Painting by Earl Bodner, circa 1833

Painting by Earl Bodner, circa 1833

Life in a tipi offers a different kind of experience than life in the typical wood structure.  American Sioux built the tipi for daily living. Painted tipis had important kinds of pictographic writing. Based on Native American Architecture by Peter Nabokov and Robert Eastman, paintings on Plains Indian tipis depicted exploits of the head male occupant, or supernatural creatures associated with sacred powers he or his direct ancestors had received during visions.

Tipi Oglala with Lakota girl by front door 1891

Tipi Oglala with Lakota girl by front door 1891

A tipi is a conical tent and is constructed with wood poles, stakes, pins and covers of animal skins, although modern covers are usually made of canvas. To build a tipi, a straight and strong, long lodge pole of pine or red cedar was made into a three-or four pole frame and lifted into place. The tipi is durable, provides warmth and comfort in winter, is cool in summer, and stays dry during heavy rains. The detachable cover over the structure were buffalo skins or cloth lining and a door of canvas or bison calfskin. There may also be a partial interior ceiling that covers sleepers and protects the inhabitant from rain.

Tipi interior

Tipi interior

Rope or raw hide, and wooden pegs are required to bind the poles, close the cover, attach the lining and door, and anchor the resulting structure to the ground. Tipis are distinguished from other tents by two crucial innovations, the opening at the top and the smoke flaps, which allow the inhabitant to cook and heat themselves with an open fire. The flaps are lined for use in the winter, and can be opened for ventilation and to create a down draft for the fire.

Tipi covers are made by sewing together strips of canvas or tanned bison hide (historically) and has a semicircular shape. Trimming this shape yields a door and the smoke flaps that allow the dwellers to control the chimney effect to expel smoke from their fires. Old style traditional linings were hides, blankets, and rectangular pieces of cloth hanging about four to five feet above the ground tied to the poles or a rope. Today’s modern lining is the most difficult element to measure, since it consists of trapezoid-shaped strips of canvas assembled to form the shape of a truncated cone. The poles, made of peeled, polished and dried tapering saplings (historically pine) cut to measure about six feet more than the radius of the cover.

If you have an interest to build a tipi for camping, or you are just plain curious . . . Read more here:

What do you think? Are you surprised that it takes some ingenuity to build a tipi to inhabit?

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