Introduction to tipis
Did you know that the first types of tipi structure are thought to have be made around 500 years ago? Amazing!
Practical, tough, and developed by real experience, by being lived in, for decades. None of this tent-design-by-computer-robot-assembly-line-modern-nylon… Countless lives were lived out within these structures, being a primary dwelling for not the weekend camper but whole families, whole tribes. Extraordinary.
It makes sense when you get to understand the simplicity yet totally practical capacity of the tipi. I think you’d be hard pushed to better its design, maybe a few tweaks here and there to cope with the climate in the UK but mostly it’s close to perfect.
The only canvas structure I know of which allows you to have an open fire in it, this is the heart of the tipi; the fire; warmth, food, comfort, beautiful soft light and ritualistic. If you’ve never sat around a fire in a tipi of an evening you’ve missed out on something. It’s a simple pleasure but pure wholesomeness.
You may be surprised to find out that the tipi is not a structural design confined to the Americas, but in fact can be found being used by several different cultures across the globe over long periods of time. From Siberia to America! In the main we are familiar with them as symbolic of Native American Indian Tribes of the plains, but in truth it is a universal solution to a transportable dwelling for nomadic tribes.
What is a tipi made of?
The cover of the tipi is made of canvas, as are the inner liner, door and ozans. It is a very long time ago now that tipis were covered with animal skins, this began to change with the importation of canvas by the incoming white invaders. There are historical photos showing tipis stiched together using old canvas bags complete with the branded goods stamp on them, in fact almost anything that was usable might be sewn into a cover.
Nowadays although we still use 100% Cotton Duck Canvas, it is treated with waterproofing, fire retardant, and Rot proofing agents. Modern Tipi makers have a good range of materials available to them and various canvas weights. More modern canvases mix cotton with synthetic materials, which have a number of useful applications.
Tipi poles can be made from a number of types of wood. Larch, Douglas Fir and Sitka Spruce.
Each pole is cut from the woods, chosen for it’s straightness and good taper and then prepared by stripping the bark, hand drawing and hand sanding for the perfect Finish. It is important when choosing poles to see that the taper thickness around the section where the poles will be tied together is good and strong. We prefer Douglas Fir as we find it stronger and less brittle than the other two types.
Lacing pins can be made using a range of materials, traditionally they might have been made with bone, but now we make them using hazel or my preference is with willow.
We use natural Jute rope, but you can use modern synthetic if you must. We do find that the natural rope bind better on the knots and has less slipping.
We use hand cleft ash pegs for our tipis, they have been used traditionally for tents for a very long time and are available in a wide range of sizes. Modern pegs or stakes can also be used if you need.
“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”Crowfoot, Blackfoot warrior and orator
Diagram of a Tipi and Tipi Etiquette
As you can see from the guidelines below, The tipi and life in and around it, were highly organised and had, dare I say it a considerable amount more decency, consideration and polite manners than we see in our culture today.
- If the door is open, a friend may enter the tipi directly. But if it is closed, he should announce his presence and wait for the owner to invite him to come in.
- A male enters to the right and waits for the host to invite him to sit to the left of the owner at the rear. Be hospitable.
- Always assume your guest is tired, cold, and hungry.
- Always give your guest the place of honor in the lodge and at the feast, and serve him in reasonable ways.
- Invited guests are expected to bring their own bowls and spoons.
- Never sit while your guests stand.
- Woman never sit cross-legged like men. They can sit on their heels or with their legs to one side.
- If your guests refuses certain foods, say nothing. He may be under vow.
- Protect your guests as one of the family
- Do not trouble your guest with many questions about himself, he will tell you what he wants you to know
- In another man’s lodge, follow his customs, not your own
- Always repay calls of courtesy. Do not delay
- Give your host a little present upon leaving. They are considered courtesies and never offend
- Say “thank you” for every gift, however small
- Compliment, even if you strain the facts to do so.
- Never walk between persons talking.Never interrupt persons talking.
- Always give place to your seniors in entering or leaving the lodge, or anywhere.
- Never sit while your seniors stand.
- Never force your conversations on anyone.
- Speak softly, especially before your elders, or in the presence of strangers.
- Never come between anyone and the fire.
- Do not stare at strangers. Drop your eyes if they stare hard at you; above all for women.
- The woman of the lodge are the keepers of the fire, but the men should help with the heavier sticks.
- Be kind
- Show respect to all men and women, but grovel to none.
- Let silence be your motto, until duty bids you to speak.
- Thank the Great Spirit for every meal.
Could you walk the red road?
How to pitch a Tipi
You could be forgiven for thinking that putting up a tipi is a simple task, and in part you would be correct. However there is a surprising amount of steps to getting it finished and these need to be followed carefully to get to a stage where you have a stable and beautiful looking lodge. Once you have the process in mind and have pitched a few tipis you’ll be pitching very quickly and should get an 18FT up and complete with two people within one and a half hours.
There are several ways to pitch a tipi depending on the style of make. One method which I will call the open canvas method seems to be reasonably universal with a few tweaks. We use a method that we know works for our lodges every time.
