in Tipi and Camp Circle
described by Ella Deloria, Yankton Sioux, in Speaking
of Indians, Ella C. Deloria, Friendship Press, 1944, p
the Dakota family of something more than a century ago
"home" was a conical dwelling made by stretching
a skin tent over a framework of poles. The self-respecting
family's tipi, far from being an impromptu affair, was
constructed according to rule and erected with care so
that it would look right as well as withstand the rigors
of weather. Women erected the tipi, un-less it was an
oversized chief's lodge or the council tipi, in which
case men raised the long, heavy poles.
family set up its tipi in such a way as to help form the
camp circle, the unifying ring of which they were all
a vital part. All tipis faced the council tipi, which
stood in the center of the great open common and was the
focus of community life and thought. It was a town hall
of sorts. The four magistrates lived there during their
term of office. But they were not the whole law, except
during migrations and communal buffalo hunts when they
planned the movements of the group and called on one of
the soldier societies to carry out their orders. That
whole setup is interesting, but it is not pertinent here,
except to say that this active dictatorship lasted only
during times of mass action, when it was required for
the common good.
council tipi was a lively place. Men came and went, and
nobody was barred from it. The men of mature judgment
came to deliberate and plan and philosophize; and the
little men of no particular standing, quiet souls who
harmlessly lived out their ineffectual lives-they are
in every race-came and sat along the fringes to listen
in and to eat.
women by turns honored their men by taking cooked food,
the best they had, to the council tipi. Directly it was
taken from them, they hurried away. But don't assume that
they were chased off. They left because it was considered
unwomanly to push one's way into a gathering of the other
sex; it was unmanly for men to do so under opposite circumstances.
Outsiders seeing women keep to themselves have frequently
expressed a snap judg-ment that they were regarded as
inferior to the noble male. The simple fact is that woman
had her own place and man his; they were not the same
and neither inferior nor superior.
The sharing of work also was according to sex. Both had
to work hard, for their life made severe demands. But
neither expected the other to come and help outside the
customary divi-sion of duties; each sex thought the other
had enough to do. That did not mean, however, that a man
disdained to do woman's work when necessary; or a woman,
man's. The attitude on division of work was quite normal,
however it looked to outsiders. A woman caring for children
and doing all the work around the home thought herself
no worse off than her husband who was compelled to risk
his life continuously, hunting and remaining ever on guard
against enemy attacks on his family.
to get back to the tipi. I said it was home to the family.
But the father-mother-child unit was not final and isolated;
it was only one of several others forming the larger family,
the tiyospaye (tee-yo-shpah-yay). This Dakota word is
essential in describing tribal life. It denotes a group
of families, bound to-gether by blood and marriage ties,
that lived side by side in the camp circle. There was
perfect freedom of movement. Any family for reasons valid
to itself could depart at any time to visit rela-tives
or sojourn for longer or shorter periods in some other
Da-kota camp circle. There was no power to hold them back.
camp circles were peripatetic villages, periodically on
the move over the vast Dakota domain. They were ever in
search of food, going seasonally where deer hunting was
good or where certain fruits of the earth were abundant
and ready for gathering. Occasionally two camp circles
met up by chance and camped to-gether awhile, convivially.
And for annual celebrations several of them came together
by prearrangement, and made one immense circle.
the families of a tiyospaye operated as a single unit
in practically all activities. Men often hunted in company;
women did their work, especially fancywork, in pleasant
circles; the tiyospaye horses were kept in a common herd
off on some grassy spot, tended by the youth under adult
supervision. Every two or three families used the same
outdoor cooking fire; and any woman was happy and ready
to include in her family circle whoever happened by. It
was that informal, harmonious, and natural, since they
were all closely related. Whenever a child was born or
someone died, or if one of the members was undergoing
a special ceremony, the inevitable gift giving was the
kinship obli-gation and privilege of as many as could
cooperate to make it a creditable affair.
while it was true that the tiyospaye operated as one in
cere-monies and feasts, in getting food, or accomplishing
needed tasks for the common good, and while all meat was
freely shared and liberally dispensed, the Dakota people
were not communistic in the sense that everything belonged
to all and nothing belonged exclusively to one. Goods
were not pooled to be shared alike. It was true, instead,
that as long as something was in a person's possession,
it was his sole right to give or withhold it; there was
no individual or agency with authority to compel his surrender-ing
it against his wishes. Kinship alone could do just that,
im-pelling him. It made him ready and happy at all times
to give up anything whenever a situation developed challenging
him to rise to his full stature as a relative.
