On the Great Plains where immense migrations of buffalo herds darkened the distant hills, there was a majestic completeness in every view of earth and sky. The circle of the horizon was continuous in its wholeness, and the dome of the sky, where the rainbow often appeared in perfect arc, was vast and undiminished. To people accustomed to such broad spaces and unbroken lines of vision, the brilliant blue of predominantly clear skies, the green of summer prairies, and the sparkling white stillness of long valleys disappearing into snow-clad hills, the world seemed at once colossal and spirit-filled. Its plan was the plan of their lodges: a flat and circular base over which was hung the tent of the skies with its door to the east – facing the direction of the rising sun.
A Pawnee priest once said, "If you go on a high hill and look around, you will see the sky touching the earth on every side, and within this circular enclosure the people dwell." The lodges of men were made to reflect this, to represent the circle which Father Heaven made for the dwelling-place of all people. They reveal the Indian's awareness that all of the power of Nature works in circles. To create a microcosmic pattern of this rhythm is to form a circular nest in which its generation can be reproduced. Thus, amongst the Blackfoot a tipi cover was especially made for a bride and groom. When the couple were wed and ready to enter, everyone formed a circle around the new tipi, buried the bottom of its cover in sand and pebbles so as to withstand the strong prairie winds, and, united as a people, consecrated the new beginning.
If the door-flap was open, friends could walk in unannounced, but if privacy was desired or the owner had gone away, its simple closure was as good as any lock, for no one would invade its circular protection by stealth. As a family grew, ten or twelve people could be accommodated in a tipi twenty feet in diameter, and with all the varying tasks of the inhabitants there was time for leisurely repose against the decorated backrests propped towards the rear of the circular fireplace and altar. In the day time the area was filled with the translucent light of the sun filtered through the tightly-sewn buffalo hides, and in the evening each conical structure became a giant candle illuminating the camp.
Some of the Crow tipis were up to forty feet in height and required twenty or more buffalo hides to cover them. The women of all the tribes cut them and helped one another in parties to sew the various sections together. Bone awls were used and sinew thread was drawn tightly through and allowed to hang unclipped at the ends, as it was believed that a family would become mean and stingy if the threads were cut at the end of the seam. When it was completed and the poles set up, the cover was hoisted up by being lashed to the last pole to be placed in position. It was folded into triangles on each side from the corners and then unfolded and drawn round to the door poles in the front, where it was laced with peeled wooden pegs from the smoke-hole downwards. Then the women went inside and pushed the poles upward to make the cover taut. The door-flap was hung from two thongs over the oval opening cut in a hide stretched over a U-shaped willow frame. Two beaded bosses covered the hanger thongs, and their decoration was overbrooded by the tipi 'ears' above, whose poles could be shifted to regulate the draught at the smoke-hole. The inside of the lower tipi wall was lined, and in the winter the Plains Cree stuffed hay between these layers for insulation against the cold, whereas summer witnessed all the tribes rolling up their tipis at the bottom to enjoy a breezy shade.
A tipi of fifteen feet in diameter could be set up by a woman in less than fifteen minutes and taken down in three. A whole camp could be moved in twenty minutes, and there was many a time when sudden danger forced the tribes to rely upon their skill and strength to survive. Women set up and took down the tipis. They packed poles and hides onto saddle-blanket slings and travois and were considered their owners. Because of this, a man had to obtain his wife's consent before he could have a picture of his spirit-helper drawn on the tipi cover. In fact, the tipi was thought of as a woman and the names of its parts were feminine. Its size, however, depended upon a husband's ability to obtain skins and horses, and it was commonly said that "the men with the fastest horses lived in the biggest tipis". Masculine and feminine powers balanced each other in the tipi. The snake or otter or bear on its north side was female, whilst its counterpart to the south was male, and the south side was drawn over the north in the lacing over the doorway. Above all this protruded a fetish pole to which a horse's tail or other animal part was attached according to instructions received in a man's vision. Thus visions came through men, but they were consolidated through the balance of opposites in a basically female abode.
