For other uses, see Tipi (disambiguation).
An Oglala Lakota tipi, 1891
Sioux tipi, watercolor by Karl Bodmer, ca. 1833

A tipi[1] (also tepee[2] or teepee[3][4]) is a cone-shaped tent, traditionally made of animal skins upon wooden poles. A tipi is distinguished from other conical tents by the smoke flaps at the top of the structure.[5][6][7] Historically, the tipi was designed and largely used by Indigenous people of the Plains in the Great Plains and Canadian Prairies of North America.[8][9][10] Tipi lodges are still in use by these peoples, though now primarily for ceremonial purposes.

Tipis are stereotypically and incorrectly associated with all Native Americans in the United States and Aboriginal people in Canada, despite their usage being unique to the peoples of the Plains. Native American tribes and First Nation band governments from other regions have used other types of dwellings.[1][note 1] The tipi is durable,[11] provides warmth and comfort in winter,[12] is cool in the heat of summer,[note 2] and is dry during heavy rains.[13][14] Tipis can be disassembled and packed away quickly when people need to relocate and can be reconstructed quickly upon settling in a new area.[15][16][note 3] Historically, this portability was important to Plains Indians with their at-times nomadic lifestyle.[17]

Etymology and nomenclature

The word tipi comes into English from the Lakota language.[18] The Lakota word thípi [ˈtʰipi] means "a dwelling" or "they dwell", from the verb thí, meaning "to dwell".[19]

The wigwam, a shelter typically made of bark layered on a pole-structure, was also used by various tribes, especially for hunting camps.[20][21] The term wigwam has often been incorrectly used to refer to a conical skin tipi.[22][note 4]

Types and utility


Crow lodge interior, 1907, showing the poles and outer skin at the top, the inner lining and bedding. The lashing rope is tied off to a wooden stake at the bottom of the photograph. Clothing is suspended on a line tied between two of the tipi poles.

A typical family tipi is a conical, portable structure with two adjustable smoke flaps, multiple poles (historically from 12 to 25 feet long) called lodge poles.[note 5] Lodgepole pine is the preferred wood in the Northern and Central Plains and red cedar in the Southern Plains.[23] Tipis have a detachable cover over the structure. The cover historically used buffalo skins, an optional skin/cloth lining, and a canvas or bison calf skin (historically) door. There may also be an optional, partial interior ceiling, called an ozan in Lakota, that covers sleepers and protects them from rain.[24][25][note 6]

Ropes (historically 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 elements: the opening at the top and the smoke flaps, which allow the dweller to heat themselves and cook with an open fire; and the lining that is primarily used in the winter, which insulates. A lining or as it is called by the Sioux, ozan, is not needed for having a fire. The door opening, smoke flaps, and some air that gets in from under the cover contribute to the fire. Tipis were designed to be easily set up or taken down to allow camps to be moved to follow game migrations, especially the bison. When dismantled the tipi poles were used to construct a dog- or later horse-pulled travois on which additional poles and tipi cover were placed.[1]

Tipi covers are made by sewing together strips of canvas or tanned bison hide (historically) and cutting out a semicircular shape from the resulting surface. 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.[5] 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 lodgepole pine), are cut to measure about six feet more than the radius of the cover.


Tipis painted by George Catlin who visited a number of tribes in the 1830s and recorded Native American daily life

The construction of a tipi starts with tying together three of the poles at the skin's radius from their bases using a tripod lashing. The tipis of the Blackfoot of Southern Canada and Northern Montana are distinguishable from other plains tribes by the tying of four poles. One end of this lashing rope is left dangling from the tie-point, long enough to reach the base of the poles. These tripod poles are stood upright, with their unfastened ends spaced apart on the ground to form a triangle, each pole's base the skin's radius from its neighbors. A dozen more long poles are laid onto the three primary poles. Their upper ends rest on the lashing of the first three, and the lower ends are evenly spaced to form a circle on the ground which includes the original three poles. The lashing rope is then walked around the whole structure three times and pulled tight. This ties the placed poles to the tripod at the crown of the tipi. The canvas skin is tied to another pole, lifted up and the top of the pole is rested where all the poles meet. The skin is pulled around the pole framework. The overlap seam is closed with wooden lacing pins which are thin sticks about 10 inches long with one or both ends tapered. Sometimes a door is attached to one of the bottom lacing pins. In old tipis of hide or early cloth, the door was where the two sides came together in the front. A blanket, hide or cloth door was put over the opening to secure the entrance.

