Teepee Facts

A teepee stands in Ulm Pishkun State Park, Montana.
... Purestock/Purestock/Getty Images

Also known as tipis, Native American teepees were handsome, conical dwellings that kept people snug and warm during cold winters, while providing shade during the heat of summer. Teepees were used primarily by hunting and gathering tribes of the Great Plains, seasonally in the eastern plains and all year by the semi-nomadic tribes of the western plains. Teepees provided great mobility for hunting buffalo and elk, because they could be dismantled and reconstructed very quickly.

1 Evolution of Teepees in America

Early day teepees were small, consisting of only three poles with an average diameter of 10 to 14 feet. The size was limited because the teepees were transported by backpack or by dogs, which couldn't handle the heavy weight of larger structures.

Later teepees stood 18 to 20 feet high and weighed more than 500 pounds. Eventually, horses arrived on the American plains, and soon became a symbol of great wealth and prestige. Horses allowed Native Americans to transport larger teepees. The greater mobility increased the average daily travel distance from about five miles to 10 to 15 miles.

2 Construction

Teepees consisted of a framework of 15 to 20 poles made of straight, dry trees that were available in the area. Although lodgepole pine was favored, poles were also made from cedar, yellow pine or tamarack. The poles were smoothed, then three or four of the strongest were lashed at the top to form a tripod-like frame. The remaining poles were attached to the frame for shape and support, with the two lightest poles serving as a base for the smoke flap, which provided ventilation and allowed smoke from a fire to escape. The structure was then covered, and the bottom of the covering was secured to the ground with rocks or blocks of sod.

3 Covering

Teepee coverings, usually made by women, were determined by what was available. Materials included grass, bark or tanned hides from caribou, elk or buffalo. Buffalo hides were often used because the hides were warm and dry, but their translucency allowed light to enter.

The hides were sewn together patchwork style, using sinews and bone needles. Teepees were lined with tanned animal hides during the winter, and the space between the liner and the outer covering was stuffed with dry grass for extra warmth.

Additionally, straw or grass was piled around the exterior base of the teepee to keep cold air from entering at the bottom. Hides, which became stained and brittle from constant use, were replaced every two to four years. Cloth became available in the 1840s, and teepees were often made from heavy canvas. Modern teepees are often covered with synthetic materials.

4 Teepee Traditions

Traditionally, Plains Indians tribes located teepees with the door facing the rising sun in the east. The oldest male slept opposite the door on the west side of the teepee. Otherwise, people slept around the fire pit in the center, with the women on the south side of the teepee and men on the north.

5 Symbols and Decorations

Some Native American tribes, including the Sioux, decorated teepees with circular shapes to represent the universe, the horizon and the cycles of the seasons. Teepees decorated with circles were arranged in rings around a special, ceremonial teepee in the center. Other tribes, including the Blackfeet, Kiowa and Cheyenne, were known for elaborate paintings that represented scenes from hunting or battles, or images from vision quests. Designs were outlined with charcoal, then filled in with paint made from vegetables or minerals and a sticky substance made from buffalo hooves.

M.H. Dyer began her writing career as a staff writer at a community newspaper and is now a full-time commercial writer. She writes about a variety of topics, with a focus on sustainable, pesticide- and herbicide-free gardening. She is an Oregon State University Master Gardener and Master Naturalist and holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction writing.