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Sioux Tipi - Shelter - Historical Cultural Studies

Guinness Cultural Studies Series - Concept: Shelter - Sioux Tipi

Address: PO Box 1088
Tiburon/Belvedere, CA 94920
Phone: 415-435-1280
Fax: 415-435-5291

by Judith M. Wilson

(For Worksheets to Accompany Sioux Tipi TelliPage - click on

Click on one of the following links for additional Guinness Cultural Studies Programs
www.telli.com/page/NootkaFood (fishing & gathering)



Long ago, the only dwelling that broke the endless horizon of the Great Plains was the tipi.   Comfortable, roomy, well-ventilated, and easy to move, it was ideal for the roving life of the Plains dwellers as they followed the buffalo herds up and down the vast grasslands.  

The Sioux tipi, with its beauty of line and practical design, is a shining example of the structure that was home to the buffalo hunters of the Great Plains.

The Sioux lived in a large area of the Great Plains stretching from what is now central South Dakota and Nebraska through Wyoming and Montana and into the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
In the summer, they camped on the open plains, choosing campsites with lots of firewood, water, and grass nearby.
In winter, when the weather was cold and harsh, the Sioux camped in sheltered places and pitched their tipis where it was convenient, rather than in a particular pattern as they did in the summer.
Some of their favorite campsites were among the tall trees of the Black Hills. Here a camp might extend for miles along a sheltered stream. During long winters in the Black Hills, the tipi proved to be just as ideal for a warm, permanent shelter as it was for a portable summer shelter.


Although the Sioux spent eight months or more of the year on the flat, dry plains where few trees grew, the structure of their tipi required the resources of a different environment — the forest.
They made tipi poles from the finest straight young trees they could find in the Black Hills. They usually gathered these poles in the early spring as they prepared to leave their winter home in the Black Hills and return to the prairies.
The Sioux peeled the bark from the new poles, then dried and seasoned them in the sun so they would stay straight and strong. Depending on the size of the tipi, they needed anywhere from eight to 20 poles.
The three heaviest poles were used to make a tripod, which was the basis of the distinctive three-pole design of the Sioux tipi. The tripod design provided a much stronger and rigid foundation than did the four-pole design of many other Plains societies.
The other lighter poles were placed in the forks of the tripod, creating a frame over which the cover could be tautly stretched. A rope was wrapped around the poles where they met at the top, and the end of this rope was usually tied to an anchor peg in the ground directly below.
The cover of the tipi was made of buffalo hides. An average cover, to make a tipi 14 to 16 feet in diameter, required 14 to 16 hides. Making the cover was an intricate process involving careful planning and measuring. The Sioux then neatly sewed together the hides with sinew thread to make one large cover, which included smoke flaps and a door hole and would fit snugly around the framework of the poles.
They placed the cover around the frame by means of a lifting pole.
First they spread the cover, which resembled a large half circle, on the ground. Then they attached the lifting pole to the middle of the cover.
They folded in the sides of the cover to meet the pole.
Then they hoisted up the lifting pole with the cover attached and placed it in position at the back of the tipi frame.

Next they unfolded the cover from the lifting pole and wrapped it around the frame until the two sides met at the front.   Here they pinned the two sides together where they met with lacing pins.   When they were using a newly-made cover, they built a smoky fire inside and closed the tipi tightly. Smoking the cover this way waterproofed it and made the hides retain their softness despite their exposure to all kinds of weather.   This waterproof buffalo hide cover, stretched tautly and neatly over a strong framework of poles, offered no pockets or folds to catch water, wind, or rain. The sleek, conical shape of the tipi shed wind and water alike, providing a strong, dependable shelter.

The cover was pegged to the ground all the way around the bottom.
A streamer at the peak of the smoke flaps showed which way the wind was blowing.
The true tipi is distinguished from similar conical shelters by the fact that it is not a symmetrical cone. If the tipi were a symmetrical cone, the smoke hole would center around the crossing of the poles at the apex. A smoke hole so placed, in order to effectively allow smoke from the central fire to escape, would have had to be so large that it could not be closed properly in rainy weather.
The Sioux and other Native Americans living on the Great Plains solved this problem by "tilting" the cone. The true tipi is always steeper at the back with the smoke hole at the top extending down the long sloping front of the cone.
The crossing of the poles is therefore at the top end of the smoke hole instead of in the middle, so it is possible to close the hole entirely by means of two flaps.
These smoke flaps are supported by moveable outside poles. Together the poles and the smoke flaps are effective in regulating the draft, ventilating the tipi, and carrying off smoke.
Because of the conical shape of the tipi, the small amount of air space at the top meant that less heat was required to warm the lower living space. A tiny fire was enough to keep the average tipi warm and cozy even in very cold weather.


If poles and a cover were all that constituted a tipi, it scarcely would have been fit to live in. No matter how tightly the cover was pegged down, the wind would have blown in at the bottom. During a heavy rain the water would have run down the poles and dripped inside. The tipi would have been drafty, wet, cold in winter, and hot in summer.
With one ingenious addition — the interior lining — the Sioux solved all these problems.
The inside lining, also made from buffalo hides, was not tied directly to the poles. Instead, the Sioux first strung a rope around all poles, taking a turn around each pole, over and under, in such a way that the rope was next to the inside of the tipi instead of next to the cover.
They then hung the lining on this rope, tying it between each pair of poles instead of to the poles, so that water was free to run down the poles behind the lining without hitting it.



They tied the bottom of the lining to the butts of the poles as close to the ground as possible, leaving the lower edge of the lining turned under toward the cover, sealing the interior completely from drafts.  