The tipi was considered to be a representation of the universe, and the space outside it was symbolically the realm of the Creator. This macrocosm was infinite, whilst the finite microcosm reminded man of the humility he ought to maintain in the face of the manifest Great Mystery. Being a natural man, the Indian was intensely poetical. He deemed it a futile and sacrilegious enterprise to attempt to build a house for That which could not be contained. Instead, he worshipped glimpses of Its divine reflection in the shadowy aisles of primeval forests or in the sunlit bosom of the prairies. He was deeply awed with Its pervasive solitude, captured in the spires and pinnacles of naked rock and in the jewelled vault of the night sky. He perceived Its filmy robes in the veils of clouds on the rim of the visible world, where the Great Grandfather Sun kindles his evening campfire. He was of those ancient races who rode upon the rigorous wind of the north and breathed their spirit into the aromatic southern airs, who knew the spirit of the lakes and rivers and needed no lesser cathedral. And so it was that the tipi blended the natural world with that of man and God. It gave shelter without becoming a barrier between the inner and outer world, or between heaven and earth.
According to a Dakota legend, the cottonwood tree gave to man the knowledge of the tipi. The leaves themselves are shaped like tipis, and it is said that old men watching children play saw them make small houses with the leaves, and so conceived the idea of erecting large conical structures. Thus do men learn from children, whose hearts are pure and capable of receiving spiritual teaching. The Indians believed that the Great Spirit showed to children many things that older people missed.
The Dakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Assiniboin, Kiowa, Gros Ventre, Plains Cree, Arikara, Pawnee and Omaha all used the three-pole foundation for the tipi. The three poles were knotted securely together in the 'Cheyenne and Arapaho tie', or what is known as a clove hitch. The poles of a twelve-foot lodge would be fifteen feet long, whilst those of a thirty-foot lodge would be forty feet long. The foundation poles were raised up with their butts on a circle usually measuring from twelve to twenty feet in diameter, and their length was greater than the point where they crossed by four to six feet. The number of poles to be added to the tripod formation increased with the size of the tipis, and they were carefully smoothed and peeled of bark so as to weather well during many years of continual use. It was difficult to find good poles in the Plains and they were carefully transported from camp to camp. After two legs of the tripod were extended towards the south, the third was fixed at the door point to the east and one of the two legs was transferred over to the north as the tripod was raised. Additional poles were placed in the crotch of the tripod in equal numbers between the three in a clockwise manner, and the smoke-flap poles were inserted in small pockets sewn in the ears of the cover. When the flaps were wide open, the butts of these two poles touched at the back of the tipi outside the cover and could be brought round to the front for closure.
The four-pole foundation used by the Blackfoot and Crow was less sturdy and more difficult to set up. Though Blackfoot painted tipis were often beautiful, the tripod base provided a superior mode of construction. It can only be assumed that the four-pole foundation was used because of the religious significance of the four cardinal points, the cross and the four phases of manifestation. The triangle was, nonetheless, still the basic structure in such a camp, as seen in the tripod from which hung the medicine bundles and shields as well as the outline shape of the tipi itself. The most fundamental of all shapes was, of course, the circle. In giving height and volume to this, the tipi, as a cone, denoted the solid space swept over by a right triangle rotating about one side, whilst the other side traced out the circular base. The tipi is thus a right-circular cone arising from a right triangle set in motion, as it were, sunwise around a central axis.
If one had approached a Blackfoot camp in the last century, one might pass by a striped burial tipi set up near a scaffold on the hills outside the camp area. Beneath him the large painted lodges of the warrior societies could be seen, rising up in the inner circle of the surrounding family lodges. There may have been two or three large tipis fixed with legs overlapping at the centre, where councils and important rituals took place. Enveloped by an enormous painted cover, such great lodges witnessed the more esoteric aspects of the Sun Dance and other sacred ceremonies. Many of the Plains tribes had strikingly painted tipis, but the most elaborate and numerous were those of the Blackfoot. Their unique designs followed a basic pattern which depicted the mythical originator, his spouse, their home or den, and their trails. Above them at the top was usually a dark sky with the Pleiades and the Great Bear constellations shown on the smoke-hole flaps. At the base a solid colour band was geometrically decorated with fallen stars looking like the white puff-balls that grew on the prairies in circles. Often a cross was placed over the door symbolizing the morning star, and triangular mountain peaks embellished the top of the band at the bottom. Red, yellow and blue bands towards the top represented clouds, the thunderbird signified lightning, and the rainbow indicated the clearing after a rain. These elements could combine in very complex designs which included bands towards the top as symbols of the trails. With poles fanning out at the top, the black sky with its stars, the trails of the guardian animals and their home, the mountains and the fallen stars, the tipi was a wonderful and inspiring sight. Great stylized animals were usually of a solid colour though some had organs shown in red, yellow or green, which were believed to be representations of the source of the supernatural energy of the animals.
