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Graphic: What about the Tule Mat Lodge?

Graphic: Background Information

Photo: Mat Lodge at Priest Rapids
In 2000, the Wanapum people built this tule mat lodge at Priest Rapids.
Photo: Mary Tierney

Have you ever heard the saying, living out in the tules?
Well that's just what some native Mid-Columbia people did. Historically, the Wanapum, or River People, who still live along the Columbia River near Beverly, created houses out of mats made from tule (a bulrush that grows abundantly in local ponds, springs, and sloughs). They used the mats to cover their winter log houses and summer tepees.

How were tule mat lodges built?
To build the houses, the men first created a wooden framework made from various types of trees (such as lodgepole pine, cedar, or whatever else could be salvaged from the river in pre-dam days). The women harvested the long green stems of tule from the slow current marshes along the river, gathering plants of similar length and diameter.

Then they dried the tule slowly in the shade for several weeks. After the plants were dry, the process of actually weaving and sewing the rushes into mats began. The women wove the tules into rectangular mats by alternating the broader base end with the slender tip end of the next tule. Then they sewed the mats together with dogbane (Indian hemp) using a greasewood needle, securing the tules approximately every 5 inches for the entire width of the mat. They bound the edges by weaving hemp strands to finish off the mat.

Why did native Mid-Columbia people use tule?
According to Eugene Hunn and James Selam and family, one reason why Mid-Columbia people used tule is because of its insulative value. In the book Nch'i-Wana Hunn explains: "A cross-sectional cut through a tule stem reveals a special value as an insulative covering for walls and floors; it resembles Styrofoam, a mass of air pockets within the semi-rigid celluloid matrix. Three layers of mats overlapping like shingles and banked at the base with earth kept out cold, wind, snow, and rain."

In the summer, the hot, dry Mid-Columbia temperatures dried out the tules, shrinking them, which created a space between each woven plant. The prevailing winds breezed through these spaces, offering a natural air conditioning. However, during winter months, the moisture from inside the tule mat lodge caused the tules to swell slightly, closing the spaces between each rush. This helped keep the warmth of the fire inside the house, where several families lived together all winter.

What other ways were tule mats used?
In addition to using tule mats for insulating their shelters, the Wanapum people used tule mats for many other functions such as mattresses, table mats for serving food, ceremonial mats for sitting on during religious ceremonies, and even as burial mats for the dead.

What about the tule mat lodge today?
Fortunately, the Wanapum people have not lost their traditional knowledge of how to build a tule mat lodge and are working to pass this knowledge on to future generations. In July 2000, the Wanapum people built a lodge at Priest Rapids. They began the process in August 1999, building the frame from recycled telephone poles and creating more than 186 tule mats. The mats were taken down, repaired, and placed in storage fall 2000. You can learn more about the tule mat house and the Wanapum people at the Wanapum Dam Heritage Center on Highway 243 near Beverly. For more information, call (509) 754-3541.

Graphic: Shrub Steppe Logo

Graphic: Notes... "Science is constructed of facts as a house is of stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house." Henri Poincare

Keep in mind this fact sheet is intended to be used only as background information to support your effort to encourage inquiry-based science, which parallels the way scientists uncover knowledge and solve problems.

Graphic: Suggested Activities

Compare and contrast other Indian peoples' homes throughout the different regions of North America: Coastal, Southern Plateau, Middle Plains, and Eastern Woodlands.

Investigate a local pond, spring, or slough to examine tules and their habitat. "Sedges have edges" bulrushes, cattails, and tules are round. Compare and contrast sedges and tules. Tules can be found near golf course water traps, irrigation ponds, and slow water areas of local rivers. Caution should be used if collecting tules near these aquatic areas. In the spring the tule has a beautiful flower. In the summer the seeds are a brown cluster at the top. Tules provide shelter and habitat for area birds, insects, aquatic organisms, and mammals such as the muskrat.

Weave small mats of dried cattails, bulrushes, reeds, or tules using hemp or yarn. Placemat size or smaller are workable for students depending on their age. Pairing students up can be helpful in the process as long as two mats are made so each student gets a sample. Or you may try to make one large "class" mat where every student gets a chance to work on it.

Take a field trip to the Wanapum Dam Heritage Center, located on Highway 243 near Beverly. Call Angela Buck (509) 754-3541. ext. 257 for more information. The Center is a good resource for middle- to high-school-age students studying art, social cultures, Washington history, or archaeology.

Graphic: Other Resources

  1. Arid Lands Handbook, 2000. Georganne O'Connor and Wieda, Karen, eds., Partnership for Arid Lands Stewardship (PALS). Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Richland, Washington.
  2. Forgotten Trails: Historical Sources of the Columbia's Big Bend Country, 1995. Ron Anglin, Washington State University Press, Pullman, Washington.
  3. Native Arts of the Columbia Plateau: the Doris Swayze Bounds Collection, 1998. Susan Harless, ed., University of Washington Press, Seattle, Washington.
  4. Nch'i-Wana "The Big River" Mid-Columbia Indians and Their Land, 1997. Eugene S. Hunn with James Salem and Family. University of Washington Press, Seattle, Washington.
  5. Shrub-Steppe Seasons: A Natural History of the Mid-Columbia Basin, 1997. Lee. E. Rogers, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Washington.
  6. Ten-Minute Field Trips: A Teacher's Guide to Using the School Grounds for Environmental Studies, 1998. Helen Ross Russell National Science Teachers Association. Arlington, Virginia.

Graphic: Web Sites...

  1. Archeology -http://www.mtsu.edu/~then/Archeology/index.html
  2. Introduction to Tule Ethnobotany - http://www.primitiveways.com/tule_ethnobotany.html
  3. National Park Service - Whitman Mission - Education: The Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Indians - http://www.nps.gov/archive/whmi/educate/ortrtg/2or2b.htm

Graphic: Acknowledgments

Initial development and printing was funded by the Partnership for Arid Land Stewardship (PALS). Project Manager: Karen Wieda. Written by: Rebecca Moak, Christ the King School. Series Editor: Georganne O'Connor; Design: WinSome Design.

Graphic: Shrub Steppe Ecology Series

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