Tipi Ideal for People on the Move

The tipi, unlike the earthlodge, is a portable dwelling that is used by people who want to be on the move. Although the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara use it when they are on a buffalo hunt, the Lakota and Plains Chippewa live in the tipi as their primary housing.
The tipi, a Lakota word, is a cone-shaped tent that is covered with buffalo skins. The size and number of poles varies a good deal. Some tipis reach as high as 30 or 40 feet and need as many as 22 skins to cover the frame. Most tipis that the Lakota and Chippewa raise are about 14 feet high at the center and use seven or eight buffalo skins to cover the 15-pole framework. They have a ground diameter of about 14 feet.

Assiniboin Camp (plate 197) by Karl Bodmer.  Courtesy of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation.

The entry has a flap cover that can be closed in bad weather. The doorway usually faces east, away from the prevailing west winds that blow across the plains. Inside, the tipi is a compact living unit. Sacred items are kept at the rear of the tipi; an altar occupies the center. The fireplace is near the center so smoke can rise through an opening at the tipi’s top. Because the tipi is moved from place to place, the Lakota and Chippewa use unbreakable rawhide containers and wooden or bone utensils in its construction.

Buffalo-skin bed areas are on the outer edge—men on the right and women on the left. Just inside the entry firewood, weapons, and riding gear are stored.

Women put up, care for and own the tipi. They also decorate the exteriors. When the decision is made to move a camp, the women take down the tipi and load it on a travois, a trailer-like device that horses drag behind them.

Because the Chippewa and especially the Lakota are buffalo hunters, they must find a camp near where the buffalo herds roam. The portable tipi allows these people to move from place to place.




By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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