Monday, May 13, 2013

The When, Where and How of Tipi Building

The word "tipi" comes from the Lakota Sioux language. It consists of two parts: thí, meaning "to dwell," and pi, meaning "they dwell." Combined, thípi means house.
Tipis painted by George Catlin, who visited several tribes
 including the Kiowa in the 1830s

Ever wonder who invented the tipi, (also teepee, tepee)? Was it the Native American tribes of the Great Plains? They’re the people we most often associate with the conical shelter, but no, they were not the first to design and build a portable home that could easily be hauled from place to place.

According to the late James H. Creighton, a tipi lover and historian, “The conical home is as old as man and has multiple origins worldwide.” And, “Today, the nomadic Laplanders still use reindeer-hide lodges very similar to the Plains tipi, as do indigenous tribal groups across Siberia and into Mongolia. In ancient Europe, I am sure that the tipi-style lodge was also used both as temporary hunting lodges as well as permanent homes.”

Creighton’s reference to tipis used in Siberia suggests, to me at least, that the structure was likely brought to North America across the Bering Land Bridge millennia ago by Old Worlders migrating to the New World. It’s not hard to imagine how such ancient tipis could evolve into the classic ones used by the Great Plains tribes.

Lakota Sioux tipi 1891; notice little girl
 and puppy seated out front
 The tipi was remarkably durable and comfortable. It provided warmth in winter, when an inner liner was often added; it kept the dwellers dry during heavy rains, and cool during the heat of summer, when the bottom could be rolled up to allow ventilation. Adjustable flaps at the top let smoke escape, allowing a fire to be built in the center of the lodge. Best of all, the tipi was portable, a necessity for nomadic people. It could be broken down quickly and formed into a travois by lashing the poles to the sides of a horse and spreading the hide cover over the poles, providing a place to pile a family’s belongings. The whole process could be reversed just as quickly when they settled in a new area.
Crow lodge interior 1907; poles & outer skin at top,
inner lining and bedding below; clothing hanging
 on line strung between two tipi poles

Fine, but how on earth did a pair of women (it was women’s work) manage to erect pole supports that might be three times their height, lash them together at the top and spread the semi-circular hide or cloth cover around the poles – without a ladder? Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t for people who used their brains as well as their strength to survive.

In an article titled “Tipi Technology” (at http://tinyurl/cq49bkd) I found a fascinating description of how a tipi was erected by the Blackfoot people:

“In demonstrating the Blackfoot solution, Long Standing Bear Chief used a rope about 40-50 feet long to tie the ends of the original four bundled poles together. He wound the excess rope into a coil. After "walking" the poles upright by hoisting the tied ends over his head and working his way down, he opened the bundle and spread the supports. He added more poles by propping them against the apex of the basic pyramidal structure. He then unwound the rope coil and walked around the tipi, whipping the rope up and tightening it to tie the outside poles into the rest of the tipi. The final touch was lifting the canvas, rolled onto one last pole, and unfurling it around the tipi to yield a round roomy living space.”

Pretty ingenious! Now I’d like to share a short excerpt from Dearest Druid. To set the scene, Jack and Rose are just arriving in his mother’s Kiowa village. Keep in mind this is after the tribe was confined on the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation in the Indian Territory. Adjusting to a new way of life was not easy for them.

By then they’d left the mountains behind and the sun hung low in the west, bathing the scene in the golden glow of late afternoon. Rose was surprised to see barely a half dozen tipis situated beside a meandering, tree-lined creek. A short way off, a large, rounded hill jutted from the surrounding plains. “I thought ’twould be bigger. The village, I mean.”

“The Army frowns on large camps. They’re afraid the warriors, what’s left of ’em, might plot trouble.” Jack pointed into the distance. “You can’t see ’em from here, but there are more camps farther along Rainy Mountain Creek.” He crooked his thumb toward the lone hill. “That’s Rainy Mountain. For the Kiowa, it’s kind of a signpost or a guardian, you might say.”

