Friday, March 13, 2009

Life in a Tipi

Tipi, Tepie, Tepee. No matter how the word is spelled, it has the same meaning. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1989), "a tipi is a tent or wigwam of the American Indians, formed of bark, mats, skins, or canvas stretched over a frame of poles converging to and fastened together at the top." Tipis have been the home to families of the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Crow, Dakota, Sioux and other Great Plains Indians for many centuries (Yue & Yue, 1984, p.3).

By Travis Nielsen
Southeast Community College

When I was younger, like most little boys, I used to play cowboys and Indians, I always wanted to be the Indians so I could live in a tent as I referred to it. Today I plan to give you information about the home to so many Indians, the tipi, and what it was like to live in one. I will explain a little history of the tipi, who built and owned the tipi, the materials used and what the living conditions were like.

Tipi models constructed by Travis Nielsen.

The history of the tipi is uncertain. No one knows for sure when or how the tipi was created. Some believe that the first tipis were evident in the 1500’s. In 1541, Coronado, a Spanish explorer reported seeing what was thought to be tipis as he traveled the Great Plains (Yue & Yue, 1984, p.3). There are others that believe tipis may have been in use before 1541. Some anthropologists believe that ancestors of the Great Plains Indians were the first to use tipis (p. 3-4). Originally, tipis were not used for daily living. Anthropologists thought that the ancestors of the Great Plains Indians lived in wood or bark shelters and were used as temporary shelters when the Great Plains Indians were hunting (p. 4).

As time went on, the tipi became the main dwelling for more Indian tribes. In order to understand the tipi a little better, let’s take a closer look at this Indian home.

The tipi is more than a little tent. There is a lot of skill put into building this sophisticated dwelling which is necessary to withstand life on the open plains. “They were built as skillfully as any house in Italy.” This is what explorer Juan de Onates` said when he first saw the tipi (McKittrick, 2006).

The Indian women play an important role in the construction and ownership of the tipi. Tipis were made and owned by women in the tribes. They decided on everything that had to do with their tipis. The women picked the camp site, put up the tipis and even took them down. The only time that women did not take down the tipi was during certain ceremonies. The women also made all the furnishings and were responsible for how things were arranged inside the tipi. Women felt a sense of pride when they created a well made and properly erected tipi (Yue & Yue, 1984, p.23).

The materials used to make the tipis were carefully selected. Only the best would do.

There are four basic items used to make the tipi. These items include the poles (15-17), the canvas covers which are usually several buffalo skins, ropes and dowels that hold the tipi together (Hunt, 2003). The number of buffalo skins that it took to make the canvas cover was between 15 and 20. These skins were cut and sewn together by the women (McKittrick, 2006). In the 1984 book The Tipi Charlotte and David Yue write, “Although the structure of the tipi seems simple it was carefully engineered to create a practical, livable home: well lighted, well ventilated, cozy in winter, sturdy in high winds, and dry in heavy rains.”

Because the tipi was considered to be the home of several Native American Indian Tribes, it is time to go inside and see what it would have been like to live in a tipi. The tipi offers complete living for the Native American Indian families. By looking at the outside of the tipi, it is hard to believe that there is room to do anything on the inside. It is amazing how just one room can offer so much. Life inside of the tipi was simple, but the family members had everything that they needed. Inside the tipi, there was one room which was the living space. This area was the kitchen, bedroom and also the storage area. In addition to these things, there was a fire pit in the center of the room (Hunt, 2003). Charlotte and David Yue wrote in The Tipi, “Furs were placed on the floors as ground cloths. Beds were pallets made of buffalo hides.”

Living in a tipi teaches life skills. Harry Janicki of Bend, Oregon, lived in a tipi for five years. “Living in a tipi was the best experience of my life,” he says. “It taught me patience and what was really important to survive: shelter.” When you live in a tipi there aren’t 6-inch-thick walls separating you from the elements-just a thin skin of canvas. “You’re more in tune with your environment, living through all the seasons in a tipi,” Janicki says (Hunt, 2003).

Kate Robbins a counselor from Spokane, Washington says, “Living in a tipi is an exercise in simplicity. The simple, graceful lines lend a peaceful aura to the tall, spacious interior. A small fire or kerosene lantern provides adequate light for cooking, reading or guitar playing” (Hunt, 2003).

After reading about what it would be like to live in a tipi, and the testimonials, I have a new knowledge and appreciation for tipi living. Hopefully I have provided enough information to help you have a better understanding of tipis, the home to so many Indians, and what it was like to live in one. I gave you a little history of the tipi. From there the information pertained to what it took to build a tipi, who was responsible for this and what was used for construction. Finally I described what it was like inside of a tipi and what Life in a tipi would be like. Perhaps some of you found tipi life interesting and maybe would be willing to give it a try. I personally do not think I am suited for this way of living. Giving up all of my technology devices is not something I am willing to do!


Hunt, H. (2003, December/January). Tipis and yurts. Mother Earth News. Retrieved January 22, 2009 from Wilson Web.

McKittrick, R. (2006, May). Miniature tipis. Antique and Collecting Magazine. Retrieved January 31, 2009 from Wilson Web.

Tipi. (1989). In Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.). Retrieved January 22, 2009 from Oxford English Dictionary Online database.

Yue, D. & Yue, C. (1984). The tipi. NY: Alford A. Knopf. Inc.


Josh Dillingham said...

Living in a tipi isn't so bad. I think you'd like it

Anonymous said...

I love my six homemade tipis. I love having one right outside the door to my house. It is so lovely to sit in one I made entirely out of rejected windows from the dump reuse center.

I love seeing the woods through the windows. I love seeing the campfire reflected on the inside of the windows at night.

I also have my telescope in there for stargazing.