A tipi is a refinement of the “council” skin-tent found among nearly all northern native groups, our Peace River Beavers being an exception until after the Cree introduced them here not long before the white men arrived.
The Sioux of the western plains gave these conical habitations their name, from ti meaning “to dwell or live,” and pi meaning “used for.” The name is not interchangeable with ‘wigwam’ or ‘wickiup’ – these structures are quite different.
There is science in building a tipi, starting with the poles. There is no haphazard arrangement to these supports. The structure is either a three-pole or a four-pole tipi, depending on the tribe building it. The Kiowa-Apache, related in speech to our Beavers, used three. The Sarcee, also related, are said to use the four-pole, as do their Blackfoot neighbours. These foundation poles are shorter than the others are, and pointed at the lower end to jab into the ground to make the structure firm. Most of the Indians knew that a tripod was the most stable form of frame. The front pole was longer than the other two, because the tipi was not a perfect cone, but was extended forwards. The back poles faced the prevailing winds; the front pole braced these two, so that the tipi became a tilted cone. The floor plan was egg-shaped. Selecting a good set of poles was not a hit-and-miss affair either. Straight, slender and light trees, several feet longer than the tipi’s planned height must be found, and trimmed with an up-the-tree cut so as not to leave a rough flaw in the finish. Then they were carefully barked, and piled to shrink and dry. For permanent use they were supported a little off the ground, and laid in a pile two weeks or more, with pegs driven into the ground on alternate sides of the pile at close intervals. As this was women’s work, her housekeeping was partly judged by the smooth, taut fit of the tipi cover achieved only with perfect poles. Young pines were very desirable, especially the species commonly known as “lodgepole” – a slim, straight tree whose living branches tended to remain in a tuft at the top. Jack pine was not as good.
The Plains people had to travel long distances for suitable poles, and then they prized them very highly. It is said that a man would trade off a wife rather than a good set of poles! In the Peace country, where good enough poles could be cut almost anywhere, the Indians usually left them behind – at each camp as Mackenzie noticed when he camped at the Canyon on the Peace.
The foundation poles were laid out on the ground and tied with a series of knots at the criss-cross. If many farmers had learned to do this, fewer moose, cattle and hogs would have come crashing down from the tripod at butchering time, for the Indian’s was a foolproof and stable structure which one woman could raise. The remainder of the poles were laid in the crotch then lashed at the top for a permanent camp, or when wind threatened.
Now the “lifting pole” was securely tied onto the cover inside at centre back. Set properly, a woman could swing it up. There was a knack to this, because the inside of the cover was outside for tying, and the whole bundle had to be turned as the woman “walked” the pole up and laid the top in the back crotch. The cover was then spread around to meet at the front. At this point a crossbar was lashed between the two front poles to stand on while putting pegs through the lacing-holes from the smoke vent down to the door. A lapover fold would keep out rain. A small boy to shinny up the pole or stand on an adult’s shoulders would help.
Now the poles were pushed out at the bottom to make the cover nearly taut. The excess length of the cover was held flat on the ground with stones where available. These tipi-rings can be seen all over the plains.
If there were no stones, peg-loops were attached by placing a pebble inside the cover, and tying it up into a little nub, like a wad of gum in a handkerchief-corner. A thong fastened around it made a loop that would hold. On many square miles of prairie, pegs were precious, for there was no shrub or tree bigger than sagebrush, rosebush or dwarf willow from which to cut more.
Inserting two long, slender poles into the pockets at the top corner of the smoke flaps, and tying the lower corners down to a post fixed a few feet from the front door, completed the job. A husky Indian woman could do it all in fifteen or twenty minutes! Most of them wouldn’t have welcomed the butting-in of any man. She bossed the job.
Some modern Indian University students, wishing to set up a tipi on the campus for a demonstration, discovered that none of them had the foggiest idea how it was done, so they hired the engineering department to do it for them. After much consultation (before the publication of the Laubins’ book), with the help of several fellows, they laid it all out on the ground and raised it with a derrick-truck!
The making of the cover was no quick affair. The tanned hides were scraped uniformly thin, not only for lightness, but to let in light. Strips like pieces of cloth were cut, overlapped from top over bottom, and sewn with small neat stitches, “almost like a glove.” Those tipis you see on TV with huge, uneven stitches would have made any self-respecting Indian woman the laughing stock of the band! Finally a piece big enough for an approximate semi-circle was achieved, with extra length along the front straight edges to allow for the tilt of the cone. For some distance down from the centre of the half circle, flaps were sewn. Near the bottom, but leaving a threshold at the ground level, a door was cut out. A well-made cover would lie as flat as if ironed.
The cover was frequently decorated with painted or dyed designs, all of which had meanings. Animal skins or tails attached to the smoke flaps, hanks and braids of human hair, horse-tails, bundles of sweet grass or fringes bespoke the pride or prestige of the occupant. The designs also told what tribe the owner belonged to. Several kinds of doors covered the entrance hole, all decorated. A white door on a Sarcee tipi belonged to a man who had not had a vision yet to tell him “who he is” and give him a design.
A tipi was also lined, with a second curtain called a dew-cloth part way up, with the ground portion turned to the inside and held down with pegs. It was fastened inside the poles, leaving a space between inside and outside for insulation and to reduce condensation. Along the pole two small sticks were laid to carry the rainwater down the pole without wetting the curtain. Properly sewn, the lining always remained dry although rain always ran down the poles. The reason for making the poles smooth was evident at the first rainstorm – leave a little knot or nub, and it would cause a drip, which in the general perverse way of things would fall on the bed or into the fire.
The lining had other purposes. It created a draft towards the top, helping to clear the smoke. Without a lining an Indian “lived in his chimney.” Another use was for privacy. When a fire was lit after dark, the shadows of the occupants showing through the translucent covering were too good a target for enemies who might creep up to “count coup” or to kill! The inside lining was an excellent place for the man to display his artistic skill, like the tapestries in old castles, and tell of his dreams and exploits.
Now when a door of one kind or another hung over the entrance hole one of the most scientific primitive shelters was complete.
There was a fire pit, on a circle of stones to contain the fire, but neither one was under the apex of the tent. Rather the fire was under the slit where the smoke flaps were. That is the reason for the tilt of the tent, for easier escape of the smoke.
By adjusting the position of the smoke flaps, and by raising the lower edge of the cover according to the wind, the Indian had an extremely efficient system of air-conditioning keeping the habitation dry and frost-free in winter or cool and dry in summer.
Made with dry wooden poles, a tipi on the “bald headed prairie” was not struck by lightning, as tents with the modern collapsible metal poles have been. Furthermore, after tornadoes that have blown down trees, and demolished or overset frame buildings, an Indian encampment would come out unscathed.
A skin tent, even with a big fire blazing was not as likely to catch fire as canvas ones do. Besides, the Indian chose his firewood with care. Evergreens are generally unsatisfactory, as they give off too much oily smoke and throw sparks. Aspen throws off sparks but makes almost no smoke. Old, dried out pine with no bark on will do, but it gives little warmth. Cottonwood or “black poplar” is actually a “hardwood,” which with birch makes the best fire.
On the prairies the fuel was “buffalo chips.” After the extinction of the buffalo, “cow chips” replaced these as the writer remembers on the early Saskatchewan prairies. Her duty, when little more than a toddler, was to turn them over each day with a little wooden paddle to dry out, then to haul them home in a little wooden cart. It took a lot to cook a meal!