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First Nations Architecture

Background --- Belief System--- Political Situation ---First Nations Architecture --

Amerindian Villages--- Fortification--- Sweat Lodge-- Civic Center--- Shelters--- Production-

Longhouse--- Kanata Village--- Saint Marie--- Wendat Village

Wigwam---- Kanata--- Wendat Village--- Saint Marie-- Fort William

Teepee and Igloo---- Six Nations--- ----- ---- --

First Nations Modern--- Douglas Cardinal--- ==--- ==

Religious Architecture --- Serpent Mound--- Saint Marie--- Royal Chapel of the Mohawks


The aboriginal people of North America are variously called First Nations, Native, Indian or Amerindian. Their buildings are not always included in surveys of Ontarian or Canadian architecture. It's not simply that the structures bear little resemblance to those found in Europe. Even more than that is the fact that the buildings themselves sheltered a society and a family structure so different from the European norm as to be virtually opposite. The culture was matrilineal, centered on the mother. The society was communal, people lived in three, five, ten family dwellings. There was little importance given to inheritance, property, and ownership, ideas fundamental to the European lifestyle. There were no maps and no land transfer taxes. The belief system was also different. First Nations peoples lived in harmony with the earth. They loved it, cherished it, protected it, even worshiped it. The Europeans wanted to own it, control it, wrap it with fences and drag it down.

As Western Society realizes the damage it has done to the earth and is measuring the destruction of water, plants, wildlife and even the air we breath, a study of the ‘no footprint' architecture of the First Nations peoples could not be more timely. This site is dedicated to First nations architecture. In depth information on the culture, pottery, and pictographs (picture-writings) of the native peoples can be found under the Ontario Archeological Society website.

The oldest unquestioned human remains in North America date from the north west coast, currently Alaska, from around 13,000 BC. These first peoples are referred to as Clovis hunters, named after one of the first excavated archeological sites near Clovis New Mexico. By 12000 BC the Clovis hunters had migrated east to what is now Edmonton and south to New Mexico. First Nations history can be separated into three basic time periods: archaic or pre-woodland (1200 BC and earlier), woodland or pre-contact (1200 - 1600), and post-contact.

North America at that time was teeming with game, not just buffalo, deer, antelope and bear, but elephants, lions, cheetahs, wild horses and even, further south, camels and giant ground sloths. Within 1000 years most of the very large mammals were extinct. It is generally assumed that the influx of man was responsible for this. By 11000 BC, Clovis hunters had developed many social centers across North America spreading to the east as the Canadian ice cap receded.

There is evidence that the native peoples had domesticated such plants as sunflower and goosefoot, but there is no evidence that they domesticated any animals. Food production, as we know it, began with the invasion of the Europeans in around 1500 AD. Food cultivation and management, on the other hand, was a well developed skill for most early North Americans. They knew where food grew and how to encourage growth, but they did not concern themselves with ownership of land or monopolizing certain areas because of their food yield. As Jared Diamond points out in his work on global human development, Guns, Germs and Steel, "Archeologists have demonstrated that the first farmers in many areas were smaller and less well nourished, suffered from more serious diseases, and died on the average at a younger age than the hunter-gatherers they replaced."(p. 104) Early North Americans preferred to remain hunter-gatherers. In the history of architecture, this presents a problem in that buildings are rarely made in any permanent way by nomadic peoples, which hunter-gatherers tend to be.

Belief system

The First Nations belief system is inextricably linked to the land. Most tribes recognize a series of spirits that are part of the land, often in animals and birds, the sun, the moon and the winds, much like the pagan philosophies. Creation myths are varied and interesting.

The Iroquois had a monotheistic belief in an all-powerful creator known as the "Great Spirit" who is much like the Christian god in that he is seen as all powerful. Like the Christian god, the Great Spirit is administered to by a hierarchy of secondary spirits. Unlike the Christian angels, these secondary spirits were more like pagan gods in that they took responsibility for some natural phenomenon like thunderbolts, prevailing winds, rivers, and various large animals and birds. The spirits had their own series of powers that could interfere with human life.

