The word teepee (tepee, tipi) originates from the Lakota language of the Sioux tribes (Native American Indians) – who settled in the plains of America and Canada. Teepee (tiphi in Lakota) means either a dwelling’ or they dwell’. The teepee is an ingenious, practical and portable conical tent which served as homes to the nomadic plain-dwelling native American Indians. Primarily, the teepee consists of a detachable cover, wooden poles, stakes with which the cover is pinned to the ground or heavy stones, liners (depending on the season of the year) and smoke flaps. These smoke flaps are the main distinguishing features of teepees when compared to other kinds of tents.
HISTORY OF TEEPEE TENTS
Some archaeologists suggest that teepee tents do date back to prehistoric times. However, some others propose that there are evidences which suggest that teepee tents have been in use since 10,000 BCE. Regardless of when they were first used, the Native American Indians were hunters and gatherers. They did hunt the buffalo (bison) for its meat, and its hide too. Originally, the covers and linings of teepee tents where made from buffalo hide. On average, a teepee tent needed the hide of 28 buffalos for it to be suitably covered. Resultantly, the Sioux tribes were nomads who followed the migrating buffalo. For this reason, the teepee was the ideal home for them because it was light enough to be transported from one location to another with relative ease by dogs, and horses later (17th century). Also, the Sioux tribe did dwell on plains which made accessibility to wood difficult therefore it was important that the tribe carried their own wood.
Interestingly, the teepee was considered by a few native American tribes to be a living being as well as a life giver. They liken it to women – who by design, can give birth to children. Also, they do regard it as the woman’s domain. It was the women in the tribe that did build the teepee for their families when they arrived at a new location. Usually the woman invited her husband to join her in her teepee, however, males and females did sleep in different teepees based on their sexes.
Traditionally, these tribes believe that the conical shape of the teepee at the point where its poles intersect, creates a vortex which reaches up to heavens and the stars. There it taps into positive energies which descend into the teepees to enable both healings and happiness, within the families who lived in them. For these tribes, hides were seen as protectors, and brave because they weathered the storm like buffalos. To them, the circular shape of the teepee tent was symbolic of the connectivity between the elements of the universe. Even the trees used for teepees were considered as relatives which protected the people from the external elements (weather).
During the summers, the covers of the teepees were raised from the ground to enable cool air flow into the tent. However, in the winter months additional layers were added to the covers. Also, fires were created with none crackling wood (cotton wood, aspen) in the middle of the tents to provide warmth. Around the 17th century when horses were introduced into Mexico, these tribes began to build teepee tents with greater dimensions which made them more durable. These were now transported by horses. Also, the buffalo hides around the time, began to be replaced by canvas and cloth.
Summarily, teepee tents did meet (it still does) both the spiritual and physical needs of a few native American tribes. It was a space for family, community and spirituality.
BUILDING A TEEPEE TENT
Building a teepee tent starts with tying three sapling poles that have already been peeled, polished and dried together at one end, and then creating a tripod with them. Once the tripod is upright, other poles are then added to the structure to give it a cone-like shape. Next the covers are added with a hole at the top of the structure, which can be covered or uncovered with smoke flaps attached to poles. The smoke flaps do aid ventilation within the teepee.
When the hole at the top is closed in opposition to the wind, and the other side of the hole away from the wind is left open, it creates a draft within the teepee which serves as a chimney, as well as a ventilator. Therefore, the teepee is always built away from the direction of the wind. The natives did build their teepee facing eastwards, in the direction of the rising sun. A reason for this is the fact that winds rarely, if ever, blow from the east. Overall teepee tents are more durable, and sturdier structure than the average tent.
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