• Notes From The Frontier

How to Build a Tipi

A tipi (also commonly spelled “teepee”) is the ingenious shelter traditionally used by indigenous people of the North American Great Plains and Canadian Prairies. Native Americans made the tall, conical shelters from animal skins stitched together then draped over very long lodge poles, set vertically, leaning to a central point. A tipi has a smoke hole at the top, so that campfires can burn inside, and an animal-skin flap opening.

Although many non-native people have associated the tipi with Native Americans in general, they were really used primarily by the seven sub-tribes of the Dakota, among the Iowa, the Otoe and Pawnee, and the Blackfeet, Crow, Assiniboines, and Cree. Use of the tipi also spread to tribes on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, such as the Nez Perce, Yakima and Cayuse, in part because some of those tribes began to trade and then hunt buffalo with the Plains Indians.

The word “tipi” comes from the Lakota word, thípi, meaning a “dwelling” or “they dwell.” The early pioneering American anthropologist who studied Native American culture extensively, wrote of the tipi construction:

The frame consists of thirteen poles from fifteen to eighteen feet in length, which, after being tied together at the small ends, are raised upright with a twist so as to cross the poles above the fastening. They are then drawn apart at the large ends and adjusted upon the ground in the rim of a circle usually ten feet in diameter. A number of untanned and tanned buffalo skins, stitched together in a form adjustable to the frame, are drawn around it and lashed together, as shown in the figure. The lower edges are secured to the ground with tent-pins. At the top there is an extra skin adjusted as a collar, so as to be open on the windward side to facilitate the exit of the smoke. A low opening is left for a doorway, which is covered with an extra skin used as a drop. The fire-pit and arrangements for beds are the same as in the Ojibwa lodge, grass being used in the place of spruce or hemlock twigs.

The Northern and Central Plains tribes used “lodgepole” pine for their structures, while tribes in the Southern Plains tended to use red cedar. Both trees were straight, strong and slender. The hides were usually buffalo hides sewn together with bone needles and animal sinew into a huge, semi-circular shape that could be draped around the poles to create a conical-shaped structure. The pieced-together pattern would have an opening for the door and two flaps at the top to create a smoke hole, that could be opened to release smoke from a campfire within. In summer, the hole above also released heat. Ropes were made of long rawhide strips that secured the lodge poles together at the top. The flap hung above the door opening would often be made of a buffalo calf hide. Animal skins, or sometimes grasses, were used for flooring of the tipi and for bedding.

The tipis of chiefs, warriors and shamans were usually painted in rich designs. (Other lodgings often remained unadorned.) The lodges were decorated with plant-, animal- and mineral-based paints and depicted images important in Native spiritual life: animals such as buffalo, horses, ravens, eagles, the Thunderbird; celestial bodies—the sun, moon, and stars; hunting or war exploits; or a dream or vision.

Illustrating visions on a tipi were profound acts and were usually preceded by prayers, dancing, and ceremonies and the sharing the vision with the village first. Usually designated artists in the village rendered the designs on tipis. Geometric designs or patterns also came to be used, sometimes becoming specific to certain tribes. But, there was much artistic cross-pollination of ideas and designs between artists and between tribes. Some tipis were quite spectacular in their illustration.

Because Plains Indians were nomadic and followed game migrations, especially buffalo, shelters needed to be portable and easily constructed and dismantled. The tipi, with its poles, covering, pegs, and rawhide ropes, could be wrapped in a convenient pack and the poles would be used to construct a travois for a dog or person to pull, then later horses.

As you will see from the video below, a tipi can be constructed quite quickly by one skilled and experienced in the practice.

VIDEO: How to build a teepee, by Absaroka Joe:

Once Native Americans were relegated to reservations and the buffalo were decimated, it became difficult for tribes to maintain their tipi-making tradition, although many still managed well into the 1900s. Today, tipis are largely ceremonial among Native American tribes but tipi-making continues to be a vibrant and sacred practice.

Due to the rich native cultures tipis represented, as well as their beauty and ingenious construction, tipis have had a lasting popularity among both native and non-native people.

The confluence of history-related cultural trends in modern times beginning in around the 1960s brought a resurging interest in tipi-making, not just among Native Americans but non-natives as well. The establishment of living history museums and farms contributed to the trend, as did the burgeoning hobby of historical reenactment that begun in preparation for the Civil War 100th anniversary. The back-to-nature, homesteading, off-the-grid, and environmental movements all fostered interest in tipis.

In response to the public’s fascination with tipis, resorts featuring tipi accommodations have become popular around the world, especially across Europe, Australia, and Southeast Asia. The Indians of lore would be very surprised, indeed, to find that, today, the rest of the world has discovered the romance, comfort, and allure of their ancient dwellings—but furnished with televisions, air-conditioning, and luxurious king beds!

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-How to Build a Log Cabin


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