2. The Sierra Nevada of 3,000 to 4,000 feet elevation in Central Miwok territory.
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Figure 1. Typical foot-hill region of the Sierra Nevada, in Central Miwok territory. Neg. No. 5559.

Figure 2. The Sierra Nevada of 3,000 to 4,000 feet elevation in Central Miwok territory. Neg. No. 5557.

1. Exterior and entrance of a subterranean dance house. 2. Interior of above dance house.
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Figure 1. Exterior and entrance of a subterranean dance house. Near Ione, Amador County. Northern Miwok. Neg. No. 8590.

Figure 2. Interior of above dance house, looking from doorway across fireplace to rear wall. Neg. No. 1619.

Photos: Courtesy of Hugh W. Littlejohn.

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