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History of Traditional Tipis

History of Traditional Tipis

Tipis were used all over the central Plains area of what is now the US and Canada, by large numbers of indigenous tribes. Variations of the Tipi design with different materials, were used over the whole pre-colonial North American continent as well as in northern Europe and Asia.

History of the Tipi

The Native Americans of the Plains were nomadic hunters, this required an ability to change their locations quickly and have a shelter that was portable, durable and water resistant. Most often constructed of tanned buffalo skin, the Tipi was easily disassembled and erected. Its circle embodied the circle of life, the sun and the fire, the moon, the earth and the four directions. For the Native Americans, there was no separation between spirit and daily life. All existed in harmony. All was sacred. The beauty of this simplicity is very apparent in the design of the Tipi, a design at one with spirit and the natural harmony of life.

Respecting the Old Ways

The Tipi existed in a cultural context that allowed human civilisation to be at one with the natural world and the subtle energetics at work within it. It represents the old ways. Ways which were shared in essence by ancient indigenous cultures all over the world. Ways in which our often misguided Western dominator culture savagely trampled on for countless centuries. The Tipi represents a way of life on earth that our civilisation and indeed the planet itself desperately and urgently needs to learn from.

Across the Americas, it is now widely recognised that the destruction of the Native population from at least 76 million down to just 250,000 across two continents and over four centuries, was the largest genocide in world history.

Alongside our relatively recent acknowledgement of the cultural genocide that took place by colonial powers worldwide, it is increasingly being realised by a conscious movement across the world in the fields of ecology, science, history, psychology and spirituality. To enter into a Tipi is to enter an acknowledgement of the past and of the place we stand on the earth, looking to the future generations. In respect and deep appreciation of the spirit of truth, beauty and harmony at the heart of the culture of the Native American First Nation peoples.

Construction of the Tipi

A typical Tipi had two adjustable smoke flaps, and a hide cover over a frame of multiple poles. The cover was historically made from buffalo skins, with an optional skin or cloth lining, and a bison calf skin door. There would also be an optional, partial interior ceiling, called an ozan in Lakota, that covered the sleeping area from rain.

Ropes were once made of raw hide, and wooden pegs and laths were required to bind the poles, close the cover, attach the lining and door, and anchor the tipi. Tipis are distinguished from other tents by the opening at the top and the smoke flaps, which allow the fire to function amazingly effectively enabling cooking and heating with the open fire.

The tanned buffalo hides that made up the Tipi cover were sewn together with sinew, and the semi circular shape was trimmed to create the door and smoke flaps. The Tipis were sometimes painted to show the spirit and vision of the people living there. The structure lasted an average of 10 years. When the Tipi was replaced, the old one was often made into clothing or patching material for other tipis.

Old style traditional linings were hides, blankets, and rectangular pieces of cloth hanging above the ground tied to the poles or a rope. Today's modern lining consists of trapezoid-shaped strips of canvas assembled to form the a cut off conical shape matching the interior angle of the Tipi. The poles, made of peeled, and dried saplings, traditionally of Lodge Pole Pine are cut to measure about six feet more than the radius of the cover.

The outstanding characteristic of the Tipi was its incredible portability. It took women only minutes to disassemble the Tipi and transport it by horse. Using the structure of the poles, the Tipi cover and household equipment were transported on a ‘travois’ behind dog teams and then later by horses.

The End of an Era

With the enforced seizure of native lands and the genocide of the native peoples of North America carried out by the United States military and our colonising ancestors during the the 19th Century, the Plains Indians lifestyle changed dramatically. Countless decades of betrayals, broken treaties, massacres of men, women and children, the intentional spreading of disease decimated the tribes of the plains, who were forced to fight where they could for their survival. The government sanctioned slaughter of buffalo helped to to forcefully impose the miserable reservation system on the last brave survivors of the native tribes. The government issued canvas Tipi covers to replace the buffalo skin, an animal Native Americans could no longer hunt.

A much maligned series of Indian Acts in the US and Canada legally enshrined the seizure of lands, cultural and actual physical genocide and later the outlawing of Native American cultural rituals, dances and songs such as the sweatlodge and the sundance until as late as the mid 20th century. The enforced sterilization, subtle genocide and savage economic and cultural decimation of the Native American peoples and their way of life may have reached a peak in the late 19th century but has continued right up until the late 20th Century, as in the reform school system. Unfortunately it is still going on today.