Teepees: the iconic dwellings of nomadic Native American tribes

Native American society is known for many things: its culture, art, and handicrafts chief among them. But perhaps the most iconic symbol of these societies is the teepee (tepee, tipi). This conical tent has been used as a shelter for over two millennia.

Contrary to popular belief, not all Native American societies lived in teepees. They were used only by the Native Americans of the Great Plains, such as the Lipan Apache, the Comanche, and the Kiowa who had a nomadic lifestyle, following migrating herds of buffalo that ranged from Canada to Texas.

A teepee village ca. 1893

Designed to suit the nomadic lifestyle of the Plains Indians, these easily adaptable, portable, and durable dwellings enabled a more intensive and specialized use of the broad expanse of land, covered mostly in unforested and rolling grassland. The buffalo hunters of the Eastern Plains used them seasonally, whereas those living in the Western Plains used them all year round.

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Set on a piece of flat land, a teepee required ten to twenty long wooden poles, trimmed of all knots and branches, and thinned at the base. Some tribes used a three-pole frame, others a four-pole frame; the remaining poles were placed on these main supports. Tied together at the peak with a flexible branch or a piece of cotton, the poles formed a conical framework, which was then draped with a sewn cover of 8 to 12 buffalo hides.

On hot summer days, these hides were rolled up to let cool air inside. In winter or colder months, another piece of buffalo hide was used underneath the covering for additional warmth. The base of the cover was secured with stones or rocks which were left in their circular alignment when the teepee was removed. Known today as teepee rings, they are the main archeological evidence of the early use of teepees.

Inside of a teepee

A separate covering was always positioned over the eastern side of the teepee to serve as the front door. When visitors were welcome, the teepee’s door would be left open. If it were closed, a person would have to ask for permission to enter, even if they lived there.

Beds were simply buffalo skins layered on top of piles of grass and hay. The head of the family was situated farthest from the doorway. Sometimes, pockets were sewn on the inside of the teepee to store clothing and other possessions. A large hole cut on the top of the teepee let the smoke escape when occupants cooked or used fire to keep warm in winter.

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Men were not only hunters but also woodworkers. They preferred lodgepole pine for poles because it grows tall and straight and needs less trimming. Where unavailable, lodgepole was replaced with much heavier poles of other conifers, such as yellow pine or cedar. Women, on the other hand, were responsible for cutting and sewing the buffalo robes and also erected and dismantled the teepees.

Teepees are not perfectly circular. Set slightly closer to the center, the poles on the back create a steeper surface and a slightly tilted cone, which improves the dwelling’s stability in strong winds. The size of teepees was limited by the available pole size.

Typically, the teepee was 7-8 meters high and 4-6 meters in diameter at the base. Some teepees were relatively small and comfortable for only four to five people, however the chief’s teepee was much larger since it hosted tribal meetings. Teepees used in the 19th century were large enough to house several nuclear families and were often adorned on the outside.

Decorated Otter teepee. Photo credits

Historically, most teepees were plain, with no decorations. Ones that were embellished were painted or embroidered using porcupine quills and usually depicted significant battles, sacred animals, or celestial-like geometric shapes. Often, before the teepee was erected, skilled painters were consulted to paint one’s personal experience such as war, hunting, dream, or vision. Various materials, such as buffalo horns, tails, and bear claws also decorated the exterior of the teepee.

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Although easily assembled and disassembled within an hour, teepees were quite heavy. The poles for an average teepee weigh around 180 kg and the buffalo hides add another 45-70 kg. It was important for the Plains tribes to carry their long poles with them whenever they moved instead of trying to find new ones every time they settled at a new temporary site.

They invented a simple kind of cart called a travois, made of wooden poles and buffalo hide, which was piled up with a family’s belongings. Travois were pulled by dogs up until the aquisition of horses from Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500’s enabled the Plains Indians not only to build larger teepees but also to move faster and more easily.

Teepee camping today

These days, it seems that the era of living in teepees is over. Confined to reservations, Native Americans no longer need to migrate for hunting. However, teepees do remain important symbols of ethnic and tribal identity.

Recognized for their functional and aesthetic qualities, today they are popular as full-time residences and backyard playhouses, as well as weekend wilderness getaways. Nevertheless, they symbolize lifestyles that persisted for centuries and remind us of this ancient and fascinating culture.