Mitchell Museum
of the American Indian

3001 Central Street
Evanston, IL 60201

The Teaching Wigwam

Ongoing Exhibition

Made out of the branches of birch trees and covered with sheets of birch bark (wigwas in the Algonquin language) sheets, this is the kind of structure that Native people in the Great Lakes area would have lived in. It is one of many different styles of wigwam and is designed to be built on frozen ground. Others, like the one in the picture above, needed to have the branches dug into the earth. Wigwams varied in size from 8 to 20 feet in diameter. This wigwam is about half the size of one that would have been used by one or two hunters. The larger ones would fit a family of eight.

Basswood Bark

The American Basswood tree (Tilia Americana), also known as the American Linden, is native to all of New England and the Midwestern United States. It can grow up to 65 feet tall. The inner bark of this and other Basswoods is very tough, and the Native Americans cut it into thin strips and used it for rope, mats, and even bandages.  The flowers of the Basswood tree are very fragrant and attractive to bees who use the nectar to make a very high-quality honey. The wood of this tree is both lightweight and odorless, and is commonly used for boxes and crates.



Untanned hide or rawhide was one of the most important materials used by Native peoples. This piece on display came from a deer, but buffalo, elk, moose, and caribou were also used. The skin was prepared by soaking it in water and stretching it on a wood frame. All the meat and hair was cut or scraped off and the skin was left to dry in the sun. While animal skin is flexible when wet, it shrinks and becomes hard and stiff when it dries. Cut into strips, rawhide could be used to lash the parts of a wigwam together, as the lacing for snowshoes, and for making rope. Larger pieces were made into drum heads and for the soles of moccasins.

Birch Bark Containers

These containers are made from the bark of the Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera). The outer bark is peeled from the tree in the spring or early summer, leaving the dark brown inner bark so that the tree is not harmed. Because it is waterproof and easy to work with, birch bark was used to make many different types of containers, including trays, dishes, storage boxes, and cooking pots. The bark is cut to the right size and shape, and then sewn together with spruce roots or Basswood bark twine. The edges can also be sealed with pine pitch or spruce resin so that the container can be used to carry water or hung over a fire to cook a soup or stew. Birch bark cutouts or stencils often were used to decorate containers.
The tall trapezoidal container, called a makak, is a specialized type of container made to store maple sugar.

Deer Skins

The White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is found in most of North and Central America and northern parts of South America. It lives in a variety of habitats from forests to deserts and has a life span of about 9 to 12 years. The male (buck) can weigh up to 400 pounds, while the female (doe) averages around 200 pounds. Only bucks have antlers, which are branched; the antlers are shed each year, and later re-grow.  Native Americans use all part of the deer. Its meat provides food, the hide is used for clothing and blankets, and the bones and antlers make good agricultural tools. The hides inside the wigwam have not been tanned, but will soften with age and use. The hide on the frame is ready to be tanned so it can be used for winter clothing. The wooden frame keeps the hide in shape while it is drying.

Elk Hide

The “front door” of the wigwam was usually made of an animal skin or wool trade blanket. This elk hide was smoke-tanned over a wood fire. The smoke from the charring wood contains various chemicals, which tan the skin without the application of fat or other materials.  Elk (Cervus elaphus) are members of the deer family and can grow in size up to 500 pounds. They live in a variety of habitats - from coastal forests to alpine meadows, from dry desert valleys to snowy mountain ridges - as long as they find enough food, water, shelter, and space. Today there are about one million elk in North America, compared to more than 10 times that number before European contact.

Grass Mats

Bulrush (Schoenoplectus maritimus) and cattail (Typha latifolia) mats were used as the covering for the wigwam in the warm weather. The space between the individual plant stalks allowed air to circulate through the structure.  In the winter, several different coverings were used. The innermost layer was made of rush mats. Next, a layer of moss served as insulation with the birch bark laid on top.  The mats were made by women during the summer months. The stalks were bleached and dried in the sun and then woven together on a frame. Like the birch bark mats these could be rolled up for storage or transportation.


Toboggans, which come from the Algonquian Indian word odabaggan, were used to carry personal belongings from one place to another or to bring furs and meat back from hunting.  In the Arctic, toboggans may be made of whalebone, but they are more generally built of strips of wood - hickory, ash, or maple - lashed together with rawhide. Bark runners were sometimes used to make the toboggan run more smoothly over the snow.  Today’s Olympic sports of bob-sledding and luge trace their development back to the Native American toboggan.




Snowshoes are made of a curved wooden frame with a webbing of tightly stretched rawhide. They are tied onto the foot and ankle with leather straps, while the heel and toe are left free to move.  The wide frame and webbing of the snowshoe help to spread the person's weight over a large area and walk on the surface of deep snow, instead of sinking into it. Not only does this make it possible to travel, but also to hunt moose and caribou and tend traps during the winter months.  Different tribes’ snowshoes are different shapes. The Chippewa snowshoes are relatively long and pointed at both ends, making it easy to travel on hard-packed snow. In Maine the Micmac use a “bear paw” shape that is good for walking in dense forests. The largest snowshoes are used for hunting by the Cree in Canada and are nearly six feet long and turned up at the toe.  Modern snowshoes are made with aluminum frames and nylon lacing, but they are all based on the original Native designs.

Beaver Skin

The beaver (Castor canadensis) was a major source of meat, fur, fat, and tools for the Native peoples of the Great Lakes. Because beaver fur is both waterproof and warm, it was used for hats, mittens, robes, and even moccasin liners.  Called amik in the Algonquin language, the beaver is also an important part of the spiritual life of the Great Lakes tribes as a symbol of resourcefulness.  In the 17th and 18th centuries beaver pelts became a major item of trade with Europeans. Felt hats made from pressed beaver fur was a particularly popular item. Trade goods exchanged for beaver pelts included metal knives, awls and kettles, steel flints for starting fires, guns and ammunition, woolen blankets, and glass beads for jewelry.

The Wigwam and hands-on teaching materials were made and provided by Ken Schwuchow.

The gallery is sponsored by Robert M. Gluckman MD, an important friend to the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian. It is Dr. Gluckman’s hope that this installation will inspire others to recognize the valuable contributions American Indians have made to the Nation and to learn more about Native American people and communities.


Tuesday – Saturday:
10am – 5pm
Thursday: 10am – 8pm
Sunday: 12pm – 4pm

Adults: $5.00
Children, students,  teachers, seniors: $3.00 
Mitchell Members: FREE
Tribal Members: FREE


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