Friday, March 18, 2011

Life in a Tepee

Upton Sinclair included John Howard Payne’s famous poem Home, Sweet Home in his article titled American Poetry written in 2006. In his poem he wrote, “Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

By Brianna Weichel
Southeast Community  College

When most people think of home today, they picture a happy family standing on the doorstep of their house and smiling. This was the same picture for the Plains Indians, only instead of standing in front of a house; they were happily standing in front of their portable tepee.

Today, I will be able to share with you the significance of a tepee to the Indian. I want to explain how a tepee was made and why it was important to the Plains Indians. I also want to talk about the specific roles of the men and women in a tribe, along with their sons and daughters.

The tepee was home for the Plains Indians, so it needed to be durable and reliable. This means that the tepee needed to be able to withstand the same kind of weather we experience in Nebraska today, including wind, rain, and snow.

A tepee can be better described as a cone-shaped tent because the poles that form the frame form the shape of a cone. To hide the poles and create a living area, 8 to 20 buffalo hides were stitched together, depending on the extent of the tepee. Each one generally allowed enough room for 5 to 7 people to sleep comfortably (Giannetta, 2009). This was important because most tepees held a family of two to three generations (Pauls, 2011).

The women were in charge of putting together and taking down the tepee. Surprisingly, it only took them a few minutes to pack it up, and they simply attached it to the back of a horse for easy transportation. While attached to the horse, a couple of the poles dragged on the ground, creating an A-shaped structure. The family would set their belongings and hides on top of this frame, which also helped allow for an easy transportation. It took them roughly an hour or so to set it back up again (Giannetta, 2009).

According to the magazine article Recreating the World: Tipi Ornaments by Cheyenne and Arapaho Women, which was written by Adrianne Santina in 2004, “Tipis were pitched in relation to the cardinal directions, with the door facing the east and the back in the west. These constants result in basic, shared meanings of tipis.” The entrance consisted of a flap. If someone wanted to visit a family, the side of the tepee or the door flap could be scratched or rubbed to alert someone inside the tepee that someone was there (Pauls, 2011). This would be much like knocking or ringing the doorbell like it is for us today.

The quick set up of the tepee was very important. When a village moved, they needed as much time as possible to unpack, hunt, and prepare food for the next meal. Next, I will explain how the functional use of the tepee was also critical to the Plains Indians.

Since the use and space was limited, it was vital for each family to make room for the essentials. Rather than having separate spaces for each room like we do today, the tepee consisted of one large space. The only furniture was the beds assembled around the walls, which were prepared from the skins of a bison. Bison and deer skin lined the tepee during the cold months to contain the heat (Giannetta, 2009).

A par fleche, which was defined in the work Plains Indians, written by J. Giannetta in 2009, as “a folded bag used to carry things, made from the hide of an animal,” and each was hung from the poles and held items such as food, clothes, and tools.

Each tepee included a fire pit (Giannetta, 2009). This fire pit was usually centered in the middle of the tepee. It allowed for both heat and light to enter the inside. A smoke hole was placed at the very top of the tepee, which could be closed if bad weather occurred; if the weather was particularly warm, the sides could roll up for extra ventilation (Pauls, 2011).

The outside of the tepee was just as important to the Plains Indians as the inside. The hides used to cover the outside of the tepee were waterproof. To accomplish this, the hide was smoked above a fire (Giannetta, 2009). Objects of importance, such as animals or stars, were painted on the waterproof hides. Many times, war experiences of the oldest male living in the tepee would also be painted on the outside. Each painting on the outside held a special meaning to the tepee owner (Santina, 2004).

Also, rocks surrounded the bottom, ensuring the tepee could not be tipped over during a strong wind. During the winter, the Indians would pile up snow around the outer edges of the tepee to also prevent it from tipping over (Giannetta, 2009).

We have seen why the tepee was so important to the Plains Indians, but now I will discuss the many key roles of the men and women in a tribe. According to an article in the Britannica Encyclopedia entitled Plains Indian, which was written by Elizabeth Pauls in 2011, “Plains tribes typically had a distinct division of labor” which is “the separation of a work process into a number of tasks."

The men and boys of the tribe had important roles. Their roles are equivalent to jobs today. Rather than going to work to earn money for food and essentials, the Plains Indian male would go out on the plains to find the essentials. The men’s main responsibility was to protect their family and tribe from danger and was obligated to fight in battles if necessary (Giannetta, 2009). They also provided food for the tribe by hunting.