As in most colonies around the world the conquering group demanded a belief in their benevolent, kind, and all powerful God. They were so sure of the goodness of their belief system they they were ready to kill for it, and kill they did. The First Nations peoples that survived saw that compliance was better than death and there are many early native 'Christian churches'. In some cases changes made within the native populations were made within the context of their belief system, not in direct opposition to them, the break with tradition was often more a bend than a break. First Nations peoples had cures for many of the ills that the colonists suffered, and thus the 'healing powers' of the First Nations medicine men had some tactile success. The horrors that the early and mid-twentieth century Christian population inflicted on the surviving First Nations peoples is, thankfully, not indicative of their entire encounter.


Political Situation

The Hollywood view of the North American Indian encountering the white man who teaches him a few things about honour, then proceeds on his mighty way to success may not be long for this world. Thankfully. There is a growing body of research that maintains that the US democratic system is not, in fact, based on the Greek ideas of democracy as once thought, but based on the much older government system of democracy practiced by the Iroquois.

The peoples who made up the First Nations population of Ontario were made up of two linguistically different groups, the Iroquoian and the Algonquian. The Algonquian tribes lived north and east of Lake Huron and stood aloof from the League of the Great Tree of Peace being formulated further south. The Iroquoian nation included the Neutrals from the Hamilton area; the Petun, from the south side of Georgian Bay; the Huron, who lived east of Georgian Bay, and the Iroquoians who lived along the St. Lawrence River, later referred to as St. Lawrence Iroquois, obviously not by them.

The Six Nations peoples, also Iroquois, were originally located in New York state. They moved up from New York state after the American Revolution (1775 - 1783). Many of these people traveled north with the Loyalists, British refugees from America, and settled in Ontario as United Empire Loyalists. They were alotted land and privileges as loyal subjects of the British Crown.

The Five Nations, later the Six Nations, who are made up of Cayugas, Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Senecas, and Tuscaroras, only numbered around 20,000 in 1600. By 1750 that number had dwindled to 7,500. Now the population is approaching 70,000.

All First Nations tribes lived by hunting, fishing, gathering, and the cultivation of a few choice vegetables such as squash, corn and beans.

For more information about First Nation's History, this site is good.


When Europeans first started colonizing North America in the 16th and 17th centuries, the people who left Europe did so because they thought they were headed for a better life. A number if history books written in the early part of the twentieth century present the idea that the Europeans were a sophisticated bunch, all in all. Keep in mind that in 1600 England was just muddling through the first experiment with parliament and the French were headed off on their last Crusade. Both countries were still largely feudal. When reading of the history of the interaction between the Europeans and the First Nations, it is important to remember that European penal systems readily engaged in torture and public executions. Indeed the King of England was executed during the middle of the 17th century. While it is true that Fathers Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalement were tortured and burned at the stake at Saint Marie among the Hurons, this was following a time honored tradition of religious burnings. One example is Mary I of England who had had almost 300 religious dissenters burned at the stake during her short five year reign. Not to be out done, the French massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572 saw tens of thousands, some say 110,000, Huguenots massacred by the Catholics in Paris. They were violent times on both sides of the Atlantic.

First Nations Architecture

Canada's First Nations people showed genius in their adaptation of available materials for building purposes. As in most other cultures, the first building material was wood in its various forms, from saplings for structure to bark and leaves for finish materials. Stones were used on foundations. Saplings were used as main support beams because they were more pliable than large tree trunks and took less time to cut and place. Sod and snow were used both as complete building systems and as finish materials. As hunter-gatherers they had a large supply of animal skins and large bones that were also used.

Ontario covers such a large space that an impressive variety of buildings developed across the the province. Relatively permanent structures were built during the winter months for the whole tribe to use while smaller,buildings that were either portable or made with materials found on site such as tipis and igloos were developed for hunting expeditions.

There are no permanent buildings of note in Ontario that are more than 2000 years old, but archeologists are sure that humans lived in the area well before that time. Most of our knowledge of First Nations cultures is from the last two millennia. This period can be divided into pre-contact, prior to 1600, and post-contact, until the present day.

With the growing interest in 'sustainable architecture', the methods and means employed by First Nations peoples are undergoing much more scrutiny. Traditional attitudes concerning building in harmony with nature have never been rejected, even by the most cutting edge 20th century First Nations architects. While most European cultures began, by necessity, to design with the sun, the moon and the winds in mind, somehow they got lost.

First Nations designs are currently being recognized for their beauty as well as their earth conscious design.


