The Fascinating History of Teepees

December 7, 2022 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The tipi, also spelled teepee, is a conical, portable structure that is a skin or canvas dwelling. It has two adjustable smoke flaps. 

The teepee is most commonly associated with the North American Plains Indians, the nomadic tribes of the Great Plains of America. It is spelled tipi but pronounced TEE-PEE. Hence, this is the reason for the different spelling. The English word tipi, or teepee, is derived from the Lakota word “thipi.” This word directly translates to "used to live in."

So what exactly is the history of teepees, and what are some interesting facts about teepees? 

The history of tipis

Most archeological history that we have to date indicates that the tipi has been used since the Middle Archaic period. That’s roughly between 50 and 2,500 years ago. 

Over time, the use of tipis increased, allowing many tribes to live in the open Plains. Many different tribes that hunted, lived in, or traveled through the Great Plains from Texas to southern Canada made use of these specialized structures. These dwellings were ideal for the seminomadic Plains Indians as they could easily be dismantled and transported with these nomads. And, it was only the Plains Indians that used these structures as year-round dwellings. 

The tipi was traditionally used by tribes who lived in the Plains. 

The design of the tipi

The frame of the tipi consists of 13 poles. These poles are of different lengths, ranging from 12 to 25 feet. The poles are connected at the top. When the structure is lifted upright, the top is twisted to allow the poles to cross above the fastening. 

The lower ends of the poles are arranged in a 10-foot-diameter circular position. 

Dressed buffalo skins are sewn together and stretched over the poles. There are instances where canvases, reed mats, or bark sheets were used as a cover for the tipi. In most tribes, the construction of the tipi was the duty of the women in the tribe.

Traditional tipis had an adjustable flap at the tipi’s top that was left open to allow smoke to escape. An additional flap was designed at the lower end of the tipi that acted as an entryway into the tipi. 

Traditionally, the tipis in a village were not painted. The painted tipis featured celestial bodies and animals on them and were an indication of noteworthy battles that had been fought. In some cases, a tipi was painted to indicate something personal experienced by the inhabitants, such as a dream or vision, a war, or a hunting experience. 

In later periods, these paintings highlighted different periods and events in a tribe’s history. Many of these paintings depicted battles with Americans. 

Modern-day tipis

The use of the tipi has come a long way. Today, the tipi is still used by many indigenous tribes and nomads west of the Rocky Mountains. 

They are primarily used for ceremonial purposes and large gatherings by Native American tribes as their dwelling during the duration of these events. 

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