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The Tipi
Nature Bulletin No. 555-A   February 22, 1975
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

In earlier years at the Little Red Schoolhouse nature center we erected a "waginogan" of the type used by the Ojibway, Potawatomi and other Indians who lived in the forests around the Great Lakes. It was oblong, with a dome-shaped roof, and its framework of light poles was covered with slabs of elm bark. This proved a surprise to many people who had had the impression that all Indians lived in teepees or wigwams -- portable cone-shaped "tents" covered with skins.

Tipi is a Sioux word, meaning "to dwell in," for the lodge used by that nation (the Dakota) and most Indians of the Great Plains because they subsisted almost entirely on the vast herds of buffalo which they followed from place to place. The Ojibway, who feared the warlike Sioux, called it "bwahn wig' wahm" (enemy dwelling).

Before Coronado explored the Southwest there were no horses in this country and the plains Indians had permanent homes built with earth and sod. For a temporary lodge while hunting they used a small light tipi which, when bundled up, could be dragged as a travois by a dog -- their only domestic animal. When horses became available, most of them -- excepting the Pawnee, Mandan and Hidatsa tribes -- abandoned the earthen lodges and roamed the prairies with much larger tipis as their year-round homes. Some of those were 20 feet tall.

The erection of a tipi began with a tripod of 3 poles or, in some tribes, a quadripod of 4 poles lashed together at the top. Then other poles were added so that all were equally spaced and two or more feet apart at the bottom. The entrance faced east so that the lodge would get only the morning sun. There being little or no timber on the plains, the Indians would go hundreds of miles to get good straight poles, especially young lodgepole pines, and those were transported from one camp to the next.

The cover was made from the hides of young cow bison -- preferably those killed in spring when their skins were believed to be thinnest. Seventeen or more hides -- only 7 in the old "dog days" -- were cut to a pattern and sewn together with sinews by the women, supervised by a wise old squaw. The smoke naps at the top, manipulated by poles to control the draft of the fire, were sewn on by a woman noted for her cheerful good nature -- never a shrew. With a cover previously prepared, an experienced group of squaws could erect a tipi in a matter of minutes.

There was an inner liner or "dew" cloth, decorated with designs and pictographs, that provided an insulating air space and caught what rain fell through the smoke hole. The outside cover, usually replaced each spring, was frequently decorated from top to bottom. As it dried it became translucent so that, in fair weather, the inside was illuminated; and early white travelers who came upon a village at night were impressed by the many luminous cones in the darkness of prairie river valleys.

The old Sioux tipi were cut so that they had a longer slope in front than in back. Those of the Crow Indians were high narrow cones. Others had a squat appearance. The cut of the smoke flaps, the length of poles extending above the apex, and the style of designs painted on the cover, varied from tribe to tribe.

The tipi, or teepee, is an ideal portable home, cool in summer and warm in winter. On a hot day the bottom of the cover can be raised to let a breeze blow through the shaded interior. In winter the heat from a small central fire is reflected from the slanting sides and keeps it warm. Truly, it is a Home of the Hunters.

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