Today, when children construct secret hideouts or play forts, they usually wind up mimicking the shape of a teepee (more accurately spelled as “tipi”) for their games. When this happens, it may seem like nothing more than imaginative play, but they are actually tapping into an idea that human beings have had for many millennia.
The word tipi originates from the Lakota language and the word “thípi,” which is often translated to mean “they dwell.” Today, you may see it spelled as tipi, tepee, or teepee, but each is referring to the same type of structure.
A number of Native American tribes, largely known as the Plains Indians in North America, have a long history of constructing tipis for family dwellings, and sometimes for ceremonial purposes. The structures were especially important among individuals belonging to the Lakota, Pawnee, Arapahoe, Kiowah, and Cheyenne tribes.
As white settlers made their way west across the North American continent, they observed native peoples living in tipis, mistakenly thinking that the dwellings they saw were primitive. In reality, these structures not only make very clever and responsible use of available resources, but also meet many of the physical and spiritual needs of their human inhabitants.
Let’s take a look at these inspiring structures so we can learn more about their history and meaning.
When and Where Were Tipis Used?
There is some evidence suggesting that tipi dwellings may have been in use as far back as 10,000 years BCE. Archaeologists have found indications that dwellings made from a series of wooden poles existed that long ago by carbon dating soil samples taken from what appears to be the remains of ancient campsites or villages. There is the possibility that these dwellings may be more accurately referred to as wickiups, which used bark or brush for the outer walls as opposed to hides or canvas (which would make them tipis).
Archaeologists have also discovered stone rings dating back to 7500 BCE. The stone rings can be more definitively linked to tipi construction, because stones were used to hold down the outer edge of a hide covered dwelling.
Tipis have more or less been in use across the Great Plains of North America since prehistoric times. However, what we may think of as a more modern tipi design came into much greater use once horses were introduced to many native tribes. Horses allowed native peoples to become more nomadic, so the design of the tipi was perfected to the point where it could be taken down and set up quickly, and its components more easily transported.
The poles used to support a teepee were made from saplings. The bark was removed, the poles were polished, and dried to help create a sturdier base upon which to build.
Construction will begin by creating a tripod out of the three largest polls, and lashing them together at the top. The three polls would form a triangle base on the ground. A dozen or more other polls would then be laid against the foundation tripod, creating a circle with a wide base (usually about 7 to 10 feet wide for a family dwelling).
The outer covering of a tipi was made from animal hide in earlier times, and later on, from canvas. An average tipi may require as many as 28 Buffalo hides to adequately enclose the shelter. The switch from animal hides to canvas happened largely due to the dwindling availability of Buffalo, and the wider availability of canvas, which is lighter and easier to transport.
The outer covering was secured to the ground either by using wooden pegs, or heavy stones in earlier times. In the Great Plains, wind can become a problem, but a properly constructed and secured tipi is incredibly wind resistant thanks to its cone shape and thorough anchoring. In the summer months, the lower edge of the tipi covering could be lifted to allow cooler air into the dwelling.
One of the most iconic aspects of a tipi is the open top with the poles extending out. This opening at the top is what made tipis so much more advanced than other types of nomadic dwellings, because that opening acts as a chimney. Smoke flaps which are located near the top can control airflow, and can be adjusted as necessary. This means inhabitants could have a fire inside the tipi for cooking, and for heat. During the winter months, this heat source became very important for survival, as did the ability to have a fire that is sheltered from wind and weather. During the hotter months, the opening at the top also vented away hot air, allowing for a cooler indoor environment.
Life Inside a Tipi
The tipi was more than just a dwelling to the people who built them. They represented many things: a home, protection from the elements, community, and a sacred space.
Bedding was placed along the floor, with personal possessions arrayed along the walls, or between sleeping spaces. Sometimes, men and women would be segregated into different sides of the tipi for sleeping, and for sitting.
In cold months, an inner lining would be constructed from animal hides, blankets, or strips of fabric. It would be hung along the lower portion of the inner wall, creating an extra layer of insulation to keep the inhabitants warm while they slept. Grass or brush could be placed between the outer wall and the lining to add even more insulation.
Many people ask about snow or rain getting into the dwelling through the open top of the tipi, and indeed, weather was a challenge to be dealt with. Many tipis were constructed to be slightly slanted, to prevent rain from falling straight in, and to allow precipitation to freely flow away from the opening at the top. Some of the more modern tipis had extra canvas flaps located on the inside, meant to catch rainwater, and prevent it from falling inside.
The structure itself was held very sacred. The floor of a tipi would be in the shape of a circle, which symbolized how everything in the world is connected. The floor space itself represented the earth, while the soaring walls represented the sky. In some cases, a small altar may have been built near the center of the tipi for prayer purposes such as burning incense.
The outside of the tipi may have been decorated or painted to show ancestors, spirits, battles, or other symbolic designs. Not every tipi would have been painted or embroidered in this way.
As settlers pushed westward, especially thanks to events like the California Gold Rush of 1849, many would happen upon large encampments or villages of various Native American tribes. This is how we were able to get photographic evidence of the way some tipi villages looked at the time.
Some, not all, villages were arranged in a circular pattern, with each tipi opening to the east. The formation, spacing, and pattern all had importance to the people who lived there, and each member of the community would recognize their own particular place in that pattern. Some villages would have a larger tipi reserved as the dwelling of the chief. Others would have a large tipi acting as a community lodge or gathering space. Some villages would also have special tents reserved for spiritual leaders, or healers.
The size of villages could vary greatly, from just a few tipis gather together, to an encampment of over 1200, such as the one encountered at the Battle of Little Big Horn.
The Importance of Tipis Today
Today, tipis have become an important symbol of the lives and cultures of indigenous peoples. Many are constructed for artistic and educational purposes and can be used to teach others about the importance and symbolism in these structures.
However, tipis are still put to practical use today. For ceremonial purposes, or for large gatherings, people belonging to various native American tribes will use tipis as their dwelling for the duration of the event. Some modern hunters will still use a tipi as a hunting lodge, because it is so practical and portable. There have also been some grassroots movements among indigenous peoples to rediscover their ancestral roots, and to experience life as their ancestors did.
Many museums and parks have authentic tipis on display which the public can visit to learn more about the history of the structures and the people who lived in them.