Amerindian Villages

Like Stonehenge in England, the dating and complexity of the villages of the People of the Longhouse are under continuing analysis. Some sites, such as the Nodwell site on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, have proven to be sites where tribes have lived for many hundreds of years. (See Dr. Rankin's research on this area.)

Most scholars, archeologists and historians agree that both the Iroquois and the Algonkian tribes, the Eastern Woodland Indians, lived in villages built around longhouses. The number of longhouses and the nature of the longhouses within the structures varied according to location and date. Early longhouses faced a variety of directions. Ultimately they were all oriented along a northwest-southeast line so that the smallest surface area faced the prevailing winter winds.


Woodland villages consisted of a series of longhouses which were occupied by from five or six to as many as 25 families. The Nodwell site is said to have housed up to 500 people for 20 years at a time. The Wendat village in Midland Ontario had far fewer.

The longhouses were surrounded by a double palisade of vertical wooden poles. Within the enclosure were also summer wigwams, shelters for dogs and bears who were kept as pets and then, sometimes, sacrificed and consumed during religious festivals. Racks for drying skins or bark and storing canoes were also within the palisade.

All the materials used to make the longhouses was perishable and most extremely flammable. The reconstructed villages found in Brantford and Midland are reconstructed from drawings and legends. The footprints of longhouses can be accessed by trained archeologists, but information on precisely how many villages there were in Ontario at any given time is sparse.


Woodland Cultural Centre Brantford

The Woodland Cultural Center in Brantford has examples of most of the building types found in villages in that area. It is an accurate representation of pre-contact building styles.

Here is an example of a longhouse (detailed below). Notice that the palisade in this case has only one row of poles. These poles are made without the use of metal tools.

Behind the longhouse is a lean-to either for protecting wood from the elements or for storing grains etc.


Kanata Longhouse

Wendat Village
Fence Posts

The Wendat Village in Midland is another authentic recreated village representing pre-contact First Nations peoples.

Prior to the influx of metal tools, the posts used both for the palisade fortifications and for tools would have been quite small. Here we see the layout of the village with fence posts having a diameter of 10 to 15 centimeters (4 or five inches).

Wendat Village

Saint Marie among the Hurons

Saint Marie among the Hurons is also a reconstruction of a First Nations site, but there are two distinct differences.

First Saint Marie is a reconstruction of a post-contact village made by the French for the visiting Wendat. It was never made BY the Wendat themselves, so differences in construction would have been inevitable. Secondly, the use of metal tools would have made a huge difference even then.

Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs and Steel outlines the differences in the evolution of peoples on different continents relative to the introduction of metals for use both in construction and in defense, and in the introduction of germs.

Saint Marie Palisade

Celtic Village - Wales

Like the villages found on this site, St. Fagan's Celtic Village in Wales is a reconstruction made after study of the excavated remains of a village from the early Iron Age. The site is defended by a palisade made in the same way as the palisades in Ontario. It was also defended by a ditch, like the Avebury Circle.

Again, Jared Diamond offers a good discussion on the evolution of building styles relative to available tools in his book Guns, Germs and Steel

Saint Marie Palisade

Saint Marie among the Hurons

The fences in Saint Marie are obviously made using metal tools, and in some cases gas powered tools. Note that the posts are decidedly thicker than those found in the pre-contact villages. The height is almost the same, but the tops of these posts had to be tapered to make them shorter where the termination of the pre-contact posts is natural.

First nations peoples used fire to cut the wood. This method would take a lot longer.

Saint Marie

Fort William

The palisade in Fort William is also a reconstruction of a post-contact fence. Fort William was first established around 1679, just a few decades after Saint Marie among the Hurons. It was used as a trading post where the French could trade furs with local First Nations tribes.

The reconstruction of Old Fort William is intended to portray the fort as it would have been in 1815. As can be seen, the fence in this case is made of straight timbers much larger than those found above.

Fort William Palisade

Fort William - Fence

An exterior fence also shows the use of metal tools. It would have been difficult for the First Nations peoples to fell trees of this size and impossible for them to split them without the use of metal tools.

By the time this fence would have been built in 1815, most of the native population of Canada had succumbed, not to the superior power of the British or French army, but to the micro-organisms introduced to them, either by mistake or by intent, which killed them by the thousands.

Fort William fence

Sweat Lodge - Kanata

A sweat lodge is used during religious ceremonies as a sacred place for communal prayer. As part of a wedding ceremony or a funeral, or during the naming of children, the extended family will gather in the sweat lodge to sing and pray to the spirit world.

