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Article: Life in Tipi and Camp Circle

As described by Ella Deloria, Yankton Sioux, in Speaking of Indians, Ella C. Deloria, Friendship Press, 1944, p 26 -33

For 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.

Each 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.

The 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.

The 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.

But 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.

Those 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.

All 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.

But 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.

Not 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?

As 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 tiyospaye.

If 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.

Nor 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 social responsibility.

There 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.

A 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."

When 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 faithfully.
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.

Grandmothers 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.

It 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.

The 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.

Whenever 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.

This 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 deference

I 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.

Every 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:

"Give 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!"

In 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.

In 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:

The 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.

First 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 of Relatives.

Then 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?)

With 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."