During rainy weather the smoke flaps were tightly closed and most of the rain rolled off the conical shape of the tipi. Any rain hitting the top of the smooth poles simply rolled down behind the lining to the bottom where it ran under the cover to the outside.



The Sioux people were careful to make their tipi poles very smooth by sanding them carefully with sandstone rocks.   Smooth poles ensured that any rain that came into the tipi would run straight down the poles to the bottom. If there were any bumps on the poles, the rain might hit them and drip into the tipi. Smooth poles prevented this from happening.    

As the water ran to the bottom of the poles, the interior lining helped keep it from going inside the tipi. When the water reached the bottom of the poles, it drained into a gutter around the tipi. The gutter channeled the water to a runoff trench at lower ground.

The lining was very helpful in clearing the tipi of smoke. Despite the absence of a real chimney, the interior lining created a chimney effect. The warm air rising inside the tipi created an air current and drew cold air from the outside. This cold air came in under the cover and went up behind the lining, creating a perfect draft for the fire and guiding the smoke out the smoke holes.
When the weather was extremely hot, the Sioux moved the cooking fire outside,  raised both the cover and lining three to four feet and propped them up on forked sticks.
Here the chimney effect again came into play as air flowed continually through the tipi — in at the bottom and out the smoke hole at the top.
The interior lining worked in conjunction with the poles, cover, and smoke flaps to create extremely effective ventilation, insulation, and drainage systems.
In extremely cold weather, the Sioux added yet another layer of insulation, building a structure of wood and poles around the outside of the tipi. Together with the inside lining, this outside wall prevented most of the heat from escaping.
In extremely hot weather, when strong winds made it impractical to raise the cover and lining, the Sioux employed an outside wall of wood and poles, made from whatever trees were available. The purpose was to block the wind and the sun's rays to increase insulation, thereby helping to keep out the heat.
This is how the tipi looked from the outside at night with a fire glowing inside.
Notice how the lining stops the firelight from glowing through the lower part of the cover and provides privacy for those inside in a manner similar to your closing the blinds or drawing the curtains to make your home private at night.
The lining also made it difficult for enemies on the outside who might be planning an attack to detect how many occupants lived in the tipi or where they were positioned inside.




Some doors covering the entrance to the tipi were decorated.   This one has fancy beading and feathers.

The Sioux either stretched a door on sticks or put it on a frame and hung it over the doorway.


The floor was a symbol of the earth, the walls a symbol of the sky, and the poles were the links between the earth and man and the spirit world in the sky.

The altar behind the central fire represented Mother Earth. Before a meal, the host gave thanks and made an offering of a choice piece of meat by either placing it in the fire or burying it in the earth on the altar. On special occasions, the Sioux burned sweet grass, sage, or cedar on the altar as a tribute to the spirits.

Inside, the tipi was furnished with beds made of buffalo hides and pillows made of fox skins that were stuffed with grasses. Back rests made of willow poles served a function similar to chairs.

Some of the Sioux's household effects are shown above. Note in particular the storage box (far right, standing up) that the French explorers later called a parfleche. Parfleches are large rawhide cases that the Sioux used for storing clothing and meat. They were made in pairs, two from each buffalo hide with the same design  on both of them.
Below the parfleche is a gathering bag.
To the left of the parfleche is another Sioux storage box, and above that on the wall of the tipi hangs a warrior's shield. To the left of the warrior's shield, at the top and in the middle, hangs a fur bag and below that a pouch.
Everything had its own particular place, so the tipi was  neat and orderly. This was essential for the Sioux because it made moving easy if they had to break camp and move in a hurry.
The lining was decorative and enhanced the interior of the tipi in addition to being practical. Although the Sioux used the lining to make the inside of the tipi attractive, they often painted war records and personal experiences on it to keep records of the family history as well.


Symbolism was an important aspect of the Sioux culture, and the tipi was symbolic, as well as being functional and beautiful.

The Sioux always pitched their tipis in a circle with the opening, or entrance, on the east side. Each tipi in the circle also faced east, drawing light and warmth from the strength of the morning sun.   Each family occupied a specific location in the circle. This location remained constant; once a family was assigned a position in the circle, it was theirs forever.  

Once a year, at the time of the Sun Dance, which was usually held in early summer, the seven tribes, or divisions, of the Sioux Nation made a special effort to unite in one place. Then the camp circle was arranged differently.

The tipis were pitched in a huge circle facing inward toward the ceremonial dance lodge, rather than east, so that the families could draw power from this sacred structure.

The beautiful designs that some men painted on the outside of their tipis were often symbolic too. Border designs at the base usually represented the earth and earthly things. The middle area was painted with the symbols of things seen in dreams and visions and with pictures of the exploits of the family's men in battles and hunts. The pictures on the top referred to the sky and the spirit world.

  These tipis were called Medicine Tipis, and they belonged to families who had proven themselves worthy in some way. They often took designs from dreams of ancestors. The designs belonged exclusively to the dreamer's family and were passed on from generation to generation along with customs and rituals that were associated with them. The Sioux believed that proper observance of these customs and rituals protected the owners and brought them good fortune.

The Sioux were very proud of their tipis and for good reason. The tipi was warm in winter, cool in summer, and could withstand all kinds of weather. It was easy to pitch and easy to take down when it was necessary to move. The tipi had beautiful lines, an excellent design, and was superbly crafted.
With its well-tanned hides and its smooth straight poles, its artistically decorated covers and linings, and its skillfully made household goods, it was the ideal dwelling for the Sioux as they moved about the plains in search of buffalo.
The Sioux word "tipi" is formed from "ti," meaning to dwell or live, and "pi," meaning "used for." Thus the word means "for living in," and it describes the Sioux tipi perfectly.

© Copyright 2012, Guinness Cultural Studies Publishing, Tiburon, California 94920