Large stones are heated on the fire and then rolled into the lodge. At appropriate times, generally after a prayer or dedication, a small amount of water is poured onto the stones and steam fills the room. The steam cleanses the body and purifies the soul.

Kanata Sweat Lodge

Wendat Village Midland

This sweat lodge as well as the one above is situated inside the village, in this case the Wendat village in Midland. These villages are extremely useful in giving an idea of the variety of buildings constructed by the First Nations peoples, but the locations of buildings is determined by the physical limitations of the site.

Sweat lodges would more often be situated away from the village in a spot more conducive to meditation and concentration on spiritual matters. Similar to the traditions of Chinese Feng Shui and Celtic/Wiccan methods of spirit attraction, the positioning of the sweat lodge is crucial to its success.

The sweat lodge was the place to attain spiritual cleanliness. The site would be prepared and supplied with an adequate amount of both stones and firewood so that the ceremony could continue as long as necessary.

Wendat Sweat Lodge

Central Pole - Wendat Village Midland

Close to the main entrance to the village would be a central pole decorated with feathers, bones or animal horns to pay homage to the spirit of the animals and birds that surrounded the village as well as to the courage of the hunter. European coats of arms, tapestries and heraldry used similar imagery and, particularly in medieval times, for similar reasons. The central pole was the gathering place for announcements, festivities and ceremonies. It was the 'flagpole' of the village.


Wendat Central Pole

Saint Marie among the Hurons

The Jesuits were interested in converting the 'savages' to Christianity. Beside their own compound and within the fortification they built a small village where the Wendat could come to visit and pray. Within that compound was a hospital for both Wendat and French. Only the long house and a few wigwams were constructed since the Wendat had their own villages and simply visited here. Sweat lodges would have been forbidden.

Saint Marie

Wendat Village Lean to

Prior to the metal ax, the Wendat used fire to cut through wood. This shelter has the cutting pit and the stack of wood cut into pieces by the fire. This type of shelter would also have been used to produce pottery.

Pottery was made from clay mixed with rock quartz as a binding material. Vessels were made for purposes of cooking as well as for storage. Charms and amulets were also often made of clay. All clay pieces were decorated with sharp bone, coloured clay or chunks of coloured quartz.

Wendat shelter

Lean To Kanata

Lean-tos of this kind were scattered throughout the village.

Each family would keep their valuables within the longhouse with them. Often a large hole was dug and the precious objects would be buried beneath the section of the floor that the family occupied. There were no large chests or significantly large ceramic vessels for storage.

Kanata Village lean-to

Lean to
Saint Marie

Both Saint Marie and Fort William have lean-tos in various places. These would have been made with larger wood, again, because of the introduction of metal tools.

The building methods for these shelters would have been similar to those used by the natives, but not dissimilar to structures found in Europe used for the same purpose.

Saint Marie Lean to

Boat House
Wendat Village

Most First nations villages were situated close to a waterway both for protection and for fishing. Two types of canoes were made. One was a long boat, up to 8 meters ( 24 feet) long used to transport corn, pelts or people over long distances. The other were shorter vessels for independent travel, fishing and sport. The canoes were kept from the elements in lean tos like this.

Canoe Storage

Drying Racks
Wendat Village

Both animal skins and building bark were dried on drying racks throughout the village.

Drying Rack

Wendat Village
Building Supplies

The Wendat depended on fire for both heating and cooking. Most of their buildings were constructed of dried wood. Clearly a supply of building material would be needed in case of fire either to the longhouses or to the surrounding palisade.

The poles would be made ready for use then stored in an upright position to prevent rot and to maximize space within the village.

Wood Supply



As Ontario is quickly being cemented over, archeologists are scrambling to do valuable research on pre-contact villages before they are removed to provide room for yet another beige on beige Bichon Brunch suburb.

Oval communal housing remains dating from the first millenium AD have been identified on Princess Point near Hamilton and on Kipp Island New York. For more information see the Ontario Archeological Society site.

Early European travelers made sketches of and described the villages and longhouses used by First nations peoples. In Ontario, all First Nations peoples are people of the Longhouse. The people of the Six Nations who moved up to Ontario in the 18th century also lived in Longhouses.

