Sue and I are happy that you own a tipi. We both acknowledge that the tipi has played a significant role in our 47 years of marriage. Here is a bit of trivial history and commentary which you may enjoy. Interspersed are bits of Native American lore and some utilitarian tips for successful and comfortable tipi camping. We hope you will enjoy the reading.
We sewed our first tipi in 1963 and have camped exclusively in one since then. The book to purchase is The Indian Tipi by Reginald and Gladys Laubin. It is considered by everyone to be the "tipi bible". They were both personal acquaintances of ours. Sadly, they are both gone now. But, without a doubt they saved tipi understanding for all humankind. Even Indian people acknowledge that.
That brings to mind two initial pieces of advice from us: there are two things that will really irritate Indian folks who see or visit your lodge and we urge you in the strongest terms to not do them. The first is to paint designs on the outside cover. Doing so designates that the lodge is a “medicine tipi” and Indians object to non-Indians doing things which they feel dishonor their religion. It is common for Scouters and Indian Guide leaders to want to paint their covers. We really try to steer them away from doing this for the above reason.
Similarly, the second thing is to display a peace pipe. The Pipe is the most sacred item found in pan-Indian America and to have one showing in your lodge is a huge affront.
While you probably will never do either of these things, we just want to urge you right from the git-go to not even consider them. If you want to add painting to your tipi, do it on the liner. Leave the outside undecorated. The beauty of the tipi speaks for itself and doesn’t need any help. (And now you can give an answer to your friends who may suggest that you paint the cover.)
Going back to a bit of history, our tipis at first were homemade because there were no places sewing tipis in the authentic pattern back then. Then we discovered a source and in 1967 bought a tipi from the EPTP Company in Barrington, IL. Earl Past was a master craftsman but after he passed away his son did not pick up the business.
We take this tipi camping thing pretty seriously. Sue’s lodge won first place in the tipi contest at National Powwow in 2005. We were very honored to receive this award. Her tipi was dressed out as a show lodge and when you stepped inside, you were transported back to an 1860 Sioux/Cheyenne home before the wars decimated the Plains Indian culture.
All decked out with the backrests, hides, blankets and beaded pieces, it is truly a lovely place in which to camp. That is our hobby and we enjoy the period camping atmosphere. Perhaps some day we can host you in our old-time lodge.
Now for a word about canvas. No canvas is ever 100% water PROOF. But, canvas that is 100% cotton means that when it gets wet, the fibers swell up and the cross-threads in the weave close off the "holes" so that the water just sheets off the side. It also dries very quickly.
To help the drying process, I have nails in my garage to hang up any damp canvas I might bring home from an event and I store all my canvas pieces in Rubbermaid garbage cans once they are dry. Rodents don't bother the canvas in there. It is all out in my garage or in the storage loft above my shop. You may want to purchase some rubber cans for yourself. Two will be enough.
The only place that tipis tend to have problems is at the base of the liner. It turns under at the butt of the poles and the ground cloths lay over it. After a week of camping that part of the liner is usually still wet and will eventually weaken.
As you sleep in the tipi, arrange your beds around the perimeter of the lodge. Double or triple up under the ozan parts (if you have one) and next to the “keyhole” you must keep the beds out under the slope of the liner. In a hard rain, you can even untie the liner over those beds to catch any pole drips. You can expect a few drips if there is no fire going to evaporate the water coming down the poles.
Above all, remember that TIPI means “used for living in”. You must tend it, live in and with it. It is not a white man’s tent made of nylon that you can leave up for days and weeks unattended. It is part of nature and nature’s plan. And it is round, the most powerful of all the shapes.
Part of living in the tipi is adjusting the exterior smoke flap poles, the front smoke flap ties, putting in drip sticks as you need to, making liner adjustments, keeping the fire tended and making sure that everything is in its place. A neat and tidy house is the way the tipi works best. Visitors will be doubly impressed.
