Tuesday, Nov 05 2013 06:00 AM

Tomo Kahni: learning to build a traditional Kawaiisu-style house

Related Photos

A traditional-style tomo kahni under construction at the Rankin Ranch in Walker Basin. Photos by Jon Hammond

A willow framework is first built with upright willow poles lashed together, with horizontal ribs added to provide strength and rigidity. Photo by Jon Hammond

Thatching made from vertical bundles of tules help shed rain and snow. Photo by Jon Hammond

Trimmed willow poles prior to use. Photo by Jon Hammond

Kim Durham was my main co-builder in the kahni construction process, along with Jim and Robin Walter. Photo by Jon Hammond

Many people are aware that the words "Tomo Kahni" in the name of our local Tomo Kahni State Historic Park mean "Winter House" in the Nüwa (Kawaiisu or Paiute) Indian language. Few people have actually seen this style of traditional structure, however, so there are plans to build at least one of these types of dwellings at the state park in Sand Canyon so that visitors can see what a tomo kahni looked like. We recently built one at the Rankin Ranch in Walker Basin in preparation for the project in Sand Canyon.

The circular framework of a tomo kahni was typically made with upright willow poles lashed together, and then strengthened with horizontal ribs also made of willow. The result resembled a dome tent, or an upside basket on the ground.

The structure was then covered with a layer of plant material which was held on by another series of willow ribs, which went over the thatching and were tied to the inside framework. If the kahni was built in an area where there was some standing water nearby, so that tules were present, then these large rushes were tied together in bundles and used for the thatching. If these were unavailable, then other plant material such as rabbitbrush could be substituted. Juniper poles, though typically not as long or as flexible as willow, could also be used for the framework if willow wasn't present.

Survival under demanding conditions required the Nüwa to be resourceful, and they used the native materials that were available in any given area. Interestingly, the traditional Kawaiisu homeland straddles the border of two large Native American groups: those representing what has been called "California Culture," located primarily west of the Tehachapi Mountains and including such tribes as the Yokuts and Chumash; and those who engaged in "Great Basin Culture," mostly to the east of the Tehachapi Mountains into much of Nevada, which included Paiutes, Panamint-Shoshone and others. Kawaiisu traditional practices embraced aspects of both California and Great Basin Cultures.

At the Rankin Ranch, some friends and I built a kahni utilizing willows, which the Schultz family generously allowed me to cut at the Indian Hill Ranch. We also used tules, since the Rankin family kindly allowed us to gather tules that are abundant at a pond formed by Walker Basin Creek. It is best to cut the tules first, and then allow them to dry in the shade for a week or two before using them -- that gives them time to shrink a little. They can also be used green, but then you do have to go back and tighten the ribbing that holds them because it will loosen as the tules dry.

Traditionally the cordage used to tie the poles together and affix the thatching was made from native plant materials like stinging nettles and yuccas. We used jute twine because hand-making all the cordage necessary would take more time than constructing the kahni itself. We still need to go back over to the Rankin Ranch and do some more work on the kahni to make it more sturdy and weather-resistant, but it was a good learning experience. I have built a kahni on other occasions, including ones used as a huva kahni, or sweat lodge, but they were covered with canvas and this was the first time I have thatched one with tules.

When made properly and completed, a kahni protected its occupants from the weather and allowed them to survive the sometimes harsh winters found in the Tehachapi Mountains. The rounded and domed shape of a kahni doesn't give the wind any purchase to lift it up, and they can even withstand a heavy snow load. An inner wall of tules could also be added, and the gap between the inner and outer walls stuffed with plant material to provide insulation. With tule or willow mats covering the floor of the kahni and rabbitskin blankets covering mats in the sleeping area, a kahni could be a clean, cozy and welcoming home. We are looking forward to building one at Tomo Kahni State Historic Park so park visitors can appreciate these practical, resilient houses.

One last word on the traditional pronunciation of the word kahni: native speakers pronounce it as "kahn-HEH" or "kahn-HEE" with the accent on the second syllable, and an "h" sound near the end, not like the way you pronounce the woman's name "Connie."

Have a good week.

Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for over 30 years. Send email to:

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