Father Joseph-Francoise Lafitau, a Jesuit missionary, describes the buildings thus:

"These pieces of bark lap over one another like slate. They are secured outside with fresh poles similar to those which form the frame roof underneath, and are still further strengthened by long pieces of sapling split in two, and are fastened to the extremities of the roof, on the sides, or on the wings, by pieces of wood cut with hooked ends, which are regularly spaced for this purpose." (Nabokov and Easton, p. 82)

All of the longhouses below are reconstructed in the 20th century from excavations and descriptions like the one above.



Longhouse - Kanata

The Longhouse was a permanent winter residence for the First Nations peoples, and thus well constructed for continual use.

The buildings are built along a long wooden barrel vault, built very high to accommodate the fire that burned perpetually within, in the winter for warmth and in the summer to discourage the black flies and deer flies that were a constant bother.

Each village had a different finish style, but the shape remains constant.

Longhouse Kanata Village


the warmest place in the winter, was beside the fire, so people slept on the floor near their family fire. The shelves served as storage during the winter months. In the summer the people slept on the shelves or built family wigwams outside.

In the larger longhouses the children sometimes slept on the upper levels because they were warmer. Storage was for the very top levels. The lower levels were for adults to sleep in.

Longhouse Inside

Kanata Village

The Kanata Village reconstruction gives an excellent example of the methods used to construct the various platforms.

Ladders would have been used to access the upper levels.


Kanata Longhouse

The exterior shows the securing of the frame and the bark as described by Father Lafitau. Very large pieces of bark were used. These would have been extracted from the trees in the spring and left to dry on the drying racks, shown below, over the summer.


Kanata Longhouse Interior

The inside frame of the longhouse was constructed by a series of saplings secured into the soil like the palisade was, then bent to created a vaulted roof. In the roof there were skylights above each firepit allowing the smoke to escape. These skylights also provided light for the interior of the longhouse. There were no other windows.

The walls were reinforced with saplings on regular intervals. The frame, bark, and reinforcing would have been secured with leather thongs and strong twine made from reeds.


Wendat Village Midland

The longhouse at the Wendat Village in Midland is a reconstruction of a pre-contact structure. The exterior has not yet been reinforced, but this shows how the bark was attached to the wooden frame.

The edges would have been stitched onto the interior frame, again, using strips of leather or strong reed twine.


Wendat Village Midland

The doorway has an exterior porch that acts as a buffer to the strong summer sun.


Wendat Village Interior

The longhouse at kanata Village in Brantford is an excellent example of building methods. This village in Midland is also equipped with the various materials the people would have had inside the longhouse. Snowshoes would have been necessary in winter. Netting was used for fishing. Reeds and grasses were hung from the roof to be used in a wide variety of applications.


Wendat Village Extended Bed

The lower level platform was covered with skins from the hunt. These would have been used as bed coverings for warmth and comfort.


Wendat Village Fire

Along the floor were a series of fire pits. Two families would have shared the fiercest, one on either side of the longhouse.

Corn was a cultivated crop for most people of the Longhouse.


Wendat Village Midland

Again, here is the skylight used for ventilation as well as light.


Saint Marie among the Hurons

The Longhouse at Saint Marie among the Hurons has a porch on each end. These would have been useful for keeping out the hot summer sun and for protecting the doors from harsh winter winds.

This longhouse was made by the Jesuits to encourage the native peoples to visit. Inside there is evidence of post-contact materials such as blankets and metal knives.

Notice that there is smoke escaping from the doors and skylights.


Saint Marie

The site is staffed by a group of knowledgeable people who keep the fires going inside the Longhouse like they would have been during actual use.

Open central fire pits were used by Europeans for many millennia. The term 'atrium', now used for the central open hall or garden of a building, was originally the central area where the fire was kept.

San Miniato

Saint Marie among the Hurons

The roof on this longhouse is well secured and the final exterior supports are also in place.


Saint Marie


This detail shows how the roof would have been secured and how the poles reinforce the design.

San Miniato

Saint Marie


Two longhouses are found at Saint Marie. Some sites, such as the Nodwell site, had up to 12 longhouses within the palisade. Up to 500 people could live in the community cultivating the local land.

San Miniato



The wigwam was the less permanent summer structure. Round wigwams were built for hunters and people wanting to have a portable home for travel. Larger wigwams were built for families who wanted to live in a more private setting for the summer months. These could have been established wither within the palisade or on a more picturesque spot, like a summer cottage.

