1860s List

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Tepee

Ute Indian Tepee

Tepee (teepee), or tipi, is a kind of Native American house. The word means "used to dwell in or to live in." It comes from two Dakota words, one means, "to dwell," and the other, "used for." Many of the Plains Indians used tipis. Since they hunted the buffalo, they needed a house that could be packed and moved easily. When the herds moved, the Plains Indians had to break camp and move to follow them.

The tipi is a dwelling that requires fairly simple supplies. With few building materials on the plains, the Native Americans had to be resourceful. They turned to the buffalo to be the walls of their tipi homes. They tied the buffalo hides onto a frame of wood poles creating the cone-shaped tipi structure.

The first step was to find good wood for the poles. The poles had to be long and straight. Willow, lodge-pole pine and cedar trees made great tipi poles. The men did the work of finding the good wood poles. They needed about fifteen straight trees. After cutting down the wood, they would cut off the branches and bark so the surface of the poles was very smooth. They were careful to get rid of any roughness; otherwise the wood might poke a hole in the tipi covering.

The buffalo was an important part of the tipi as well as for many other necessities around camp. The hides became the tipi covers and the meat and animal parts were used for clothes, moccasins, rugs, needles, thread, rope, paint, glue as well as food. The Native Americans were very resourceful and used every single part of the buffalo. They didn't waste a thing!

The women's job was to make the covers for the tipis. It took as many as fourteen buffalo hides to make the cover for a good-sized tipi for one family. A group of women who were friends or relatives prepared the tough hides. The women scraped and cleaned the insides of the hides, then scraped all the buffalo hair off the outside. If there was water nearby, the women soaked the hides to soften them. They also rubbed the hides with a softener made from buffalo liver and brains. The women sewed the hides together. At the center of the long flat edge, they sewed two smaller pieces of hide to the cover. These were the smoke flaps. The smoke flaps were important because the Indians would build fires inside their tipis. After the hides were sewn together, the women lifted the new cover over the tipi poles then lit a fire inside to cure the cover with smoke. Smoking the hides kept the cover from cracking from the weather and helped keep out the rain. Sagebrush would sometimes be burned inside the tipi to give the hides a sweet smell.

The Plains Indians sometimes decorated their tipi homes. The men were responsible for this task. They would paint on signs and symbols. However, the tipi had to be painted while it was still lying on the ground.

Today, tipis are not used as homes, but they are still important. Because buffalo hides cannot be used anymore, many Native Americans use canvas. They put them up and live in them when they come to Indian events such as Pow-Wows. These events include dancing, drumming and good food!

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Written by: Joan E. Grant and Carole Hiegert