The tipi is arguably the structure most well adapted for a nomadic lifestyle on the vast grasslands of North America. Historically, many areas have a history of people using conical hide covered tents: the Lapps in Europe, the Americanoid Yukaghir in Siberia, and Indians of the MacKenzie area of Canada. Early tipi sites have been excavated that show the structures were held down with a ring of stones. Bone fragments from bison ribs showing pointing at one end and repeated blows at the other have also been found at these archeological sites. The fact that no posts or post hole are associated with these excavations supports the idea that these were not permanent structures. The earliest records made by Europeans of tipis are from Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s expedition in 1540-1542. Don Juan de Oņate 1599 followed Coronado and recorded that, "the indians are as well sheltered in their tents as they could be in any house."
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The main components of the tipi are the poles, the cover, the liner, rope and anchors. Women made the covers, chose the site, erected the tipi, made the furnishings, and owned the tipi. Reports from an expedition of 1819-1820 indicate that the Kiowa-Apaches purchased poles from indians in Missouri (5 poles being equal to 1 horse). Poles should be from straight and dry trees 2-4 inches in diameter at the base. It is very important that the poles have all small bumps and bark removed. Early covers, which were smaller, were made from a patchwork of buffalo hides. Later covers were made from lighter canvas.
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The three strongest poles are tied together near the top to form a tripod. After the tripod is erected, other poles are laid in the crotches formed by the tripod. The order is very important so as to avoid a messy bunch of poles that prevents a smooth conical top when the cover is placed on. Some groups used 4 poles for the main structure. The cover is tied to the last pole, bunched around it, and pushed up into place. The cover is then pulled around the poles and laced with willow pins down the front. The poles are put into their final arrangement and the cover is staked down. The liner is tied to the poles on the inside or to a rope tied around the poles. The smoke flap poles are the lightest 2 poles and they help to finalize the shape and pull the cover taut.
tipi_section.gif (18648 bytes) All tipis employ smoke flaps to control ventilation. Individual tribes have unique smoke flap shapes. The poles can be adjusted (more open or closed, more into or away from the wind) to control smoke ventilation or provide protection during storms. In summer the hem of the cover can be raised up to increase airflow and still provide shade. The tipi liner helps to improve ventilation and provides an area dry from any drips that run down the poles during prolonged rainy spells. The liner also functions for privacy and security because shadows are cast on the liner, but not on the cover. During cold weather grass can be stuffed between the liner and the cover to provide insulation.
Tipis are always set up so that the doorway always faces east towards the rising sun. The oldest male occupant slept at the rear (west) of the tipi. Individuals household goods defined his or her sleeping/personal space. Generally, men sat on the north side of the tipi and women on the south. A fire pit was located at the approximate center of the floor space and directly below the smoke hole. An altar of cleared earth was created just behind (west of) the fire pit for burning incense or making ceremonial offerings. Firewood, food storage, and cooking equipment were kept near the door. interiorplan.gif (3651 bytes)
Whenever dispersed clans of a tribe came together in a large camp, the position of each tipi was dictated by the clan or religious group it was associated with. The camp circle itself faced east and special tipis housing sacred objects were pitched within the circle itself. At large gatherings, the tipi camp might be up to a mile in diameter with tipis three or four rings deep.
The circle motif is significant to the Plains Indians. If you stand on a high point, the horizon creates a large circle with you at the center. The sky overhead is a large dome. The circle shape appears all around us. The sun, the moon, the sky, and the horizon all can be seen to be circular. The Plains Indians also saw the circular nature of the cycles of the seasons, moon phases, and life cycles. There is a circular arrangement to the shelters, camp organization, and sitting at ceremonies. The components and arrangement of structures and their uses and location within the villages are all manifestations of a belief system that explained the organization of the universe and our place within that organization. The floor of the tipi might be said to represent the earth, the walls the sky, and the poles the paths from this world to the spirit world. The large camps might be seen as the base of a large tipi encompassing all the individual members.
The most famous tipi painters were the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Blackfeet. It was the men who decorated the tipis inside and out with scenes from battles, hunting, or representations of their spirits from vision quests. Specialists would outline the designs with charcoal. Willow sticks were used to maintain straight lines. Paints were originally mineral or vegetable pigments in a base of buffalo hoof glue. Brushes were chewed stick ends, bound buffalo hair, or porous bones. decor5.jpg (26388 bytes)
There are several basic shapes that work to create the conical tipi form. The tipi cover is based on a semicircle of hides or canvas and altering the semicircle has adverse affects on the overall shape. If a shape larger than a semicircle is used the form becomes flatter and usable space is not increased since the angle of the walls prevents it. There is also an increase in the weight of the cover making it difficult to transport. If much less than a semicircle is used the floor area begins to diminish and there is extra weight in an overly tall structure.

The tipi is based on a basic architectural form, the cone, yet it is not a symmetrical cone. A true tipi tilts backward a bit moving the smoke hole over the centrally located fire pit and bracing the back against the prevailing westerly winds. The floor area is basically circular, giving the most area for a given perimeter, but it is modified to be egg-shaped with the broader area at the back circular floor area. These modifications to the basic shapes create an interior space that is lower and more narrow at the entrance and storage area while being more vertical at the walls and rounded in plan at the occupied west end.