Heritage Site / Ethnography Site / Cree / Housing & Associated Structures

Article: Forms - Tipi

The tipi was an ideal dwelling for the Plains people. Like the buffalo they hunted, these Indians were constantly on the move. Their dwellings, therefore, had to be readily transportable. A tipi presented no problems. To move it, the ends of two of the tipi supporting poles were lashed to a horse. The other ends dragged along the ground thus forming a roughly triangular frame, a travois, on which the buffalo covering and the family's other possessions, were tied.

At the new campsite several long poles were bound together near their tops. The poles were then stood up and slanted outward from the center to form the outline of a cone. Other poles were leaned against this framework to strength it, and a buffalo-hide covering, usually of 8 - 20 skins, was draped over the skeleton. The covering was joined near the top with wooden lodge pins. An opening was left at the very top as a smoke hole; the entrance, with closeable flaps, was at the lower part of this seam.

In hot weather, when cooling breezes were wanted, the flaps were left open and the lower part of the tipi covering was rolled up, permitting the air to circulate freely. In winter an additional skin lining was added to the tipi covering, thus providing insulation. The fire that burned in the center of the floor kept the tipi warm as well as furnishing heat for cooking.

Because of the strong, prevailing winds that swept across the Plains from the west, a tipi was always set up with the entrance facing east. And the entire shelter was always tilted slightly toward the east to streamline the rear, thus lessening the wind pressure on it.

A typical tipi was crowded with hide bedding, a rug for the baby, willow-rod backrests, cradleboard, a suspended cooking bag, a supply of fuel, parfleches containing food, medicine and other necessities, and similar household gear.
On the insulating lining of the tipi were hung sacred objects, weapons, shields and other items. This lining was often painted with brilliantly colored designs that recalled past events in the lives of those who inhabited the tipi.
The Plains natives had a deep appreciation for the tipi. Secure, mobile and comfortable, it was looked upon by these nomadic hunter as a good mother who sheltered and protected her children.

1. Tipi Poles. Three or four make the basic framework of the tipi. Long poles are prized where tall, straight trees are scarce. Some poles become the framework of the travois when traveling.
2. Quiver with arrows - arrows are striped with paint to mark ownership.
3. Medicine Bag - special parfleches for sacred items that represent things seen in the owner's visions.
4. Tipi lining - additional layer of skin, often brightly painted.
5. Parfleches - are the closets and drawers of the tipi.
6. Buffalo-skin bedding - is rolled and stored during the day.
7. Altar - for burning sweetgrass or other incense during ceremonial occasions.
8. Smoky flaps - can be adjusted to retain heat or to ventilated.
9. Wooden lodge pins - care removed to fold the Tipi for traveling.
10. Wooden bow - is shaped by heating and beading. Bowstrings are made of sinew, rawhide or twisted vegetable fiber.
11. Shield - some battle shields are painted with pictures from visions, which offer spiritual protection. Highly decorated ones are too sacred for battle and can also endanger the bearer by calling special attention to his status.
12. Backrest - the Plains family's easy chair.
13. Cradleboard - holds the fur-wrapped infant securely.
14. Woman's sewing bag - hide pouch holds awls, sinew thread, beads, quills, grasses, paints, small bones and ermine tails.