Picture of a Tepee

The Native American Tepee
The Tepee, (also tipi, tepe, tipee or teepee) was a typical structure used as a shelter or house style that was built  by many tribes of the Great Plains cultural group who made them their homes. Learn about the structure and the interior of  the Tepee with pictures and images together with facts and information about the tribes who used them, including the Sioux, Blackfoot and the Cheyenne.

Tepee Definition (Spelling variations tipi, tipee, tepe or teepee)
What does the word Tepee mean? Definition: The word Tepee derives from the Dakota (Siouan) word 'thipi' meaning "dwelling, house". The tepee was a tent used as a form of shelter and home by various Native American Indian tribes, notably those who lived on the Great Plains. Tepees were constructed using long wooden poles that were covered with animal skins such as buffalo hides with entrance flaps. The tepee tent was  rounded at the base tapering to a narrow, open smoke hole at the top. The Iowa tribe called their tents 'chakiruthan' meaning 'house-tied-together', referring to the lashing of the framework around the tepee.

What was the Tepee used for?
The Tepee was used as a home for many tribes. It was constructed by using the natural resources that were available to the people. The tepee was also used to house important ceremonies and meetings, and was able to easily accommodate over 50 Native Indians. The Crow tribe were known to erect huge tepees for their ceremonies, meetings and rituals.

Who lived in a Tepee?
The Tepee was generally used as a shelter by the Native Indian Tribes who hunted buffalo on the Great Plains and had access to the buffalo hides they used to build their tepees. The names of the tribes who lived in the tepee style tent included the Arapaho, Arikara, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Comanche, Cree, Crow, Gros Ventre, Hidatsa, Iowa, Kansa, Kiowa, Mandan, Missouria, Omaha, Osage, Otoe (Winnebago), Shawnee and the Sioux. Some tribes only used tepees as a temporary form of shelter in the summer months returning to their permanent homes in the winter. However most of the tribes of the Great Plains used them as their homes all year round.

Why was the Tepee built as a Native Indian shelter or house style?
Every tribe choose a type of housing to suit their lifestyle, the climate, the environment and the natural resources that were available to them or could be acquired by trade. The Tepee was chosen as the most suitable type of shelter and house style because it suited the nomadic lifestyle of the tribes who hunted buffalo as it was quick to erect and easy to dismantle. The tribes followed the buffalo and it was necessary to follow a herd as soon as it was spotted.  A complete village could be ready to move within an hour. The men provided the buffalo hides and the women prepared them. The tree poles were also provided by the men who cut them themselves or traded buffalo hides for the poles.

Where was the Tepee erected?
The tepee villages were extremely well organized. As the people migrated around the Great Plains, following the buffalo, a new location for the camp would be selected close to a water supply.

Who erected the Tepee?
The women were in complete charge of the tepees. It was the women who erected the tepee and prepared the hides to cover the tepee. The women tanned the hides and sewed the buffalo skins together so as to easily fit over the shape and structure of the tepee. In the winter extra buffalo hides were tied over the tepee to keep out the cold and the rain. The buffalo skins were decorated with pictures (Pictograms) and symbols using paints made from plant dyes. The paintings reflected the history and symbols of the tribe together with the important events and the deeds of the head of the home. Heavy stones were placed around the bottom edge of the tent covering to prevent the tepee from being blown down by the wind.

Dismantling the Tepee
The tent was quickly and easily dismantled by the women to be transported to the next location. The poles are divided into two bundles which were fastened by one end to the neck of the horse, one bundle on either side. The other ends were left to drag upon the ground. The skin hides were tied up into a bundle, carried by the women, fastened to the dragging poles or placed on a travois. Sometimes dogs, instead of horses, were used to drag the equipment.