The difference between a wigwam and a teepee is the finish material. Wigwams are made with a variety of tree bark. They used ash, birch, chicory, elm and hickory. Teepees are covered with animal skins.

This site will tell you how to build a wigwam.



Wendat Wigwam

The first wigwam within the walls of the Wendat Village in Midland is a circular structure covered in large sheets of hickory bark.

This would have been the village guest house, used to house visitors from another village.




Wendat Wigwam

Another, slightly larger, structure with a porch is made out of the same material. This was the Shaman's lodge. The Shaman or medicine man held the same esteem within a community as the priest or doctor would have held in the European community. In this case the Shaman was both priest and doctor.

The Shaman is the person in the village most in touch with the spirit world. His wigwam would house the various okis or charms that assist him in his work.




Saint Marie Wigwam

Saint Marie among the Hurons has several wigwams. This one is a circular structure made with hickory bark.


Saint Marie Wigwam

The back of the wigwam shows that the construction was very similar to that of the longhouse; the bark was attached like overlapping shingles.




Saint Marie Wigwam

Another circular wigwam on the site shows a similar method of construction. The door on this wigwam is much bigger than on the other.




Fort William

The reconstruction of Fort William near Thunder Bay has a wigwam built with birch bark. This wigwam is outside the Fort's palisade. The Fort was established primarily as a trading fort, and then as a military fort. The First Nations peoples would bring their furs here to trade.



Vezelay Apse Quoin

Saint Marie

A larger type of wigwam has been reconstructed on the Saint Marie site.

This would have been a wigwam used as a summer residence by a family. The exterior finish is birch bark.

The guide, Autumn, is of Wendat origin and is extremely well informed and helpful. The people who have First Nations blood dress in traditional costumes.




Saint Marie

The interior is light and bright.

Here we can see the framing of the walls using saplings that meet at the center in the roof.




Saint Marie

This detail shows how the exterior finish would have been stitched onto the frame with leather strips.




Saint Marie

This is the type of undulating exterior that Frank Gehry makes on some of his structures. The colour of the bark and the texture are absolutely gorgeous.





Teepees and Igloos

This section is still under construction. If anyone knows of a good igloo in Ontario, I would LOVE to shoot it.

Teepees are used by the First nations peoples on the plains of Canada, what is now known as Manitoba and Saskatchewan. They were used by the people who followed the buffalo herds because they were fairly easily transportable and there was no shortage of buffalo hides. Teepees in the far west of Ontario, Thunder Bay and other regions, are occasionally constructed using birch bark. The majority are covered with animal skins.

The number of poles used in the center of the structure was an indicator of how many people inhabited the structure and how important they were.





This is a reconstruction of two teepees near the First Nations reserve in Southern Ontario.



The structures are very handsome and well made.



This detail shows how the doors were attached.



The 'oculus' or hole in the roof where the poles meet would have been useful both for light and for heat to escape.





I have yet to find a real igloo. But I will



Modern Architecture by First Nations Architects

The modern architecture section is still in the development stage. The good news is you won't be tested on it!





Museum of Civilization
Douglas Cardinal

Like many architects who have work in Ontario, Cardinal has done beautiful buildings of a similar nature throughout the world. The most apt phrase to describe his buildings is 'ribbons of stone'. The forms intertwine, undulate, and are organic in the real sense of the word.

Museum of Modern Man

Ottawa Ontario

Museum of Civilization
Ottawa - Cardinal

The Museum of Civilization in Hull - Ottawa - its across the river - is one of the best examples of his style.

Douglas Cardinal

Ottawa Ontario


First Nations Religious Structures

First Nations peoples have the same type of profound relationship with nature that was found in the Celtic culture. The traditional places of worship are either part of the naturally occurring landscape, some say created by the Great Spirit, others are manufactured parks and sculptural mounds. The importance of certain areas in Canada that have historically been places of First Nations worship was brought to light in 2004 by Cathedral Grove BC.


The Six Nations, Wendat and Algonkians were not the first tribes to settle in Ontario. Tribes from the south had settled here many millennia before the pre-contact tribes found here in the 17th century. The first structure in Ontario dedicated to worship is not a building, but an earth sculpture, made by the an earlier tribe whose belief system included the Great Serpent.