only in their material life did the related families func-tion
as a unit. The members did so even more in spirit in all
their interacting relationships. A woman who had to leave
her children behind to go on a journey went with an easy
conscience. She knew that her several "sisters"
and the rest would never let a child be abused or allowed
to stray off or go hungry. When she stayed home and other
mothers went, it was the same. It was not even necessary
to exact definite promises, "Will you be sure to
keep an eye on my child?" To say that would be to
doubt the other's sense of kinship responsibility, and
that would be an insult. Of course she would; why ask?
for the child, you can see what it did for him to have
so many persons responsible for him. It gave him multiple
pro-tection. It insured for him the care that is due all
helpless chil-dren, even when their own parents might
not be there. It was a very comfortable and safe feeling
for a growing child. Moreover, it was a great advantage
for him to have many contacts with different persons so
early, and continually have to adjust to them. His circle
was never limited; he was used to society from the start.
There never was that moment in his life when he was suddenly
faced with the bewilderment of having to adjust to many
strangers at once after a life shielded from people. He
was born not into a secluded single family, but into a
I have said this often before, I say it again; every child
must remember to use the proper kinship term for each
person, and feel properly toward him, and behave in the
conventionally correct way, all simultaneously. This preoccupation
with such du-ties deflected a child's attention from himself,
preventing his be-coming unduly self conscious. From the
necessity for constant re-gard toward others, he derived
a certain emotional stability and poise in talking to
adults. Even in a small child it seemed that the spoken
kinship terms made him instantly thoughtful and responsible.
was it any wonder that small children rapidly learned
their social duties, since the training constantly given
them was calculated to condition them and direct them
in that way. All grownups by tacit consent seemed to "gang
up" for this purpose. Even before a child was aware
of his kinship obligations, they made sentences and put
the correct words and formal speeches into his mouth for
him to repeat to this or that relative. It was their informal
but constant system of education in human rela-tions and
are vestiges of this training still going on among the
more remotely situated Dakotas. Not so long ago, I observed
the following incident, which illustrates what I am saying.
woman had been guarding a newborn grandchild asleep in
a blanket on the ground. But now she had to leave. So
she called her own little five-year-old boy from his play
and said to him, "Cinks (Son), stay here until I
come back and take care of him. He is your little son,
so do not leave him alone." She spoke earnestly as
if to an adult, an equal-, avoiding baby talk. "See
that he is not stepped on, he is so tiny-and scare the
flies for him."
I saw him later on he was still on the job. Truly "a
picket frozen on duty." Wistfully his eyes followed
his playmates near by, merry and noisy, but he stuck to
his post. Already he knew that a father does not desert
his son. He was still "scaring flies," by crooking
a small arm and moving it from side to side a trifle above
the infant's face, desultorily enough, to be sure, but
I have been talking so far mostly about the corporate
life of the tiyospaye. Now for a look at the family life
within one of the tipis In its way, life was well organized
there, with a definite place for everybody. The members
of the family had their own spaces where they habitually
sat, ate, slept, and worked. Every-one kept his personal
things in skin containers, which were always ornamented,
sometimes handsomely. These were secured only as far as
tying strings could make them so. There were no locks
and keys, but they were not missed. A good relative did
not open another's things. Even small children were gently
but firmly warned to leave things alone.
were especially zealous in admonishing the children because
they had little else to do. "Do not touch that, Grandchild!
It is theirs. (Impersonal.) See, nobody does so."
This meant "You must not either." There was
something in Da-kota upbringing that made children amazingly
docile and trac-table. The standard words, "See,
nobody does so" were effective most of the time.
If you looked into such a tipi of the past as I am talking
about, you might see only the surface untidiness-the unavoid-able
dirt, discomfort, and inconvenience incident to primitive
life lived on the ground. Those would be the obvious features,
and you might come away thinking that was all. And that
would be a pity, for underneath that surface lay something
very wonderful -the spiritual life of a patient, unselfish,
and courteous people who disciplined themselves without
letup to keep the tribal ideal at all costs.
was this respect for personality that ruled tipi life
and made it tolerable for the several, and sometimes many,
who dwelt there. Outsiders, accustomed to many rooms,
would be justified in ask-ing, "How could anybody
know privacy here? How could a man think his own thoughts,
packed in with so many?" And those would be good
questions for which there are good answers.
