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Setting Up Tepees

What do these photos tell you about how Indian women set up their tipis?

Preparing To Set Up A Tepee

These Ute women are preparing to build a tipi. One woman is lifting the poles. The bundles in the center of the photo are the tipi cover. The photo was taken in 1913 near Colorado Springs, where visiting Utes were making a camp.

Setting Up Tepee

Photo: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

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By 1913 when this photo was taken, Indians used canvas instead of buffalo hides to cover tepees.

Their Own Words

"The woman of the family had built the lodge, and when we went to a new location she was the one that moved it. Raising or striking a tepee was women's work, as it always had been, and they took great pride in it. The important thing, besides the know-how, was the lodge poles. These must be long and straight and slender."

Source: Althea Bass, The Arapaho Way: A Memoir of an Indian Boyhood [by Carl Sweezy] (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1966), p. 11-12.

Setting Up The Lodge Poles

This photo shows an Indian woman putting in place the first four poles of the tepee she is setting up.

Setting Up Lodge Poles

Photo: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

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The women have tied four poles together and have set them up. This was the first step for Utes in building a tipi. The Cheyenne, Arapaho and other plains tribes used three poles to make a tripod instead of four.

Their Own Words

"First, four of the best and longest poles were selected and then bound together by a rawhide rope....Two of the women would take these poles and raise them to a vertical position....A little at a time, one woman would open them out to full diameter excepting two of the poles would be left about two feet apart to form the entrance, facing east."

Source: Horace S. Poley, quoted in Jan Pettit, Utes: The Mountain People (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1990), p. 19.

Covering The Lodge Poles

The women have finished putting up the tepee poles. The woman on the right is beginning to cover the poles with canvas cloth.

Covering The Lodge Poles

Photo: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

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There was no required number of poles used to make a tipi. Most tipis had from 8 to 12 poles.

Their Own Words

"Directly opposite these would be raised a pole to which the top of the canvas had been firmly fashioned. The rest of the poles were then placed in position, being supported by the crotches formed by the tied poles."

Source: Horace S. Poley, quoted in Jan Pettit, Utes: The Mountain People (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1990), p. 19.

Finishing Touches

The woman in this photo has covered the poles with canvas and is using poles to stretch the two flaps that will point upward above the tepee door. The flaps are left open to let smoke out of the tepee and to let fresh air in.

Finishing Touches

Photo: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

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By 1913, when this photo was taken, Indians covered their tipis with cloth. Most of the buffalo had been killed off by then. The tipi in this photo is covered with canvas cloth, which is water-proof.

Their Own Words

"The canvas was then deftly brought over the poles, being stretched from both sides toward the entrance; and fastened to the poles at the sides of the entrance so as to leave enough to overlap the opening when the tepee was closed. Just above the entrance are two triangular shaped flaps or wings used for ventilation and to let the smoke out. The size and direction of this opening being regulated by two long poles reaching the ground at the back of the tepee."

Source: Horace S. Poley, quoted in Jan Pettit, Utes: The Mountain People (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1990), p. 20.

Stretching The Cover Tight

The last step is to stretch the canvas tight and to use wooden pegs to fasten the canvas to the ground. The woman in this photo is pegging down the bottom of the canvas.

Stretching The Cover Tight

Photo: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

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The canvas was stretched from inside the tipi. The builder went inside and pushed the poles outward at the bottom until the cover was tight. Holes were made in hide covers to place the stakes. The stakes were driven through loops sewn onto the canvas covers.

Their Own Words

"Having adjusted the entrance to her satisfaction, she entered the tepee and moved the poles outward until the canvas was stretched tightly over them. The lower edge was next securely fastened to the ground with wooden pegs."

Source: Horace S. Poley, quoted in Jan Pettit, Utes: The Mountain People (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1990), p. 20.