The Ho-de-no-sau-nee, the People of the Longhouse, believe that the Giver of Power controlled the universe and the Great Serpent was subsequently demoted.

Like their European counterparts, the various tribes in North America were engaged in blood feuds on a massive scale during the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. The League of the Great Tree of Peace, brought about by Deganawidah, in about 1450, was the start of the Six Nations and effectively the beginning of the end of intertribal conflict.

While the Neutral, Tobacco and Huron people did not join in this union, they were affected by it in their own thinking. Festivals and feast days became more focused on universal peace than they had earlier. The communal quality of the Longhouse peoples was extended to neighbouring tribes.

One spiritual ritual that was unique to Ontario is Yandatsa - the Feast of the Dead. This was a Wendat festival, written about by Jean de Brébeuf in 1636. The feast took place once every ten or twelve years. At this feast the corpses of dead relatives were exhumed, transported to ,and reinterred at a common grave. All the various tribes in the area would meet at the common grave and bury their respective relatives together thereby promoting social solidarity.

Religious festivals took place in the longhouse of the Faith Keeper. Some of these festivals, like Thanksgiving, were adapted by the early settlers and integrated into North American society. Like the religious activities of the European tradition, the People of the Longhouse had regular morning prayers, rituals to acknowledge and name children, and ceremonies to recognize marriages and deaths. Most tribes were monotheistic with the belief in a central Great Spirit who was attended to by a series of lesser spirits.

North America was discovered by the Europeans when they were looking for a passage to the East and all the riches that lay there. The first visitors, shortly after Champlain's visit (1603 - 1608) were adventure-seeking traders interested in exploring the possibilities of this unexpected new land, and aiming to exploit its commercial possibilities to the fullest. As often happens, those interested in commercial gain were followed closely by those interested in religious gain.

A special sect of Jesuits, calling themselves the Society of Jesus, marched in to claim the Amerindians for their God. "Brave, devout and intolerant, as only the truly idealistic can be" (MacRae, p. 5), the Jesuits set up many missions throughout northern Ontario, Saint Marie among the Hurons (1639 - 1649) being the largest and most prosperous. At its height, the mission had sixty Frenchmen and over 200 Wendat who visited from time to time. Following a long tradition of self-sufficiency in monasteries and religious missions (see www.Ontarioarchitecture .com/ClassRomanesque.com), the mission was self-sufficient for a good ten years.

While the Jesuits were sincere in their efforts to bring salvation and spiritual happiness, as they knew it, to the First Nations peoples, their mission was doomed to failure. The large trading centers had moved west to Fort William, now Thunder Bay, and east to Quebec, so there was dwindling financial aid from France. More importantly, the Jesuits had been preceded by 30 years of traders who brought metal goods, blankets and beads as well as tuberculosis, influenza, measles and smallpox. The First Nations peoples had no immunity to the new European diseases and consequently died by the thousands simply through contact with the white people. Several tribes of First Nations peoples decided that the Jesuits should take their diseases and leave them to heal themselves. They started to attack the settlement and eventually forced the Jesuits out of their mission and over to what is now known as Christian Island. The Jesuits burnt the mission to the ground before they left. The current site has been rebuilt according to modern ideas of rustic simplicity.

Once the mission had been disbursed, the majority of Weeniest melted back into the forest to resume their religious connection with the Giver of Power.

The next 150 years saw the immigration of a wide variety of European peoples in search of political and religious freedom. Like many new Canadians today, they brought their intolerance, squabbles and prejudices with them. In the early years when the going was really tough, they lived relatively peacefully as neighbours. Settlers moved into areas where they identified with a certain clergyman or church, but even when not in agreement with the local denomination, the harsh realities of life during the rebellions, the revolutions and finally the Treaty of Paris, they lived in relative harmony.

After the Treaty, most First Nations tribes were relocated. The Six nations were allies of the British during the war and consequently they received large tracts of land, one portion of which is located along the Grand River. Many Iroquois left northern New York and relocated in Ontario. The Mohawks were moved into the area now known as Brantford. By this time the majority of First Nations peoples had been converted to Christianity. The oldest Christian church in Ontario still standing is the Royal Chapel of the Mohawks in Brantford.


Serpent Mound

The Serpent Mound has rested on the side of Rice Lake, just north of Lake Ontario for almost eighteen centuries. It was created there by early Amerindians who migrated up from the south bringing corn, squash and tobacco with them.