All designs were given to their first human owners in dreams or visions, where the original animal owner of the lodge appeared and imparted the sources of his power. Such dream visitors were the overbrooding Master-Souls of a particular species who would reveal to a dreamer that particularized aspect of the power of the Great Spirit which it possessed. It would convey the maintenance and use of this power through detailed instructions concerning the painting of the lodge. This had to be followed to the letter, for as long as an individual possessed it, certain taboos and rituals became part of his daily life. Amongst the Blackfoot, Piegans and Bloods, only the rightful owner was permitted to make use of the animal figures belonging to his lodge. His medicine bundle containing accessories used in the lodge rituals was hung on a tripod at the rear of the tipi for protection and was taken in only at night or during a storm. When the painted cover wore out it had to be disposed of carefully by sinking it to the bottom of a lake or pond.
No man could copy another's design. If he had not obtained the privilege of its use in a dream or vision, he could only hope to purchase it from the original owner through an elaborate set of ritual observances. One man who lived for many years amongst the Blackfoot desired an old seer named Medicine Weasel to paint the otter design on his tipi. The power of the otter is considered to be very great and the old man refused to do it, saying that he had no right to, had had no vision of it, and attempting to paint it might even cause his death. He then approached a noted painter named White Grass, who also refused to do it but offered to paint the pine tree decoration as he had a right to do this, having dreamt it whilst asleep under a pine tree. The visitor may have been inspired by the fact that he had stayed for a week in the otter tipi of a man called Marrow-Bones and had greatly admired its black top and yellow cross emblazoned over four male and four female otters in procession. Above them were red water ripples, and mountains serrated the top of the broad band below. The owner had visited the home of the Master Otter in a dream and had an otter skin which he took from its sacred bundle to hang on the fetish pole. When he performed this ritual, he sang over the contents of the bundle and painted his body yellow like the shore of the lake and red like the tracks of the otter. He marked a black circle on his forehead to indicate the home of the otter, and another on his breast represented the hole in the river-bank through which the otter passes between worlds.
The black and yellow buffalo tipis had their origin in the vision of two friends. Long ages ago two young men sat on a river-bank quietly watching the water's flow. One glimpsed the tops of a tipi's poles glimmering in the flood and he floated down to the spot, leaving his doubting friend on the shore. Diving beneath the surface, he saw a man and woman sitting within a perfectly dry tipi. Entering it, he could see the water coursing around and past the structure and he marvelled. The man within said to him, "My son, the reason I asked you to come here was that I might give you this tipi. With it you will become a chief of your people." As he spoke these words, a large water animal stuck his head inside in an effort to eat the young man, but the youth was given a sacred pipe and its smoke repelled the monster. Drawing back, the animal agreed to give the youth a song whose power would protect him every time he sought to cross a body of water. Other tests and questions were put to him by the owner of the tipi, who explained his potentials and his limitations before giving him the secrets and rituals of the black buffalo tipi. Emerging from his wondrous vision, the youth informed his friend that he too might make such a journey. That he did this was borne out in the subsequent appearance of the yellow buffalo tipi in the camp circle.
When a new cover was painted and raised upon the tipi structure, it was ritually consecrated. In blessing a new lodge, Rock Thunder of the Plains Cree prayed to the Great Spirit:
When moving into the new painted tipi, they observed special rituals and taboos from the beginning. Fire could not be taken out of it and menstruating women could not enter it. The fire was built in the tipi after the cover was up, whereupon food, tobacco and sweet grass were brought in. The man whose spirit-helpers were painted on the tipi led the ceremony, making offers of tobacco and food. The sacred pipe was passed over the sweet grass smoke and offered to the spirit-helpers. "Teach me how to sing your songs!" the leader prayed, and old men possessing spirit songs arrived to take the pipe as it was passed around. Women arrived and food was given, each individual praying and singing until the food was gone. The new lodge thus consecrated and its associated rituals observed, the tipi itself became an announcement of the fact that within rested a certain sacred bundle whose contents were linked to a particular power.
