Wisdom Ways: Life in a Buffalo Hide Tipi (Lodge)

It is said that in the beginning the creator's helper was tasked with staying close to first man and first woman and to look after all their needs.  When winter came, man and woman shivered.  Creator's helper knew they would need a shelter. It was the shape of a rustling Cotton Wood tree leaf that inspired the idea. The Creator's helper chose the slender trunks of pines for the poles, Ash wood for the pegs, Choke Cherry shoots for the pins, tanned buffalo cow skins for the cover, buffalo bull raw-hide for the rope, and a tanned buffalo calf skin for the doorway. The Lakota word for the dwelling is tipestola. It is pronounced thipȟéstola. It means 'she or he lives in a sharp pointed lodge'.  

Somewhere along the way the word got shortened to 'tipi'.  I was taught to refer to it as a lodge if I was speaking in English. It is my understanding that the Blackfoot people call it "niitoyis' and the Kiowa say 'do-heen'. There are over 25 tribes who used the lodge. Some used a 3 pole base while others used a 4 pole base. The 3 pole base lodge is tilted more so than the 4 pole base lodge. The poles of the 3 pole based lodge are mostly placed in the east which braces it against prevailing west winds. This makes it sturdier. The lodges used at Indigenous Roots are 3 pole based and are made from canvas. 

The cover of the lodges in ancient times were made from the hides of mostly buffalo. Anywhere from 16-20 hides were used. The men would hunt for the buffalo and the women would tan the hides. Once the hides were tanned a group of women would pray before sewing the hides together with bone needles and sinew thread. A thought of happiness and love was intertwined with each stitch in order to bring about joy and love for the family that would dwell underneath the cover. They could finish the sewing in one day. Once the cover was in place a sagebrush fire was burned inside. This helped with waterproofing so the hides would stay soft even after a rain. It was also a part of a purification ritual.  In the 1880's, as part of the U.S. Government's assimilation/genocide plan of indigenous peoples, there was a massive slaughter of buffalo by whites. Canvas then became what most lodge covers were made of.  The structural design however, never changed. 

  Lodges have a lining inside. The lining was tied to the poles and along the bottom flat rocks or household items such as a parfleche ( a rawhide bag used to store dried meat and other items) were placed to hold the base of the liner down. The purpose of the lining was protection from the sun, rain, or snow. As air was drawn up under the lodge cover, it traveled between the liner and the cover. Thus it created a draft that helps exit the smoke of a fire burning inside the lodge for warmth. The liners and cover were often painted with designs that held spiritual meaning to the the family members that dwelled within. The door of the lodge always faced east. That way the family was always greeted by the sun, the morning star. The practical use of the smoke hole in the lodge's top was for the smoke to rise out of the lodge when there was a fire inside being used for warmth. The spirituality of it was so the family could look up at the above world. 



Pamela Good Wind

I am the education director at Indigenous Roots LLC in Weston, CO.