Picture of a Wetu (Wigwam)

Find pictures of Wetu and discover interesting facts and information about the Wetu shelter, also known as a wigwam or birchbark house, that used by Native American Indians.

What was a Wetu?
A Wetu was a round structure made from a framework of saplings that were covered with birchbark.

They were used as a shelter or house style that was built  by many tribes of the Northeast woodland cultural group but was particularly associated with the Wampanoag tribe.

Wetu Definition
What does the word Wetu mean? Definition: The word Wetu derives from the word used by the Wampanoag tribe meaning house or dwelling. The plural of wetu is wetuash. The Wampanoag tribe are best known for the help they gave to the first colonists and the joint celebration known as the 'First Thanksgiving'.  The wetu, also known as a 'Wigwam' or Birchbark house, was a form of shelter used by Indian tribes who inhabited the Northeast woodland areas. The wetu was usually a round, dome or cone shape structure that was 8-10 feet tall and 12 - 14 feet across. The Wetu was constructed by Algonquian-speaking people with an arched roof made of wooden frames made from saplings (young trees) that were covered with sheets of birchbark. Other materials, such as woven mats, animal hides and canvas, were also used as wetu coverings and were held in place by ropes or poles. Canvas was used as coverings for the wetu around the late 1700s.

Who lived in a Wetu?
The Wetu is most closely associated with the Wampanoag but was used as a shelter by the Indian Tribes who lived around the Great Lakes and the East Coast who had access to birchbark found in the forests in their territories. The names of the Algonquian tribes who lived in the wetu style house included the Wampanoag, Kickapoo, Abenaki, Sauk, Fox (Meskwaki), Pequot, Narragansett, Otoe (Winnebago), and Ojibwe (Chippewa). The Wetu was a suitable for the Indian tribes who stayed in the same place for months at a time. The tribes who used the wetu style of shelter lived together in villages during the farming season tending their crops of corn, beans, squash and tobacco. During the hunting season small family groups would move to hunting camps in search of fresh meat. When people moved to a new location, the bare, wooden frame of the wetu was left in place but the wetu coverings were taken with them. When the family returned they simply replaced the covering over the frame. If an existing frame was not available, the men would make a new wetu. Some of these woodland tribes later adopted the fortified Longhouses (used by the Iroquoian-speaking tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy) to offer defence to their villages from attacks by hostile tribes. The wetu was still used but as a shelter used on hunting expeditions.

Why was the Wetu built as a Native Indian shelter or house style?
Every tribe across the North American continent choose a type of housing to suit their lifestyle, the climate, the environment and the natural resources (known as biomes) that were available to them. The wetu was chosen as the most suitable type of shelter because it suited the lifestyle of the tribes who lived in the woodland areas, was easy to build and made good use of the trees in their locations.

How was a Wetu built?
The basic materials used to build a Wetu were saplings (young trees) that had been cut to size and stripped of bark. The method for constructing a wetu was as follows:

  • The first step was to clear an area of ground and dig about sixteen holes in a circle about 12 - 14 feet across
  • The holes were dug about 8-12 inches deep
  • The stripped sapling poles were placed firmly in the holes then bent in an arch to form the round, dome shape of the wetu
  • The sapling poles was lashed together with strong bark fibers of the basswood tree
  • A tier of hoops were then fastened around the frame
  • Sheets of birchbark sheets were then tied to the framework to form the roof and walls of the wetu
  • Woven mats, hides or canvas were also used to cover the wetu, if available
  • Coverings were kept place by ropes, poles and strips of wood
  • The woven mats were made using cattails which were tall, stiff plants, that grew almost ten feet tall
  • Space was left for a small doorway that allowed people to crawl in to the wetu
  • A smoke-hole in the roof allowed smoke from the fire to escape, and fresh air to enter

The Interior of the Wetu
A central fire pit was dug, encircled by stones, that served as the hearth and heated the wetu in cold weather, and was used for cooking in rainy weather. Sleeping platforms, with Beds were made with dried grasses and covered with deerskin. The beds were placed on platforms that were built at least half way around the wetu. The platform was used as seats during the day. The space beneath the sleeping platforms were used for storage.  Deerskins or woven mats were used as floor coverings.

Native American Houses
Native Indian Tribes Index

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