The tepee story starts long long ago, in a more innocent time. The Tepee was used by many different Indian tribes such as the Ute, Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne and the Arapaho; all of which frequented our San Luis Valley. This valley was a special place to Indians for many reasons perhaps the most important reason was that the valley had a resident herd of buffalo that did not migrate. The Native Americans knew that they could come here and find buffalo any time of year; that was pretty special!
Some people suppose that the tepee was the most primitive of Native American dwellings however this is not so; you would have to look at our underground dwelling for that. These Indians all knew how to build a permanent home as a matter of fact many of them built permanent winter abodes. The tepee is not a more primitive dwelling but rather a lifestyle choice. It was a product of the Plains Indian way of life. These men and women were hunters and gathers; choosing to live with the land rather than off of it. To live this way they had to move often so as not to over hunt any area. Thus they had to have a home that would move with them.
A tepee was not just a shelter but also the history book of the tribe and family that owned it. The Plains Indians used their tepees much like the pioneers used diaries. With pictures they recorded important events, religion and history. Many of the Plains Indians had a highly detailed form of picture art. This can be seen in the ledger art of latter years, where Indians would paint or color on once used paper like ledgers or lists. Once these pictures were painted on a tepee they were used to teach the children the family history. Also they put these pictographs on animal hides that could easily be rolled up and carried along to tell the stories of the tribe. Much of the history of the Plains Indians has been lost forever because all of the materials they used would, when neglected, decompose in a matter of a few years leaving no archaeological trace.
The original tepees before European influence, were made as follows. Ten poles formed the frame work of the tepee that held up the cover. The poles were tied together at the top with leather, rawhide or hemp rope. The tepee’s cover was constructed of buffalo and/or elk hide stitched together with sinew. This hide cover is very durable but it could weigh up to 300 pounds! A tepee could be set up by two women within an hour, making it the perfect home for traveling Indians. To withstand strong winds when it was properly assembled it was not a true cone shape. The front of the tepee with the door in it always pointed east; this front side would be quite steep to brace the structure against the prevailing west winds. Thus back of the tepee would then be slanted quite a bit to create a more aerodynamic structure. The distance across the base of most tepees was approximately 15 feet; a tepee stood about 12 feet high. This size of Tepee could comfortably hold a whole family and their possessions.
Out on the plains, after a buffalo hunt, the women would break camp. The tepee cover along with other belongings would be transported on its own poles which were used as travois. A travois is where a couple tepee poles are crossed at the tips and tied across a horse’s withers in a A shape; then rope would be used to weave back and forth at the base of the poles, things could then be stacked and tied on to this. A horse could drag a lot of weight this way. They would relocate the tepee near the buffalo kill site in a depression or along a creek with cotton woods. In such a place as this, the women could gather what was referred to as squaw-wood. This was wood that beavers had cut upstream it drifted down stream and washed up on the creek banks where it dried. This wood was in small pieces so the women could easily gather it with no help from the men. If their location was in a depression on the plains where there was no wood, the women then would gather dried buffalo chips for their fires. Years latter the pioneer women heading west and the ones living on the plains learned from the Indians to gather buffalo chips for fuel. A newspaper editor, in 1877, in Meade County Kansas, wrote that it was comical to see how gingerly our wives handled these chips at first, he said “They commenced by picking them up between two sticks… Soon they used a rag, and then a corner of their apron. Finally, growing hardened, a wash after handling them was sufficient. And now? It’s out of the bread, into the chips and back again – and not even a dust of the hands.”
But to get back to the Indians; after the squaws set up camp they would join the men in skinning the buffalo and preserving the meat.Which kill belonged to who was distinguished by the marks and colors on the arrows and spears: each family was responsible to dry their meat and tan their own hides. All spring, summer and fall they followed the buffalo herds. They only remained in the same place long enough to dry the most recent kills then they moved on. The meat was collected in this manner until they judged there was enough to last the winter.
Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho women owned the tepees not the men. By tribal council law if a woman wanted a divorce all she had to do was to place her husbands belongings outside the tepee door! Imagine if it was like that today?
Our particular tepee is authentic to the latter Plains Indians, once the westward movement of pioneers had started. This means that canvas had become available. As soon as canvas became available it was the preferred material for the tepee’s cover. It did not require nearly as much work as the earlier hide tepee partly because it did not need to be tanned and partly because it came in large pieces requiring less sewing and sealing. Women since they put up and took down the tepee really preferred the canvas because it weighs much less than the hides only 60 to 80 pounds.
Even the canvas of the tepee has a story; it came to the new world not as a supply as you might think but as ship sails! Salt water causes canvas to decay fairly fast and since the ship sails were huge and had high winds pounding into them the old canvas could not stand up to the pressure. The ships had to outfit with new sails for the return journey to Europe. Though the old canvas could not handle the pressure of being a sail it could still serve many purposes. This canvas could be made into sturdy pants, oilskin rain slickers, tarps, wagon covers and tepees.
Our tepee is fully furnished. It looks like the owners just walked out to go skin some buffalo after a good hunt and that they might return any moment. So bring the kids by and let them go in an feel for themselves what tepee living was like.