This is the most northerly of a series of serpent mounds created in North America. The next closest to this is the Serpent Mound in Ohio.

Serpent Mound

Serpent Mound

The Great Serpent was the major deity for the southern tribes of Amerindians in the first millennium BC. The people of the longhouse, however, decided that the Great Spirit was the one true god of their part of the world, and the serpent was demoted.

The mound continues to provide a resting place for the serpent people.

Serpent Mound

Serpent Mound

The Mississaugas of Rice Lake recognize the significance of the mounds and the importance of maintaining the sacred burial grounds. They are proud to be stewards of the land which is now a provincial park in the summer with cabins, kayaking and canoeing, and beautiful hiking trails.

As far as physical structures of religious buildings are concerned, there are very few. Most of the other buildings are Christian and thus a result of European intervention.

Serpent Mound

Saint Marie among the Hurons

Saint Marie was the earliest Christian church to be built in Ontario in 1639. When the Jesuits left the mission in 1649, the church was burnt to the ground. This is a 1970s reconstruction based on what was then thought to be rustic. Marion MacRae speculates that the original church must have had much more pleasing proportions and much more adornment since the builders had come from Rouen, France.

Saint Marie among the Hurons

Jesuit Chapel at Saint Marie

Along with the church shown above, the Jesuits at Saint Marie among the Hurons needed a private chapel for personal devotions. Once again the proportions and the detailing are much more 1970 than 1640.

The first Jesuit building was Il Gesu in Rome, shown below, the first truly Baroque church of Post-Reformation Europe.

Saint Marie among the Hurons

IL Gesù, Rome

1568 -1584

This first Jesuit church provides the model for virtually every Jesuit church in colonial America, Africa and South America. The scrolls, the double pediments, one Florentine one triangular, the multi-layered pilasters, are characteristic of the Baroque style.

With this in mind, and having no photographs or drawings to judge from, it seems likely that the original Saint Marie was very different than the one shown above.

In addition, the builder of Saint Marie, Charles Boivin, had lived and worked in Rouen, France, as a builder and cabinet maker for some years before going to Saint Marie in 1635.

Il Gesu

Royal Chapel of the Mohawks

The Royal Chapel of the Mohawks in Brantford has been reoriented since it was built in 1785, but the basic shape and size remain intact. The architects for the church were John Smith and John Wilson, two Loyalists from the Mohawk Valley. It is understated Georgian, made of wood frame.

The roof is steeply pitched and narrow eaved, as are most Loyalist churches in both Upper and Lower Canada. (see www.ontario architecture.com/loyalist.htm)

When the building was completed in 1785, this portion of the province was still under the vast territory known as Quebec.

The inside of the church is spectacular tongue and grove work. Photographs are not permitted.


Mohawk Chapel

Royal Chapel of the Mohawks

When the Mohawks relocated in Ontario after the American Revolution, they left all of their lands behind. To compensate for this loss they were granted 760 000 acres on the Grand River. The crown agreed to construct two mills, a school and a chapel for their use. This chapel was completed in 1785. There have been continuous services in the church since the doors were opened over 220 years ago.

When first built, the building was oriented to have the front door opening onto the Grand River which runs to the east of the building (on the left). The river was subsequently diverted and the land between the church and the river became more a swamp than a river. Road access became available shortly thereafter, and the chapel's door was reallocated to the west side where it remains.


Mohawk Chapel


First Nations Resources


Diamond, Jared , Guns, Germs and Steel, New York, London: Norton, 1997

Griffiths, Nicholas and Fernando Cervantes, Spiritual Encounters: Interaction between Christianity and Native Religions in Colonial America, Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1999

MacRae, Marion and Anthony Adamson , Hallowed Walls;Church Architecture of Upper Canada, Toronto,Vancouver: Clark Irwin, 1975

Parker, Arthur C., The Indian How Book, New York,Dover, 1975

Wagner, Norman E. and Lawrence E. Toombs, The Moyer Site: A Prehistoric Village in Waterloo County, Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University, 1973

Canadian Journal of native Studies


Margaret Atwood Surfacing


Aboriginal Architecture: Living Architecture , NFB


Clearcut and Thunderheart are the best, but anything with Graham Greene will be good.

The Brave, Johnny Depp

The Last of the Mohicans, Danial Day Lewis

Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner







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