I have put together a guide which can be found on this page here >>> and is also available as a PDF and text document for download and printing
A brief history of the tipi
Native Americans in the United States are the indigenous peoples from the regions of North America now encompassed by the continental United States, including parts of Alaska. They comprise a large number of distinct tribes, states, and ethnic groups, many of which still endure as political communities. There is a wide range of terms used, and some controversy surrounding their use: they are variously known as American Indians, Indians, Amerindians, Amerinds, or Indigenous, Aboriginal or Original Americans.
A tipi is a conical tent originally made of animal skins or birch bark and popularized by the Native Americans of the Great Plains. The European form of the term is teepee or tepee. The word “tipi” comes into English from the Lakota language; the word thípi consists of two elements: the verb thí, meaning “to dwell,” and a pluralizing enclitic (a suffix-like ending that marks the subject of the verb as plural), pi, and means “they dwell.” In Lakota, formal verbs can be used as nouns, and this is the case with thípi, which in practice just means “house.”
Tipis are stereotypically associated with Native Americans in general, but Native Americans from places other than the Great Plains used different types of dwellings. Long before the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other Plains tribes came to the grasslands, this type of shelter had been developed by the Indians of the northern forests. They used a pole frame to create the conical shape and then covered the skeleton with birchbark, caribou hides, or other materials. The term wigwam is sometimes used to refer to a dwelling of this type.
The Plains Indians adapted this basic structure to their own environment and their own pattern of living. The Great Plains are the broad expanse of prairie and steppe which lie east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada. This area covers parts of the U.S. states of Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In Canada the term prairie is more common, and the region is known as the Prairie Provinces or simply “the Prairies”. While in essential features the tipis of all Plains tribes were the same, there were nevertheless some important differences. Thus, when setting up a tipi, the Blackfoot, Crow, Sarsi, Hidatsa, Omaha, and Comanche first tie four poles as a support to the others; while the Teton-Dakota, Assiniboin, Cheyenne, Gros Ventre, Arapaho, Kiowa, Plains-Cree, Mandan, and Pawnee use three, or a tripod foundation. For the remaining tribes, we lack data, but it seems safe to assume that they follow one or the other of these methods. The three-pole foundation gives the projecting tops of the poles a spiral appearance while the four-pole beginning tends to group them on the sides. Thus, to a practised eye, the difference is plain. The covers, ears, doors, etc., are quite similar throughout. The shapes of tipis, however, show some differences. Thus, the Cheyenne prefer a wide base in proportion to the height while the Arapaho prefer a narrow base. Again, the Crow use very long poles, the ends projecting out above like a great funnel.
The tipi was used through out this area. An adjustment in the framework was made to accommodate the strong winds of the region, and buffalo hides, sewn together, became the usual covering. The Plains Indians had deep appreciation for the tipi. Secure, mobile, and comfortable, it was looked upon by these nomadic hunters as “a good mother” who sheltered and protected her children.
The nomadic tribes survived on hunting, and the bison was their main food source. American buffalo, or simply buffalo, is the commonly used (but inaccurate) name for the American Bison. These animals were the largest source of items such as food, cups, decorations, crafting tools, knives, and clothing. The tipi was an ideal dwelling for the Plains people. Like the buffalo they hunted, these Indians were constantly on the move. Their dwellings, therefore, had to be readily transportable.
The tribes kept moving following the migration of the bison. The Plains Indians lived in tipis because they are easily disassembled and so allow a lifestyle of following game. The tipi was durable, provided warmth and comfort in winter, was dry during heavy rains, and was cool in the heat of summer. Tipis could be disassembled and packed away quickly when a tribe decided to move, and could be reconstructed quickly when the tribe settled in a new area. To move it, the ends of two of the tipi supporting poles were lashed to a horse. The other ends dragged along the ground, thus forming a roughly triangular frame, a travois, on which the buffalo covering and the family’s other possessions were tied. At the new campsite, several long poles were bound together near their tops. This portability was important to those Plains Indians who had a nomadic lifestyle.
The poles were then stood up and slanted outward from this center tie to form the outline of a cone. Other poles were leaned gainst this framework to strengthen it, and a buffalo-hide covering, usually of 8 to 20 skins, was draped over the skeleton. The covering was joined near the top with wooden lodge pins, as shown below. An opening was left at the very top as a smoke hole; the entrance, with closable flaps, was at the lower part of this seam.
In hot weather, when cooling breezes were wanted, the flaps were left open and the lower part of the tipi covering was rolled up, permitting the air to circulate freely. In winter an additional skin lining was added to the tipi covering, thus providing insulation. The fire that burned in the center of the floor that kept the tipi warm as well as furnishing heat for cooking. Because of the strong, prevailing winds that swept across the Plains from the west, a tipi was always set up with the entrance facing east. And the entire shelter was always tilted slightly toward the east to streamline the rear, thus lessening the wind pressure on it.
A typical tipi had a hide bedding, a rug for the baby, willow-rod backrests, cradle board, a suspended cooking bag, a supply of fuel, parfleches containing feed, medicine, and other necessities, and similar household gear. On the insulating lining of the tipi were hung sacred objects, weapons, shield, and other items. This lining was often painted with brilliantly colored designs that recalled past events in the lives of those who inhabited the tipi.
Modern tipi covers are usually made of canvas. Contemporary users of tipis include historical re-enactors, back-to-the-land devotees, and Native American families attending Powwows or Encampments who wish to preserve and pass on a part of their heritage and tradition.
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