Tipi at a living history rendezvous

The base of the skin is pegged to the ground. Traditionally pegs were placed in slits at the bottom of the cover. As canvas or cloth came into use loops were sewn into the bottom or, in an emergency smooth pebbles were pushed into the cloth and a cord tied between the bulge of cloth and a wooden peg in the ground. A gap can be allowed at ground level for airflow in warm seasons and the base is completely closed to the ground in cooler times. The bases of the non-tripod poles are moved in or out to tension the skin. Inside the tipi, a cord is wrapped from pole to pole above head height. An inner lining can be suspended from this cord and pushed back on the ground near the inside base of the poles. Bedding and personal items are pushed against the liner to keep it in place. The inner lining acts as a heat insulator and draft and pest excluder. An interior awning which prevents rain drops from hitting bedding can be suspended at the top of the lining.


A small fire can be set in the center of the floor for heat and cooking. The smoke exits the top of the tipi which is guarded by two adjustable smoke flaps set at right angles to the wind to prevent a downdraft. A draft rising between the cover and the lining adds to the chimney effect and helps carry the smoke up and out. The liner adds insulation in very cold weather when stuffed with grass and can direct the draft upwards and away from the occupants while still admitting fresh air. Air for combustion can be ducted to the fire through a buried pipe when the tipi is closed tightly against inclement weather.

This structure requires a hole in the middle of the roof, and thus may not be the best shelter in times of intense rain, but there are strategies to reduce the problem. A hide or fabric ceiling can protect against dripping water and reduce drafts. This ceiling, when used, typically only covers the back half of the tipi and is slanted slightly upwards to the front, draining water to the rear and allowing smoke from fire to vent out of the top of the tipi. Small sticks between the lining rope and the poles can create a gap for rainwater running down the poles to reach the ground without being caught by and dripping off the lining rope. Contemporary tipi dwellers may tie a bucket beneath the crown, or install rubber barriers on the poles and a canvas rain catcher which drains from the crown to the outside, to collect rain dripping off the crown of the poles. A fabric or hide rain cap can be placed over the top of the tipi if the poles are not too long but can cause serious damage in high winds. Historically these types of coverings were not used.

In strong winds the lashing rope is pegged to the ground behind the fire. This helps to keep the tipi poles from “walking”, lifting up under the force of the wind on the skin and coming down in a new position. In extreme winds the bases of the poles can be individually lashed to pegs. A tipi which is pegged and has had its lashing rope tied down is a remarkably wind-resistant cone.


Examples of painted tipi covers, from Paul Goble’s book, Tipi: Home of the Nomadic Buffalo Hunters, 2007.

Historically, most tipis in a village would not be painted. Painted tipis often depicted note-worthy historical battles and often featured geometric portrayals of celestial bodies and animal designs. Sometimes tipis have been painted to depict personal experiences, such as war, hunting, a dream or vision. When depicting visions, "ceremonies and prayers were first offered, and then the dreamer recounted his dream to the priests and wise men of the community. Those known to be skilled painters were consulted, and the new design was made to fit anonymously within the traditional framework of the tribe's painted tipis."[26]

Historically the bison skin cover of the family was richly painted and drawn upon, mostly with images of the deeds of the owner or owners and of sacred religious symbols, as evidenced in historical accounts (from the 16th century until the 19th century), Plains warriors' Ledger art paintings from the 19th century, and anthropological studies.

Many tipis, including those of the Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapaho, Kiowa, and other Plains tribes, are decorated with pendants and colored medallions. Traditionally these consisted of quillwork designs; more modern versions are often beaded. Buffalo horns and tails, tufts of buffalo and horse hair, bear claws and buckskin fringe have also been used to decorate tipi covers.

