For the Caddo Indians of Louisiana's Red River Valley, shelters of willow and native grass were a way to escape the sweltering sun.
Now a replica of one of those traditional structures stands at Haskell Indian Nations University, the product of a modern environmental project funded by the U.S. Army.
The arbor was completed Thursday by faculty and students, the offshoot of a $100,000 federal grant to help restore switchgrass destroyed at Fort Polk, La., by troops training for the Iraq war.
"It was hoped that if the Army installations would actually restore their lands using switchgrass that tribes would come and harvest that switchgrass and take it back home to use for their ceremonial purposes," said Lorene Williams, a Haskell English professor and the project's principal investigator.
Though built from grass, the Haskell arbor could stand for years.
"Switchgrass is a very durable grass. It's very strong. These structures will last anywhere from 30 to 60 years," Williams said. "Once (the grass is) seasoned out and harvested and put in these bundles on the structures, it's waterproof."
And switchgrass restored to damaged terrain helps limit erosion.
"In the Army, we're really interested in using it for erosion control in training areas, and if you mix it with other species you can get a really good, solid erosion control plant," said Bill Severinghaus, technical director of the U.S. Army research lab. "And from the Native American standpoint, if we grow the 3- to 4-foot varieties, they can use it for their own cultural purposes."
Williams said students working on the project have gained a new appreciation of their heritage.
"I think once they have gotten involved with it, they have found that this is a cultural need that they've been missing," she said.
The engineer for the project was Phil Cross, a member of the Caddo tribe.
"They would just work it up, and work very quickly," Cross said of his tribal ancestors' methods for building the shelters. "If you're good at it, you can put one up in a few hours."
But Cross and the others who built the Haskell structure had to learn those skills.
It took the group nearly a week to complete the project, which started with a blessing ceremony Monday. The building, which is about 8 feet tall, is outside the Eric Allen Greenhouse on the south side of campus.
"I like seeing it out," Cross said of the switchgrass thatch while the arbor was still a work in progress. "It's a beautiful plant to me. It has its own charm."
As part of Haskell's Native Grass Project, faculty and students spent time analyzing switchgrass use across the U.S. and found the Caddo people typically used it for building shelters and homes.
The grass for the arbor came from the nearby Baker-Haskell Wetlands and was picked, bundled and bound by Haskell students.
"We've been here since the beginning of it," said Tiffany Wisdom, a student who helped cut the grass.
Haskell's Environmental Science and American Indian Studies programs also examined the cultural and scientific aspects of the project.
Wisdom watched earlier this week as Charles Allen, a Louisiana botanist and author, and others pieced together the frame that would hold the grass walls in place.
Switchgrass, Allen said, was valued by the Caddo Nation and other tribes because of its resiliency no matter the season or weather.
"It doesn't go away," he said. "Unless you harvest it or burn it, it's going to be there from year to year."
Switchgrass is a hardy grass that's common throughout the Great Plains. It's one of four grass groups that define the tallgrass prairie. The others are big bluestem, little bluestem and Indian grass.
A few dozen varieties are growing in and around the greenhouse behind Tam-I-Nend Hall on the Haskell campus.