UOT The Tipi


"Lewis and Clark's descriptions of the tipi provided some of the earlier "word pictures" of this type of dwelling. The tipi was one of the most perfect architectural solutions to the problems posed by harsh environment, ready mobility, and comfort ever devised. Historically, a plains Indian woman could set up a tipi in 15 minutes time.

The women made the tipis, owned them, and were responsible for moving them from place to place. The tipi was erected so that the back was higher than the front, with the doorway oriented toward the East; the back braced the tipi against the westerly winds and helped the fire to draw. The tipi also faced east so that it might greet the rising sun.

Within the tipi, items were arranged according to the simple division, men on the right and women on the left. The guest of honor would have the space at the back midpoint of the tipi.

Most original tipis were small compared to modern recreations with canvas sides. A typical tipi of brain-tanned buffalo hide such as the Lakota lived in when visited by Lewis and Clark stood about 14 feet tall. The hides weighed about 95 pounds, or 6.5 pounds per hide. A tipi would last about 10 years, and wore out through ultraviolet damage to the hides, usually not through weather, hard use or other conditions. With the demise of the buffalo in the 1870s, substitutes of steer hides were used in tipi construction during the 1880s - 1900s. In the 20th century canvas tipi covers have become the most prevalent from of cover.

The inside temperature could be maintained at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the dead of winter. By hanging all the way to the ground, an inside liner of nine hides stopped drafts from coming under the exterior cover and getting into the living area. It also assisted in the draft of smoke out the smoke hole.

Tipis were made from buffalo hides from the upper back of the animal. Hides were dehaired with a scraper made of elk antler in long, vertical strokes repeatedly over an area until all the hair was removed. Two scrapings were needed, the first to remove the hair and the second to remove the stubble.

The hides were tanned with the brain of the animal, one brain to one hide. The brain, which weighs about 3 pounds, could be cooked in water for about 15 minutes, or until it turned white. Uncooked brain could also be used, but it would not last as long if stored. While still warm the brain matter was applied to both sides of the hide much like rubbing soap onto something being washed, until it was used up. All sections of the hide were covered by the brain paste. Then the broth in which the brain was cooked was applied with a large brush to the thin paste surface, causing better absorption.

The hide was then pulled and moved by see-sawing it over a stretched rope or by stepping on it. It was worked in this fashion for one hour, then put into a bag for an hour, then worked again. This cycle lasted for a 24 hour period. Once the hides were stretched on the lodge poles, they would be smoked by the fire. Smoking filled the pores of the hide with pitch and formaldehyde; this preserved the hides for a longer period of time, and completed the tanning process. If a smoked hide gets wet, it will dry soft, whereas without smoking the hide would dry stiff and rubbing would be required to soften it again.

A group of women, supervised by a matriarch of the tribe, gathered together to make a tipi, in much the same fashion as a "quilting bee" in Anglo societies. The hides were sewn together with sinew. Wood for the tipi was lodge pole pine for the western Sioux tribes. These pines grew straight and tall, stayed small in diameter despite their age (a 75 year old tree can still be 3" to 4" in diameter), which only increased toughness."

A good website done for kids with some good comments about the inside and outside of these portable shelters:

Pictures of the tipi:

Website depicting how to raise a tipi:


Graphics and photo Thanks to

Jim Burnham of the Cotopaxi, Colorado KOA Campground