The bear medicine tipi of the Dakota was possessed by one who had assiduously followed the bear's trail and watched him to learn of his medicine power. Such men as Grizzly Dreamers communed with the Master-Spirit of the animal and received instructions after many years of training. Zig-zag bands of lightning and a rainbow encircled the tipi beneath a red sun, and the bear's footprints completed another path around its girth closer to the bottom of the cover. Black Elk's tipi possessed the black figure of a galloping horse and a rainbow encircled the entrance way. From his great vision he had acquired these emblems signifying the whirling groups of many-coloured horses who had instructed the wise man when he was swept aloft into a dazzling white realm at the centre of the universe. In his vision he saw a tipi standing at this centre, like a perfect triangle emerging from a limitless and colourless matrix. Its door was marked by the seven colours of the rainbow, which heralded the manifestation of the powers to reign to the north, south, east and west, as well as the zenith, nadir and centre. Within the tipi sat the six Grandfathers, who drew his attention to the lessons brought forth by the four groups of twelve horses that subsequently appeared. All of the powers of idealized Nature were synthesized in their galloping mass. All that was and would be.
The power of tipis lay also in their striking beauty. Chief Satanta of the Kiowa possessed an entirely red tipi which flew red streamers above it. One of the Dakota lodges was ornamented on its north side with battle pictures, whilst its south side was emblazoned with alternating black and yellow stripes. Great sun wheels, lightning snakes and a world-tree were surrounded with stylized animals and battle scenes on another ancient cover. Amongst the Blackfoot the blue tipi was believed to be the home of thunder and belonged to No Coat, son of the great chief Running Crane. It was completely blue, beginning with the deep indigo of the night sky at the top and gradually fading to a pale blue at the bottom. At the back was a larger yellow disk, whilst the north side was dotted with small blue spots for hail and the south side with yellow spots for rain. Above the door was a thunderbird in dark blue, whose outstretched wings framed the lightning which flashed from its beak. A drum with the thunderbird symbol hung on a tripod at the back of the tipi, marking the area as taboo, for no one could pass between the tripod and tipi or make any noise near it.
The Pleiades are the Seven Sages who floated upon the midnight sea when all the world was deluged, but they are also the lost children who wander in the sky seeking refuge. The Great Bear, which so often decorated the opposite ear of the Blackfoot smoke-flap, symbolizes the seven elemental powers, which in Hindu mythology are associated with the Rishis. These overlapping symbols were thus painted side by side, with the fallen stars below on the band at the bottom. The 'puff-ball' stars are the heavenly seekers fallen to earth, and their course runs between smoke-flaps and hem and traces the cosmic and microcosmic nature of the tipi. Its cover is the sky which, at its top, is masculine and electric. Its floor is the earth in its globe-like roundness, and its poles are the nerves connecting Wakan Tanka with the Great Grandmother, who is the prototype of Nature. When the Plains Cree prayed to the Great Mystery to see Itself in his lodge, it was as this merging of the above and below.
As the tipi was set up by women, so the earth gave it substance and support. The door-flaps, indeed, were like a woman's embracing arms, and entering within, one entered a door leading to the womb of life on this earth. The bride and groom together entered into this spawning place even whilst they guarded their destiny through the husband's vision quests and the spiritual powers he hoped to obtain. Even in the erection of the tipi, the placement of the poles acknowledged this spiritual authority. The poles of the east and the south were placed as representing spirit and matter, and when each was firmly dug in, the pole of the north was placed on behalf of the constant soul. All other poles were added to these in this microcosm, and the cover, like the sky, enclosed it. Within, the sacred offerings were made with utensils and material that again blended the masculine and feminine forces, and the release of smoke was regulated according to the forces outside in the greater cosmos. Far from simply being a means of preventing the smoke from gathering in the tipi, the smoke-flaps could be finely tuned, as if to release the remains of the sacrifice into the whirling electricity of the Four Winds.
And when the painted cover was worn and old, it was carefully taken down and pressed into the waters of a lake, where it slowly sank into the world of dreams and visions, to be reborn again to another seer. Thus the great thunderbirds and otter, the bear footprints and lightning snakes, are submerged in the chaos of the astral realm, where they blend with the lingering patterns of the great camp circles of two thousand lodges on the Little Big Horn, the three circle camps of the Ponca, the Dakota Hunkpapas who set their tipis at the 'head of the circle', the great painted lodges of the Blackfoot in a mile-wide circle at Willow Creek. Rising before one's eyes, the hauntingly beautiful silhouettes of triangular shapes reveal an hourglass appearance. The great poles protruding above form an inverted triangle, and the whole spirit of the heavens seems poised to flow into the conical shape below. Like giant candles, they glow in that watery world and we catch a glimpse of a human expression of a total trust in Spirit made manifest.