Tipi, Tepee or Teepee

North America

The North American Tipi (tepee, teepee)

The tipi as we know it today, with canvas cover, wind flaps, and offset centre, is a post-colonial structure. Early reports from the first Europeans to enter North America describe smaller structures with covers of buffalo skin, bark or mat. I would seem likely that these early structures had more in common with the choom of northern Siberia than the great lodges painted by the likes of Edward Curtis, and it is possible that they crossed the Bering Straits land bridge along with these first human migrants. Indeed, if the theory of colonisation of North America via the Bering Bridge is accepted, then it would seem that this structure was vital to the process, for it is a long way to walk without any warm shelter for the night!

Vajda describes this journey here. He points out that having made this difficult passage... "these Paleo-Indian big game hunters quickly spread southward into a land teeming with game as a warming climate opened gaps in the ice sheets covering northern Canada. " It is into this environment that we mist imagine the tipi first evolving.

With the loss of the ice, the movement of a tipi becomes much more difficult. Even today, in the Arctic regions, special lightweight sledges must be employed to carry the heavy poles and covers. For a Paleo-Indian, dragging a large structure around manually must have been quite a challenge. It may thus be that they actually shrunk considerably in size until the introduction of the horse in the early fifteenth century (Fazio 1995). (To see a skin tent moving in the arctic see here).

Early depictions of tipis show sizeable structures, such as these Comanche tipis painted by George Catlin. Note that the doors are not all pointing in the same direction, and that by 1884 the covers already appear to be of canvas, so the skins that are drying were presumably for mats or bedding.

This earlier depiction by Karl Bodmer in 1834 of a Sioux tipi clearly shows that the structures are covered in hide and the small tipi to the left is heavily offset, while the others appear more or less symmetrical. Interestingly, although tipis are mostly set with their backs to the wind, the smoke appears to be blowing to the right. One problem with all such paintings is that it is hard to judge where "artistic licence" has been used.

We have included here only historic images, mostly from the collection of Edward Curtis. Maybe one day someone will invite us to America to see what is left of this tradition, and its resurgence. In the meantime, here is an image from Glastonbury Festival Tipi Field where we held an exhibition in 2016. Lots of tipis, and lots of mud too!

American Plains


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