Who used tipis?

The Plains Indians were nomadic hunters of buffalo. This meant that they had to follow the buffalos herd when the animals moved from place to place, looking for fresh grass to eat. This required that they be able to unpack and move to another location guickly. They needed a shelter that was portable, durable and water resistant. The tipi was perfect for that.

How was a tipi built?

Made of brain tanned buffalo skin, the tipi was water resistant and easily disassembled. The tipi's structure consisted of lodge pole pines placed and secured in a cone. Then 14 to 20 buffalo hides were sewn together in a circle with sinew, and stretched across the poles with a smoke hole at the top. A flap was designed to enter and exit the dwelling.


What was inside a tipi?

The firepit inside the center of the tipi served to provide warmth. Beds were placed against the tipi walls and buffalo furs served as rugs. The tipi was lined in the winter for warmth and privacy. The structure lasted an average of 10 years. When the tipi was replaced, the old one was made into clothing or patching material for other tipis.

How were the tipis moved?

The outstanding characteristic of the tipi was its portability. It took women only minutes to disassemble the tipi and transport it by horse. Tipi hides, poles, and household articles were placed on a device known as a travois and dragged behind a horse. Before they had horses, they used to make smaller tipis, because the tipis had to be carried by or dragged behind a dog.

When was the best time to get hides for a tipi?

June was the best time to procure hides for the tipi cover. The summer buffalo cow hide was the best because it was fairly large, did not have any heavy fat layers, and its hair could be removed quite easily. Approximately thirteen hides were used in the average size tipi cover. Nearly one fourth of one mile of stitching was required to fasten the hides together.

Who made the tipis?

Only certain women performed particular duties in making a tipi cover, and only a few did the cutting and matching of the skins. This knowledge was passed on within the family, or was conditionally sold to someone else. In some tribes, this was a right possessed by only one woman in the village.

How were the hides prepared?

Preparing hides was heavy manual labor. First, the hides were fleshed by carefully scraping the inside layers away. Next, they were dehaired either by scraping with an elkhorn scraper or by causing the hair to slip. This slipping was accomplished by soaking the hide in water or burying it in damp soil for several days. This procedure loosened the hair making it easy to remove. Next, the skin was washed thoroughly, and a mash made of brains (and sometimes the liver) of the animal was completely worked through the hide over a period of several days. While the hide was drying, it was carefully worked to retain the softness of the tanning process. This softening of the hide continued until it was completely dry. The hide was now ready for assembly into the tipi cover.

Click here to see a bigger version of a beautifully decorated tipi cover:

How long did a tipi last?

A skin tipi might last two to three years, depending upon the amount of traveling done, and the weather during its use. New covers were very light in color. As time went on, the top portions became darkened with smoke from the fires inside, even though the fires were kept small. After replacing the cover, the old one was cut up for moccasin soles and other useful items. Leather of this kind was nearly indestructible and permanently waterproofed because it had been so thoroughly smoked.