Cory Spotted Bear is making up for lost time. He learned about the rich heritage of his Mandan people as an adult, and now he’s bringing back a centerpiece of his ancestors: round earth houses.
“I first learned about my own heritage at an all-Native university in Lawrence, Kansas”, he says, “and realized, hey, I’ve got things to be proud of at home”. Home for Spotted Bear is Twin Buttes, North Dakota, on Fort Berthold Reservation, which looks nothing like its 1800s heyday when Lewis and Clark came by.
“Our Mandan village then was like going to Sam’s Club today”, Spotted Bear says. “It was the trading center of the northern tribes, a prosperous commerce center with friendly, hospitable hosts”.
Historically, the giant village was filled with round earth lodges made from the cottonwoods that grew along the Missouri River. Those trees are long gone, after Lake Sakakawea flooded the reservation when Garrison Dam was built in the 1940s.
That was not his only hurdle. “In 1837 we had a smallpox plague on the reservation and 99 percent of us died”, he says. “All that knowledge, all those skills died too. It was all lost overnight”.
What wasn’t lost was the awakening of Cory Spotted Bear, as he earned a master’s degree in Indigenous Nations Studies from the University of Kansas. He spent time with his hometown elders, and he read whatever he could find about the earth lodges. Once he understood how they were constructed, he promised he’d build one—a promise that languished until his girlfriend goaded him to make good on his pledge.
By then, Spotted Bear knew the value of this type of architecture: “When you live in round houses, you’re really happy and healthy. It’s like when you understand who you are—you’re happier and healthier”.
Spotted Bear bought two new chain saws on his credit card and set out, with his younger brother Justin, to cut tipi poles in Montana. They cut over 400 trees—oak, ash and elm—and hauled the logs back to Twin Buttes to age for a year. “It was like a lumberyard”, he says.
His big family, including 10 brothers and sisters, helped construct the first earth lodge, which Spotted Bear uses as a hunting lodge. They built a second lodge in South Dakota. Both lodges caught the attention of the Great Platte River Road Archway in Nebraska. They wanted an earth lodge to commemorate the Pawnee who originally lived there. Spotted Bear brought some friends and marshaled locals to build the lodge in 2010.
The Pawnee are so happy to learn how to make earth lodges again that they now intend to build some in Oklahoma, where they were moved in the 1800s.
Spotted Bear isn’t done. After sparking new interest in the old earth lodges, he’s producing the 2013 version—a home for himself in Twin Buttes. He’s building it with the traditional pole construction, but finishing off the inside with sheet rock and modern appliances. He also recruits the next generation into his Earth Lodge Movement, which keeps them drug and alcohol free.
“It brings me a lot of happiness”, he says. “I used to think things were lost, but nothing is lost. We had a beautiful way of life, and what we had, we can have again. My people are craving it. They’re starving for it”.
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Jana Bommersbach has been Arizona’s Journalist of the Year and has won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She is the author of two nationally-acclaimed true crime books and a member of Women Writing the West.