If an Indian sat outside on the out-turned bottom edge of the tipi cover he was “at home” but not according to white man’s interpretation. Nobody was supposed to bother him.
Inside, across the fireplace from the door was a backrest. The host sat at the south end of it, the eldest son at the other unless the place was assigned to guests so that the guests were on his heart side. Women and children sat next to the door, boys and young men on the north side. On entering, men went to the right and women to the left.
Nobody passed between another person and the fire unless it was unavoidable. In that case pardon was asked. Everybody in a tipi was addressed as “my grandfather,” “my sister,” “cousin”, etc. according to age and importance. Relationship did not matter; all those inside the tipi were temporarily one family.
Guests brought their own eating utensils. Male guests were served first and then the host. Guests ate all that was set before them or took it home. Any other conduct was an insult to the host’s family. Before anybody ate the host said a prayer and chose the choicest bit of meat and placed it on the fire, or buried it in the earth close to the fire, opposite the door. In this little square of earth all roots and stones were removed and the earth pulverized and swept neat. On this space “incense” was burned, – sage, cedar or sweet-grass. The Sarcees use a braid of sweet grass, always burning from the cut end to the tip. The smoke carried the prayers to the One Above. Sacred objects such as the pipe were purified in the smoke.
The tipi belonged to the woman. If her man wanted to continue to occupy the seat of honour in it, he had better mind his ways! The Indian woman was not always as submissive as pictured. If she wanted to divorce her husband, all she had to do was pitch all of his belongings out of the door, and that was that!
Everyone sat on the floor, for each wished to be in contact with the earth, “the mother.” Men sat cross-legged in a tipi, women knelt or sat with the knees close together modestly, both legs turned to one side. In fact, in a more-or-less smoky tipi, sleeping or sitting on the floor was sensible – there was less smoke there, as anyone knows who has learned in survival training how to crawl out of a burning room.
Children sat near the door, where they could get out and scamper but in the presence of a guest it was bad manners, bringing down the blackest of frowns, to show-off or be rude. Some early travelers have recorded that the Indian children they met were the best behaved in their whole experience. It would be unthinkable to be boisterous or to throw a tantrum in the tipi. Fight outside? Yes, but never inside. Behaving in that way, the children didn’t develop the feeling of “rejection” or the hostility to parents that make modern youth so unhappy. Besides only grandparents, uncles or aunts “took the unruly child in hand,” but did not strike to enforce good manners. The astounded Indians said “We beat our horses and dogs – but white men beat their children!”
Nobody interrupted another who was speaking, no matter how long the oration. The speaker indicated the close of his remarks with a phrase such as, “I have spoken” or “I have ended.” Until then he might be meditating on further remarks, and was not to be interrupted.
When the speeches were over, the pipe was lit by the host to honour their chief provider of the necessities of life. On the plains this was done with a smoldering buffalo chip. The pipe was presented to the four directions and then after the host each man smoked, from left to right as far as the door. If only men were present it went on around in the same direction as the sun’s travel, the stem always pointing to the left. If it went out before going all around, only the headman could relight it. When the host finally cleaned out his pipe and laid it aside, everybody got up went home – the ceremony was over. The ashes were carefully gathered and laid neatly on the altar. Tobacco was holy, its use strictly ceremonial — even its ashes were sacred.
The man’s pipe had a place of honour over his head with his “medicine bag,” and other tokens of honour. They would hang from a pole, or a tripod, in the latter case to be placed outside in the daytime in fine weather when he was present, being moved frequently to face the sun. That is much like the royal standard flown on a modern car which is carrying the queen or her representatives to and from official ceremonies.
When a new tipi was built, as was necessary every two to four years, it was “dedicated,” as a church is in white civilization. There was a “house-warming” feast. When the poles were first set up, an old man known to make “good medicine” raised his hand to the east and prayed to the Good Spirit to “Help us to think of you everyday we live in this lodge, guard us in our sleep; wake us in the morning with clean minds for the day and keep harm from us.”
Then gifts were given to the woman who made the lodge. It was her “mother’s day” when she was honored. And we can be sure that the sharp eyes of the old women didn’t miss a thing! Were her poles straight and smooth? Was the skin trimmed and thinned properly? Were there any puckers and wrinkles in the fitting of the skins?
Few of the Indians used any means of making artificial light. By choosing the proper wood for the fire, enough light could be produced. In the Peace River country, where days were so very dark and long in winter, the Slaveys are said to have made “candles” of buffalo horn, suspended from the poles filled with fat, with a moss wick.
A girl’s mother provided her with their first tipi on her marriage, but she never set foot in her daughter’s tipi if the son-in-law were at home. It was tipi-manners for a son-on-law never to speak to his wife’s mother.
Tipi decorations were not haphazard. The Indian seldom if ever tried to draw a thing as it actually appeared. His designs were symbolic. Today we say they were “abstract.” To another Indian they were meaningful and told a story more dramatically than print. These “heraldic” designs would be a study in themselves if enough of the authentic tipis had survived. The next time you go to the Calgary Stampede of Banff Indian Days, you might find it interesting to observe the “lodges” more carefully and critically. For one thing, today’s raw colours of paint are a far cry from the dyes in muted earthy tones which made the old tipis things of great beauty, blending comfortably into their surroundings.