Tipis were the homes of many of the tribes of the Plains Indians, including the Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, Blackfoot and Comanche. A tipi is a tent made with long, angled poles covered in buffalo hide. It was placed so that the door would face the rising sun in the east, with the westerly winds to the back. Some tribes kept their tipis plain, but others, such as the Blackfoot tribe, would paint elaborate decorations on them. Certain symbols were thought to protect the owner and his family.
Dreams and Visions
The designs painted onto a tipi were obtained through dreams or visions, usually after a period of fasting and being alone with nature. Because of this, each design became the exclusive property of its owner and there could be no duplicates. It was believed that anyone who tried to copy designs not obtained through visions or dreams would suffer a penalty of sickness or even death. If a tipi became worn out, the designs could be copied onto the owner's new tipi, but the original tipi had to be sacrificed to the sun by sinking it beneath the water in a lake.
The achievements of the tribe or the owner of a tipi would often be painted onto the hide as decoration. Of course, this type of decoration did not require a vision or dream. It could be anything, such as a successful horse-stealing raid, a fight that the owner won, or a successful buffalo hunt. On a war tipi, three sides of a square symbolize successful scouting missions. Native American tribes never recorded their defeats, but always noted their victories.
Blackfoot tipis usually followed a similar arrangement of decoration. At the bottom of the hide, a band of dark color represented the earth. There is a row of discs within this band, called dusty stars -- the name the Blackfeet gave to the puffballs which grow on the prairies. Above this is a row of rounded or pointed objects, representing rounded ridges or mountain peaks. The space above this row is used for protective symbols and emblems. At the very top, a black band represents the night sky. Upon this band is a painted sun and crescent moon, the star constellations of the Seven Brothers and Lost Children, and a Maltese cross. The cross is said to represent the butterfly, also called the "sleep bringer," which was believed to bring powerful dreams to the owner.
Plains tribes drew from hundreds of symbols that they would paint on their tipis, horses, and even their own bodies. An arrow, rainbow and buffalo head all signify protection; a bear track signifies a good omen; two arrows facing each other with a dot in between wards off evil spirits, and the great bear symbolizes the elemental powers. A rattlesnake jaw symbolizes strength and a snake signifies defiance and wisdom.
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