How was a Tepee built?
The materials used to build a Tepee were buffalo hides and long, wooden poles. The summer buffalo hides, which had little value to traders, were used to make coverings for tepees. It took between 12 - 14 hides to make a tepee cover. The summer-killed cow buffalo skins with the wool removed were then tanned by the women. The hides were tanned using the liver, brains, and fat of the buffalo as the softening agents. The hides were then smoked to kept the hides soft, pliable and rain-resistant. The hides were then cut into the correct shape and sewn together to form the tent covering. They were then decorated with paint and sometimes fringes. The framework of the tepee consisted of thirteen poles from 15 - 18 feet long. The tepee poles were peeled, and smoothed by the women and cut into the same length. The ends of the tepee poles were tied together and then raised and spread out so as to cover a circle on the ground about 12 - 16 feet across. Over this framework of poles are spread the buffalo skins, sewn together so as to fit it, were spread over the framework. The ends of the skin covering were pegged down with tent stakes and the sides were tied together with cords, making the tepee neat and weather-proof. A doorway with an entrance flap allowed people to creep into the tepee. A piece of hair-on buffalo hide or a bear skin served as the door. The smoke-hole at the top had a collar-like flap, which could be adjusted when the wind changed so as to insure a good draught of air at all times.

Privacy of the Tepee
The tepee was big enough to sleep several people. There were rules regarding access to each tepee, which afforded some degree of privacy to the occupants. A tepee with an open entrance flap indicated people were free to enter. If the entrance flap was closed people had to ask for permission to enter the tent.

Tepee Villages set out in Circles
The tepee village or camp was set out in a pattern, typically a circle or rows of tents in a square shape. Each group of people who were related had their own proper place in the circle or row. Every woman knew exactly where she must erect her tepee and never changed her position. When a camp circle of tepees was complete, the horses were placed within it for the night to prevent their being stolen or lost. Men were selected for guard duty and dogs alerted the tribe to any strangers. The protected environment of circle's inner space was also used by the children and by the women of the tribe to complete their chores.

Tepee Villages laid our in Rows
Not all tribes set out their tepees in a circle. The tepee lodges in some villages were pitched in regular streets and squares, which allowed for easy movement of their horses. The picture of the Comanche Village was painted by the famous artist George Catlin (1796-1872) in 1834. George Catlin described the painting of the village as only a small portion of the whole, which was the same in every part. He stated that the tepee village consisting of six or eight hundred skin-covered lodges, made of poles and buffalo skins that was home to thousands of people with horses and dogs. The tribe were busy with domestic occupations such as drying meat, and ‘graining’ buffalo robes”.

The Tepee Interior
Tepees had few furnishings. The floors were covered with buffalo hides. Buffalo hides were also used for seating, bedding, and covers. Beds were made of dried grasses covered with buffalo hides. The Native Indian tribes of the Great Plains had a unique type of chair, referred to as a willow backrest, composed of thin willow rods or branches laced together and hung on a tripod. A hearth was built in the center of the tepee for heating and cooking. The fire-pit was lined on the bottom and along the sides with stones.

What is the Difference between a Tepee and a Wigwam?
There is often some confusion between a Tepee and a Wigwam, so what exactly is the difference between a tepee and a wigwam? The picture of the wigwam shows how different they are in style and structure.

The difference between a tepee and a wigwam is as follows:

  • The tepee was used by nomadic tribes of the Great Plains whereas the wigwam was used by the Northeast woodland cultural group
  • The wigwam was semi-permanent, unlike the tepee which was completely portable
  • The Great Plains tribe had access to the buffalo and used buffalo hides as tepee tent coverings. The woodland tribes had access to forests and used birch bark as coverings
  • Wigwams took more time to build whereas tepees were easily disassembled and reconstructed
  • Wigwams were usually domed, round roofed shelters whereas tepees are pyramid-shaped tents

Different Types of Tepees
This article details facts about the tepees used by the Native Indian tribes of the Great Plains. Another pyramid shaped shelter was used by Californian tribes called
Cedar Bark Tepees that were constructed using several poles tied together that were covered with bark, sticks over the framework.

Native American Houses
Native Indian Tribes Index

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