See also

References and notes

  1. 1 2 3 Laubin, Reginald; Laubin, Gladys (2012). The Indian Tipi: Its History, Construction, and Use (2 ed.). University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0806188522.
  2. tepee (dwelling) -- Encyclopedia Britannica
  3. Teepee, en.wiktionary.org (last visited August 25, 2013).
  4. "teepee". www.dict.org.(last visited August 25, 2013).
  5. 1 2 Holley, Linda A. Tipis-Tepees-Teepees: History and Design of the Cloth Tipi.
  6. The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal, Volume 24. Edited by Stephen Denison Peet. p253
  7. History of Dakota Territory, Volume 1. By George Washington Kingsbury. S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1915. p147
  8. The People of Tipi Sapa (the Dakotas): Tipi Sapa Mitaoyate Kin. By Sarah Emilia Olden. Morehouse Publishing Company, 1918. p25
  9. Guide to the museum, first floor. By Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation. 1922. p105
  10. Geological Survey Professional Paper, Volume 670. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969. p21
  11. Annual Reports, Volume 17, Part 1. 1898. p405
  12. "Shelter". Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Volumes 5-6. Published by order of the trustees, 1910. p115
  13. The tipi: a center of native American life. By David Yue, Charlotte Yue. 1984. p15.
  14. Camping and Camp Outfits: A Manual of Instruction for Young and Old Sportsmen. By George O. Shields. Rand, McNally, 1890. p43
  15. The North-Americans of yesterday. By Frederick Samuel Dellenbaugh. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1900. p204
  16. Lewis H. Morgan, "Houses and House Life of the American Aborigines," Contributions to N. A. Ethnology, vol. iv., p. 114.
  17. North American Indians of the Plains. By Clark Wissler. American Museum of Natural History, 1920.
  18. Keoke, Emory Dean; Porterfield, Kay Marie (2009). Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations. Infobase Publishing. p. 264. ISBN 978-1-4381-0990-9.
  19. Ullrich, Jan (2012) [2008]. New Lakota Dictionary. Lakota Language Consortium. p. 525. ISBN 0-9761082-9-1. LCCN 2008922508.
  20. The Mythology of All Races. 1916. p. 76.
  21. The Archeological History of New York, Issues 231-238. By Arthur Caswell Parker. University of the State of New York, 1922. p387
  22. The North-Americans of yesterday. By Frederick Samuel Dellenbaugh. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1900. p200
  23. Wishart, David J.. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007. 89.
  24. The Indian Tipi: Its History, Construction, and Use By Gladys Laubin, Reginald Laubin. p3, p58.
  25. "Ozans" Reese's Tipis. (retrieved 10 Jan 2010)
  26. Goble, Paul (2007). Tepee: Home of the Nomadic Buffalo Hunters. USA: World Wisdom Books. p. 42. ISBN 1-933316-39-X.
  1. Lewis H. Morgan, "I have seen it in use among seven or eight Dakota sub-tribes, among the Iowas, Otoes, and Pawnees, and among the Black-feet, Crows, Assiniboines, and Crees. In 1878, I saw it in use among the Utes of Colorado. A collection of fifty of these tents, which would accommodate five hundred persons, make a picturesque appearance. Under the name of the "Sibley tent" it is now in use, with some modifications of plan, in the United States Army, for service on the plains." [A Sibley tent has one pole in the center and no flaps for guiding the smoke from the central fire.] (Contributions to N. A. Ethnology, vol. iv., p. 115.)
  2. With the sides raised up; As seen in: Anthropological papers. 1917. p211
  3. Lewis H. Morgan notes the Dakota call their skin tents, "wii-ka-yo". The following is an extract of his text:
    "When first discovered the Dakotas lived in houses constructed with a frame of poles and covered with bark, each of which was large enough for several families. They dwelt principally in villages in their original area on the head-waters of the Mississippi, the present State of Minnesota. Forced upon the plains by an advancing white population, but after they had become possessed of horses, they invented a skin tent eminently adapted to their present nomadic condition. It is superior to any other in use among the American aborigines from its roominess, its portable character, and the facility with which it can be erected and struck. "[...]" When the tent is struck, the poles are attached to a horse, half on each side, like thills, secured to the horse's neck at one end, and the other dragging on the ground. The skin-covering and other camp-equipage are packed upon other horses and even upon their dogs, and are thus transported from place to place on the plains. This tent is so well adapted to their mode of life that it has spread far and wide among the Indian tribes of the prairie region." (Contributions to N. A. Ethnology, vol. iv., p. 114.)
  4. Usually wigwams are a domed structure; conical wooden wigwams are known (as seen here in the background), though, and presumably gave rise to the confusing of the different structures. For more, see: Notes on the Eastern Cree and Northern Saulteaux, Volumes 9-10. By Alanson Skinner. The Trustee, 1911. p12+13.
  5. Lewis H. Morgan noted that "The frame consists of thirteen poles from fifteen to eighteen feet in length, which, after being tied together at the small ends, are raised upright with a twist so as to cross the poles above the fastening. They are then drawn apart at the large ends and adjusted upon the ground in the rim of a circle usually ten feet in diameter. A number of untanned and tanned buffalo skins, stitched together in a form adjustable to the frame, are drawn around it and lashed together, as shown in the figure. The lower edges are secured to the ground with tent-pins. At the top there is an extra skin adjusted as a collar, so as to be open on the windward side to facilitate the exit of the smoke. A low opening is left for a doorway, which is covered with an extra skin used as a drop. The fire-pit and arrangements for beds are the same as in the Ojibwa lodge, grass being used in the place of spruce or hemlock twigs." (Contributions to N. A. Ethnology, vol. iv., p. 114.)
  6. A rain fly that is placed outside on the top of the poles is also referred to as an ozan.
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