Not long after the white man’s coming, Beaver tepees resembled those of the Sekani, and in a general way, those of the Cree whom they both imitated. Father Morice reported that the Tsekehne habitations, summer or winter, were built on a conical model.
Four long poles with forked ends were set up against each other, the lower ends forming a square. Twenty or so of other poles were then set up in a circle, the top of each resting on the first four. In the winter small bundles of spruce were laid around the base of the frame to leave as few points of access as possible for cold air. The covering consists of moose skins sewn together and wrapped around the poles to form a cone. Smoke escapes through the spaces between the converging poles left uncovered at the top. To guard against snow, rain or winds, an additional piece of skin is sewn on the outside from the top of the cone down some distance while its free side is secured to a long pole planted in the ground close by. This is used as a shutter so that the top opening of the lodge is partially or entirely covered as the state of the weather may require. Summer and winter the fire was built right in the centre, directly under the opening in the shelter.
Mackenzie had made earlier reports of exclusively Beaver shelters. He reported that “originally the Beavers had no horses and traveled on foot with the aid of dogs. They erected temporary shelters of brush covered with moose and buffalo skins. Pliant saplings were driven into the ground, and their top ends bent over and tied together. Brush, bark, and skins were tied to these to form a dome-shaped teepee.”
J.G. MacGregor wrote that “with the coming of the fur-trade posts and their consequent mingling with the Crees in an amiable manner, they [the Beaver] changed many of their old ways of living. Horses permitted them to transport teepees of a more permanent nature and thenceforth they built a teepee similar to that of the Plains Indians.” The Cree influence may also have affected the Sekani teepees that Morice described.
The anthropologist Pliny Earle Goddard reported in 1914 that: “the ordinary dwelling of the Beavers was a teepee of the general Northern or Chipewyan type. It has a three-pole foundation but these poles are usually not tied at the place of crossing, as is the case in the Plains since they are either forked or have projecting limbs so that they interlock. The tops of the remaining poles rest in the top of this tripod. Suitable poles are easily found in the North and are not ordinarily moved from place to place but are left standing. Old campgrounds are marked by these poles which, in sheltered situations, can remain standing for years.
The cover of the teepee in former days was made of skins of the caribou or moose. In one Indian story Agait’ Osdunne wishes for thirteen caribou skins from which a new teepee could be made. Mackenzie speaks of the teepee covers of moose skins that are said to have been in use at Fort St. John until as late as 1916. It seems strange that there is no mention of buffalo skins being used here as they were ordinarily used for the purpose on the Plains. Bison were plentiful in most parts of the Peace River country and Beaver territory, not becoming scarce until after 1830. Perhaps the moose hide was lighter and easier to carry.
The striking difference in appearance between the teepees of the north and those of the Plains is that the cover of the Plains teepee fits closely around the crossing of the poles which are so placed as to occupy as little space as possible. The covering of the northern teepee leaves a considerable opening at the top.
Temporary camps in summer are made by throwing together small trees with the leaves on them so that they rest upon a tripod foundation. Trappers and other travelers overtaken in winter away from teepees built windbreaks of brush which, in addition to keeping off the wind, reflect back the heat of the fire.
Mr. George Robinson, an early trapper, being here at the same time as Dr. Goddard, reports that he used to come upon remains of shelters in the bush built in a way that has not been seen in books by this writer. Long willow saplings were stuck into the ground in a line longer than the height of a man. The top ends were bent into a semicircular form and again stuck into the ground. The shelter was rather like a “pup tent” when covered with spruce boughs or a tarp. Left open on the side nearest the fire, more heat was reflected on the occupant. Such frames might last for years and could be used over and over again by anyone needing shelter.