The main meat they hunted was bison, or buffalo meat (Pauls, 2011). They also hunted antelope, deer, elk, and moose, along with smaller game such as birds, prairie chickens, rabbits, and gophers using snare traps, which means they set up a trap to catch the animals, rather than using bow and arrows. In addition, the men created tools, shields, and weapons (Giannetta, 2009).

Young boys learned the previous skills mentioned from their fathers, since it was important that they were prepared for their role as an adult when the time came (Giannetta, 2009). These young boys were given bow and arrows that were light and could not cause any harm, but when the boys became stronger, bigger bows were given to them so they could hunt small game (Pauls, 2011). They typically went on their first real hunt when they were 12 years old (Giannetta, 2009).

Wrestling games were popular in order to prepare the boys for battle. The boys were rewarded when they behaved in the expected ways. Sometimes a boy would be given land from his father when he shot his first deer, came back from his first war experience, took his first steps, or returned to the village with his first small game (Pauls, 2011).

Furthermore, each young man went on a Vision Quest, which was when they left the village for days without any food or water and stayed in a quiet spot until a dream or vision came to them. The Indians believed that this Vision Quest turned each boy into tough fighters and good hunters (Giannetta, 2009).

Along with all of these, the boys, and also the girls, learned about the special ceremonies that were conducted in the village. For fun, both the boys and girls would swim, have horse races, have foot races, and play games of chance (Giannetta, 2009).
The women and girls of the tribe also had duties that were important for survival. The roles of the women and girls can be compared to the jobs of housewives and nannies today. The women gathered wood for the fire, cooked every meal, which usually included meat, and picked berries and plants used in food and medicine (Giannetta, 2009).

Some examples of the berries they would gather include chokecherries, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries, which were eaten both fresh and dried. These berries were also used for dyes and in jewelry. Some of the plants that the women gathered that grew wild include wild rice, bitter root, and onions, all of which were added to create more flavors to the meat. They also used dried sage for flavoring and moss for tea (Giannetta, 2009).

They also made all of the clothes and necessary articles, such as bags and moccasins, which can be compared to shoes (Giannetta, 2009). Other articles of clothing included leggings, belts, hats, and dresses (Pauls, 2011). The women made the moccasins, or shoes, out of moose hide if a soft sole was desired, or they made them from buffalo hide when a hard sole was wanted (Pauls, 2011). During the winter, fur and grass would be added to the inside to provide extra warmth (Giannetta, 2009).

The leggings were created using buckskin and kept the legs warm and also protected them. The belts were constructed using strips of hide and held small pouches and knives. The hats were usually fur and were used to protect the Indians from the harsh sun and cold (Pauls, 2011). They furthered their duties by quilting and doing beadwork and were in charge of watching the children (Giannetta, 2009).

These duties, cooking, gathering, and sewing, were learned by young girls from their mother. They learned to decorate their clothing with porcupine quill, fringe, embroidery, and beads. The more a dress was decorated, the higher the men were honored in her family for hunting and protecting (Pauls, 2011).

They also learned the duties of being a mother and wife by receiving a doll, which they would play with and take care of. This was a good way for them to practice sewing by creating clothes for the doll and also learning to manage a household using a miniature tepee (Pauls, 2011).

The girls, along with the young boys, learned many stories and legends from the elders of the village. It was their grandparents who took care of them when the parents were out completing every day duties (Giannetta, 2009). The girls also had a reward system. They were praised when they showed tremendous efforts in cooking, sewing, beading, and processing the hides (Pauls, 2011). As we have discussed, the role of the men and women of a tribe were equally important for survival.

Today, I was able to lead you through the life of a Plains Indian, along with the value of a tepee. First, we learned how a Plains Indian tepee was constructed. Then, we discussed the importance of the tepee. Last, we explained the roles and duties of men and women in a tribe. John Howard Payne’s Home, Sweet Home poem continues with, “No more from that, cottage again will I roam; Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home” (Upton, 2006). Now you can see why the Plains Indians called the tepee home.


Giannetta, J. (2009, April). Saskatchewan history – the first peoples: the Plains Indians. Retrieved from

Pauls, E.P. (2011). Plains Indian. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Santina, A. (2004). Recreating the world: tipi ornaments by Cheyenne and Arapaho women. Women’s Studies, (0049-7878 print). Retrieved from Ebsco.

Sinclair, Upton. (2006, March 1). Home, sweet home. American poetry, 48-48. Retrieved from the Literary Reference Center.

Teepee photos: First two can be seen at Mahoney State Park, NE. Last three designed, built, and photographed by the author to author to illustrate her presentation.

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