Indian Tipi/Tipi History

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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.

Shoshoni Indian gathered around tipis between 1880 and 1910

A tipi is a conical tent originally made of animal skins or birch bark and popularized by the Native Americans of the Great Plains.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 reenactors, 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.