Tipis: Early "Mobile Homes"

Lipan Apache camp
A Lipan Apache camp in the Texas Hill Country, as envisioned by artist George Nelson. The woman in the foreground is preparing a buffalo skin to be used as a tipi covering. Painting from a mural in the University of Texas Institute for Texan Cultures at San Antonio.
photo of tipis in a row
Indian women stand in front of their tipi camp. This image of Crow Indians in Montana was taken around 1890. Some Indian groups continued to live in tipis until the early 1900s. Click to enlarge.

When you hear the words, "Indian," or "Native American," you probably think of tipis. But, as a matter of fact, most Indians did not live in tipis. Tipis were used mainly by Plains Indians, such as the Lipan Apache, Comanche and Kiowa, after the Spanish introduced horses into North America about 500 years ago. Plains Indians groups moved across the Great Plains following migrating herds of buffalo that ranged from Canada to Texas.

Plains Indians used the buffalo for many purposes, including buffalo hide coverings for their tipi homes. Dozens of long wooden poles formed the cone shape of the tipi. Many large buffalo hides, sewn together, were draped across the poles to form an enclosed tent. The hides could be rolled up on hot summer days to let cool breezes blow through the tipi.

diagram of inside of a tipi
Sketch of what the inside of a tipi might have looked like. Doors often faced east toward the rising sun.

Most tipis were relatively small and could hold only four or five people comfortably. The chief's tipi, however, was much larger because tribal meetings were often held there. A dozen or more people could fit comfortably within this larger dwelling. There were no furnishings, such as we might use today. Beds inside tipis were no more than buffalo hide mats and blankets layered on top of piles of grass and hay—very light weight and easily packed up for traveling. A small fire in the middle of the tipi was used for cooking and to provide warmth. Smoke escaped through a hole at the top of the tipi.

painting of Native Americans using a travois
Native Americans used dogs or horses to drag their homes behind them on a pole frame called a travois (trah-voy). (Click to enlarge.)

When the group was ready to move on, they took apart their tipis to bring with them. The tipi's wooden poles and buffalo hide could be made into a sort of "moving van" called a travois. The travelers packed all their belongings on the travois, a type of sled pulled by dogs and later by horses.

Tipis were used more widely and were built to be much larger after Europeans brought horses to North America in the 1500s. Using "horse-power," Indian groups could carry more possessions, including the much larger tipis and huge wooden poles. The caravans of Indians on horseback and their horse-drawn sleds sometimes stretched for miles.

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