Dakotas managed to achieve privacy in their own adroit
fashion. They made their own privacy, and it was mentally
ef-fected. Harmonious tipi life was easily possible by
each person's knowing and playing his role well. He moved
cautiously at all times, with a nice regard for the rights
of others, according to his relationship to each.
the tip] was erected for a long stay, as in winter quarters,
back rests were set up, marking off each person's tiny
compartment. But beyond these material barriers, there
was that sense of decency and honor, inbred as part of
kinship obligation, that kept the eyes on things rather
than on people. Dakotas did not have to stare intently
into the face of a speaker in order to understand him.
They kept the head down or looked into space while they
listened politely, attending with the mind alone. They
do that to this day. And in the tipi they were extra careful.
No one who cared for his standing wanted to be so much
as sus-pected of looking about askance to see what he
could so easily see if he tried.
As for thinking one's thoughts in a crowded tipi, it was
more possible to those accustomed to it than you might
think. All tipi conversation was normally geared low for
that purpose, with little excitement evident in the voice.
The attitude of a speak-er in a group was generally not
indicated so much by exclama-tory outbursts and other
variations of tone as by idiom. Thus anyone could withdraw
from the group in spirit and think undis-turbed, even
with talking going on all about him.
does not mean that there never was a hilarious hour in
a tipi. Occasionally there was, but only when it was planned-when
the company was a select one, composed of the kinds of
relatives who were not under the compulsion of dignified
be-havior toward one another. Groups of fathers and sons,
or broth-ers-in-law who were in joking relationship, or
brothers and male cousins, would be examples. But the
presence of any who were in the "avoidance"
or "respect" relationship had a moderating effect,
for part of their duty was to control themselves, in mutual
must say a word about the children. If the adults sat
around the central fire for a social hour, the children
grouped off to one side to carry on there in a whispered
good time. They could indulge in gay, unvoiced laughter,
so as not to disturb the adults, and be perfectly happy.
They might appear to be restricted and relegated to one
side to be got out of the way; actually they preferred
to be there and to have their fun in their own quiet way.
This controlled manner was definitely their pattern of
be-havior in public. But when they were far off somewhere,
with only their own kind, the children were far from quiet.
They could cut loose then and be as merry and noisy as
any other children.
caller was immediately offered courtesy food. Some- times
it was very little, but it was there-unless of course
there was no more food on hand anywhere. Food had to be
graciously accepted, even if the caller had just eaten
elsewhere. What he could not consume he carried away as
wateca to be eaten later. And it was proper to return
the dish to the hostess with a certain phrase that was
conventional. A person who neglected to return his dish
or who failed to murmur the right words of thanks was
considered ill-bred. That was the universal custom of
hospitality. It was, as I have already said, the great
tribal ideal, so auto-matically practiced that the admonitions
of certain elderly men and women who were given to haranguing
the young seemed hardly necessary:
food! Give food unstintingly! Let nothing be held in reserve
for one alone. When all food is gone, then we shall honorably
starve together. Let us still be Dakotas!"
the minds of the people, the logical reactions to such
undue advice would be: "Of course! Certainly, those
are true words. But why bring them up? If we did not give
food, just what would be left for us to do? What else
could we become if we did not remain Dakotas?" The
two things-being hospitable and being Dakotas-were mystically
one; to try to omit either was to destroy the whole, and
that was unthinkable.
this chapter I have discussed informally many things that
blend and overlap and so cannot be separated under any
rigid scheme of treatment. But certain points may be restated
here for further emphasis:
family unit of parents-and-child was not the final and
complete idea it is elsewhere. It was an integral part
of the larger family, the tiyospave, bound together with
blood and mar-riage ties. The individuals constituting
these larger groups bore definite relationships to each
other and owed one another defi-nite duties. They functioned
as a unit, materially and spiritually, in a never ending
interplay of honorings one to another, young and old.
the Dakota said, "Be a good relative. That is of
para-mount importance!" And then, "Be related,
somehow, to every-one you know; make him important to
you; he also is a man." This was done, you remember,
by the careful establishing of all valid kinship, whether
through blood or affinity. But then, seeing that some
people were still left out, formal relationships with
them were manufactured through a social kinship system-an
ingenious method for including everyone in the great Ring
the Dakota said, "Be generous!" (How unnecessary!
Would anyone withhold that which is good from his very
own?) "Be hospitable!" (Why not? Should a man
eat while his brother starves?)
such unuttered reasoning, the Dakotas fitted every detail
of existence together, as into a neat mosaic, to make
their own peculiar "scheme of life that worked."