Rose thought the mountain and the peaceful setting quite lovely. Viewed up close, though, the village lost much of its charm. The hide tipis were patched and shabby looking, their painted designs faded. Several women, wearing a variety of animal skin and cloth costumes, worked at campfires, evidently preparing supper, while the men sat cross-legged outside their shelters, talking or simply staring at nothing. A few small children, both boys and girls, ran back and forth, kicking around a beat up cloth ball. Two older boys stood watching the game, while here and there an adolescent girl worked beside the women. All of them, except the youngest, had a dispirited air about them, Rose noted.

As she and Jack rode in, several mangy, underfed dogs set up a racket, barking and circling their horses. Everyone in the camp turned to stare. Jack raised his hand in greeting, drawing stilted nods from some of the men. One of the little boys who’d been playing ball shrieked, “Jack!” and came running as they dismounted. The child hurled himself at Jack’s legs, shrilling something in Kiowa.

“Whoa there,” Jack said. Chuckling, he scooped up the boy and returned his fervent hug. He rattled off what sounded like a question, and the boy gave a high-pitched reply, pointing toward the creek. Turning to Rose, Jack explained, “This is Tsoia’s son, Tsahle-ee. He says his pa is hunting for supper.”

Rose smiled brightly at the little boy. “Hello.” She didn’t try to pronounce his name, fearing she’d mangle it. He gave her a shy grin, revealing two missing baby teeth, and hid his face against Jack’s shoulder.

By now, the adults had gathered around. They began speaking and gesturing at Rose, no doubt asking who she was and what she was doing here, making her uncomfortable and causing her to clutch her cross.

Photos were obtained from Wikipedia Commons and are copyright free.

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Caroline Clemmons said...

Great excerpt, Lyn. I saw a documentary on TV by, I believe, National Geographic in which they discussed the portable dwellings of the Mongolians and compared them to American Indians' tipis. It makes sense. The Mongolians and Siberians who are isolated and haven't intermarried with Europeans look very much like American Indians. Very thought-provoking post.

Ellen O'Connell said...

I thought there were even DNA tests done proving a relationship between some of the Siberian tribes and American natives.

Having recently spent a weekend at a dog trial where the wind picked up several tents and took them for a ride, I wonder about tipis and wind. With the original buffalo hide covers maybe they'd be too heavy to budge except in an tornado, but I'd think a canvas cover would be vulnerable to the kind of strong winds we get on the Plains.

Lyn Horner said...

Caroline, I've long believed our Native Americans are descended from Asians who crossed the land bridge to North America. Perhaps not all of them, but many. I wish I'd seen that documentary. Must have been very interesting.

Lyn Horner said...

Ellen, I don't doubt a DNA test has proven the connection.

In the early days, Great Plains tribes used heavy stones to weight down the bottom edge of their tipis. Later they employed stakes to anchor their dwellings. I'm sure a tornado or extremely strong straight-line wind could rip the tipis loose, but short of that, I gather from my research that they were pretty strong.

Jacquie Rogers said...

They must have used ropes to get the hides on, too, and it does seem reasonable that the hides would have to be tied on some way at the top and sides.

Ciara Gold said...

Excellent post. At the Livingston State Park in Texas, you can request a teepee to sleep in. They have two. They are surprisingly tall and roomy but there's a gap between the ground and the bottom of the teepee which is a little daunting. My girlscouts slep in one during one of our outings. They weren't too impressed.

Lyn Horner said...

Jacquie, I didn't find anything about that, but I'm sure you're right. Cutting the hides was a very skilled task in itself. As a rule one experienced woman would oversaw the cutting and stitching.

Lyn Horner said...

Ciara, from what I read there shouldn't be a gap like that except in hot weather, when it was needed for ventilation. Can't say I blame your girls for not liking it. I'd be scared of snakes slithering into my bed.