No real tipi has a sewn-in floor. You just lay down plastic and then your other floor coverings on top of the plastic. We have canvas pieces for some of our floors and buffalo hides and other furs as well. Even though the canvas has a flame retardant on it, I recommend having a pail of water next to the door inside (where the diagram shows the firewood goes) just for added insurance.
Your poles are balsam pine from northern WI. They are not treated with a preservative but you certainly can do that. All poles eventually crack and that does not mean the pole is ruined. Balsam poles tend to get brittle within 3 or 4 years. Of course, God grows the trees so direct any complaints to Her. (My favorite joke about poles.)
Regarding moving poles, you can carry poles on the top of any vehicle. We used to carry our tipi poles on top of a 1965 VW Bug and they were 28' poles. Carried them on our 1966 TR-4A, too. Photos to prove it! So, don't worry about how you are going to move your poles. Poles stack nicely in a 6-5-4-3 order.
The fire pit is always about 1/3 of the way back from the door. It is not in the center. Burn smaller pieces of barkless hardwood and keep the flame going to avoid smoke. Normally, the flow of cold air which comes in between the liner and cover will drop and naturally force the smoke up and out.
Use the flaps like the collar of your coat and adjust them by moving the smoke flap poles on the outside. Change the front flap ties as you need to for security in the wind. In a strong easterly wind or in heavy rain, cross the poles in front and wind up the flaps on the poles. Position the little pockets of the smoke flaps with the poles inside next to the apex or gathered throat of the tipi. That makes for a secure tie-down in a bad storm.
In winter camping you need to make sure that snow does not build up on the outside bottom of the tipi so as to block this flow of fresh air. Otherwise, don’t worry about burning charcoal or even a fire at night when you are sleeping. The air flow will give you fresh air with heat as well. You can buy little iron stoves for use in colder weather. They are not expensive and work great. Propane heaters that work off of a 20 gallon tank are also good. Just be careful where you put the heater.
Now for a different look at the tipi. We always found that the traditions associated with the tipi really helped make our tipi times the most enjoyable. We always try to follow these customs:
1. We always knock or call into the tipi before we enter. We do this even if it is just the two of us.
2. We ask males to step in to the right (N) and females to the left (S). Once inside they can move freely around but if we are giving a tipi explanation to a group, we segregate the people by gender. When the group is all one gender, we put the youngest on the South and age-rank them around to the North.
3. We never pass things across the plane of the fire. If you want your thoughts to go up to God, simply hold a bit of tobacco or sage in your hand, think the good thought or little prayer, and then place the substance on the fire. The smoke represents the vertical pathway to the One Above. Don’t disrupt that pathway by passing something through it. Tobacco, sage, sweetgrass, and cedar are plants considered by Indian people as having the ability to transfer thoughts and/or purify one’s heart and mind. Many people use sage today because it is easy to get (foodstore) and because they don’t want to use the more traditional prayer medium which is tobacco. Sweetgrass is found on the Great Plains and cedar in the northern parts of the Midwest and Northwest. All four will work and a little wooden bowl on your hearth will be recognized by any reverent, knowledgeable tipi visitor. Wait til some little child puts a little pinch of sage into the fire and says, “I want _____ to get better” (or some other little thought.) You don’t get that in a square nylon tent.
4. We always speak softly inside the tipi. This is out of respect for the now-past Plains Indian culture which needed to have quiet camps for fear of enemy attack. When our girls were growing up, they always understood that they needed to be a quiet and more reserved in the tipi than in the family room at home. Our daughters never argued, bickered, fought or otherwise misbehaved when we were in the lodge. They were not always the best behaved at home, but in the tipi their demeanor changed. This little rule of etiquette really helps make the tipi a very special family place.
