Tipis painted by
Tipis painted by George Catlin

A tipi, (also teepee or tepee), is a conical tent originally made of skins and popularised by the native American Indians of the Great Plains. Today, they are usually covered in canvas and lived in by Native American Indian families attending Pow Wows or Encampments, teaching further generations of traditions. They are also used by historical reenactors, back to earth people and in some places they are used for tourist lodgings.

Tipis consist of four elements: a set of ten to fifteen sapling poles, a canvas or skin cover (the outer shape familiar from photographs), an inner canvas or skin lining, and a canvas or skin door. Ropes and pegs are required to bind the poles, close the cover, attach the lining and door, and anchor the resulting structure to the ground.

Missing image
Tipis outside the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Cody, Wyoming.

Tipis are distinguished from other tents by two crucial innovations: the opening at the top and the smoke flaps, which allow the dweller to cook and heat themselves with a open fire, and the lining, which supplies a steady, controlled flow of fresh air to fire and dwellers in almost any weather.

Tipis are designed to be easily set up to allow camps to be moved to follow game migrations, especially the bison. The long poles could be used to construct a dog or later horse-pulled travois.

Tipi covers are made by sewing together strips of canvas or hide and cutting out a semicircular shape from the resulting surface. Trimming this shape yields a door and the smoke flaps that allow the dwellers to control their fires.

The lining is the most difficult element to measure, since it consists of lozenge-shaped strips of canvas assembled to form the shape of a truncated cone.

The poles, made of peeled, polished and dried saplings, are cut to measure about six feet more than the radius of the cover.

Missing image
Nez Perce tipi

Steps in Construction

The first step in setting up a tipi is to tightly tie together three long wooden poles (made from saplings with their branches removed). This fastening is done close to the ends of the three poles. Next, those poles are stood upright, with their unfastened ends spaced apart on the ground to form a triangle with sides about 3 m (10') long. Then, perhaps a dozen more long poles are laid onto the three primary poles. Their upper ends rest on the lashing of the first three, and the lower ends are evenly spaced to form a circle on the ground which includes the original three poles. Then the canvas tipi itself is lifted up, using a couple more long poles, and draped over the pole framework. The overlap seam is cleverly closed with wooden pins which somewhat resemble short, stubby drumsticks. The tipi was designed to enable building a fire (for heat and for cooking) in the center of the bare floor, and there is a smoke flap at the top which could be opened or closed, again with the long poles. Inside the tipi, fire is in the center of the area. The lining creates an updraft, so that the smoke is drawn up and out. Directly behind the fire, most tribes will create a small area where the ground has been carefully cleaned, and all rocks and debris removed. Individuals will take a small bite of the meal, and bury it in the cleaned area. This serves two purposes. One is an offering or prayer of thanksgiving for the meal, and the other is a more practical reason. When the tipi is moved, there will be a small fertile area in the center of the tramped down ground, enabling nature to renew the area quickly.

cs:Tp de:Tipi pl:Tipi he:טיפי


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