The word ‘tipi’ comes from the Lakota language and is made up of two elements: thi, which means ‘to dwell in’ and pi, which means ‘they dwell’.
Tipis were used by most (but not all) Native Americans of the great plains as the tipi is highly durable and mobile, easily broken down and packed away quickly when a tribe needed to move camp in pursuit of more fertile land, warmer climates and bison.
Bison were indispensable to the Native Americans. They provided them with food (meat) tools, clothes, weapons (bison hide shields and strings for the bow) and the skins of many bison were needed to cover the fifteen foot or more tipi poles.
Although there was an abundance of bison (prior to the 19th century bison hunts) there was very little wood on the great plains and the Native Americans would often travel many hundreds of miles in search of straight poles to erect their Tipis. Three or four poles were lashed together to form a tripod and then additional poles were added around it two or more feet apart. The shape of the Sioux tipi is not a perfect cone and is slightly longer at the front than at the back. The poles would always be positioned so that when the cover is in place the entrance faces away from the prevailing winds.
To make the cover, fifteen or more skins (preferably from bison killed in the spring when their skins were thought to be thinnest) were stitched together with buffalo sinews under the watchful eye of an elder. The smoke flaps at the top were sewn on by a woman with a cheerful good nature; never a shrew.
The ‘dew’ cloth or inner liner is a 1940s adaptation. On the great plains the Native Americans would have the tipis in contact with the ground to prevent drafts and would use during the colder months robes, blankets or shawls to prevent the draft
from getting in.
The tipi was often painted with the designs inspired by the dreams and visions experienced by the owners. Painting also served the purpose of warding off bad spirits and brought protection to the dwellers.
The Native American women of the tribe were responsible for the construction and ownership of the tipi. They chose the campsite, erected and took down the tipis and chose how the tipis were furnished and arranged around the heart of the tipi; the fire. Used for warmth and for cooking, fire also held a spiritual significance as it was symbolic of purification and transformation.
Cool in the summer and warmed by the fire in the winter the tipi is a truly magical place with an overwhelming connection to the past. Born from the herds of bison of the great plains the tipi truly is the home of the hunter.
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