There are three other customs that we have always followed and which will make your new lodge very happy. They are:
5. Sue always makes it a point to offer guests food or drink. This was a mark of courtesy and in the old culture guests who were asked over for dinner always brought their own dinnerware. The hostess supplied only the food and did not have to clean up dirty dishes afterward. We have no rule against serving alcohol in the tipi. We just don’t get loud and boisterous.
6. When seated inside, we never let visitors sit or stand in the doorway. The East is the place from which comes the power of understanding and we always want to let understanding come into our tipi. So, we always ask folks to sit to the right or left of the door. And it is bad manners to pass things across the door.
7. Lastly, we always set a wooden center stake. It represents the Center of the Universe. Is not the woman the center of the family and is not the tipi the center of a family and is not a tipi also a microcosm of the Universe? Indeed so!
In some windy areas we use a steel auger center stake. But we always set a wooden one beside it. When we take our tipi down, it is the only thing left standing. We take it out of the ground, say a short prayer for the earth and leave a small gift in the hole. Then we use grass to fill it in.
Now here is a rather sobering thought: in the entire history of our earth yet to come, there will never again be a center stake in exactly that same spot. For a few days, that little stake represented the center of the Universe and the perimeter of the tipi was that entire Universe. But never again will it exist in precisely that same spot in your back yard, or at your vacation property, or where ever else you camp. That spot is special and that’s why we leave a small gift there (tobacco, sage, a flower, bit of food, a feather we’ve found, or a bead).
As we finish this long commentary, here is more on the colors.
East is the place of understanding and the color is red, for the morning sun is red. South is the place of growing and its color is yellow for the summer sun that makes the earth grow. The West is the place of the power to make life and destroy life. Its color is black (or dark blue) for the rainstorms that come from the West. And the North is the place of cleansing and wisdom, and the color is white.
The woman’s side of the tipi is, therefore, the South side. The men’s side is at the back or West of the lodge. Honored elders of both genders who are guests in the lodge are usually given seats on the North side in recognition of their age and wisdom.
The tipi circle represents the Hoop of the Universe. Imagine a giant hoop that encompasses all things, all of creation. That is what the tipi represents. It is also a simple prayer circle.
If that is all it is, it would be enough. But there is more.
Starting in the East, where all the days of humans begin (dawn), and ending in the West where all the days of humans end (sunset), there runs a road. It is a black road of war, of illness, of starvation, of worldly difficulties and finally of death. All humans walk this road. We cannot escape it.
If that were all there was, life would not be much worth living.
But, starting in the South, where the power to grow resides, and going across this imaginary Hoop of the Universe to the North, there runs a Good Red Road of spiritual understanding. You must seek to grow in your spiritual wisdom.
Where these two symbolic roads cross, in the center of the universe, that place is holy. That is why there is a center stake in every tipi. When a woman sets that stake, it is special. When the woman has given birth to a child, her setting of that center stake is even more meaningful. Some would say, powerful.
Are there not Four Seasons of the year? (Are there not four loops in a clove hitch, which is really what you are making when you frap the center rope around the poles four times.)
Are there not Seven Sacred Directions? E, S, W, N, Up (Sky), Down (Earth), and Within. Do not 7x4 equal 28? Is that not the common growing cycle of a woman? Is that not a lunar cycle as well?
Such it is where power walks. For these reasons, many females seem to really like tipis. They feel at home there. They “get it.” Some women say that they “feel the power”.
Here are some books which we would recommend very highly:
These Were the Sioux by Mari Sandoz
Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt (translated into 12 languages, it is often called “the Indian bible”)
Seven Arrows by H. Storm (a beautiful explanation of the Cheyenne view of the Medicine Wheel--their corresponding colors are yellow, green, black and white)
In closing, the most important thing about a tipi is that you live in and with it and nature. When you treat it with respect, it will always work for you in a beneficial way. As said earlier, TIPI means “used for living in”. Human beings live in two realms; physical and spiritual. As you can see, the tipi satisfies both kinds of “living”. Enjoy your tipi !