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Tipi living

Tipi living

I am an owner of a tipi…

I never suspected that I would be, and for the first decade or so of reenacting; I had always viewed them as something far more Plains Indian and inappropriate/historically incorrect for what I do.  For a variety of reasons, I have changed my attitude toward this, and when my Uncle Ken mentioned that he had a tipi that he was looking to get rid of; I knew I wanted it.  A big thanks to Uncle Ken and I owe you!

In living history and reenactment, many people tend to get an idea of what is correct or what is not and then blindly label everything according to a “generic look” instead of looking at the bigger picture (or actually a more narrow, geographic specific picture).  For us in the Great Lakes, much of the current standard of correctness has been established by items, writings, researchers, reenactors, etc. from further east.  Also, there is a tendency to view anything Western or Plains as automatically incorrect.  While “generic looks” and basic standards  are great and have, in many ways, increased the overall quality of historic impressions; it often obscures regionalism.  For many of us in the western Great Lakes, regionally we see some things that are far more Western, Plains, or Prairie than Eastern.

Now, before I explain out tipis in connection to my fur trade interest in WI, I should note that my tipi is cotton canvas and modern made, not a truly correct hide tipi as what really is reflected in the history I will be explaining.  Linda Holley’s website is a great resource for the history of tipi construction, etc., and she notes a variety of elements that are incorrect (historically speaking) on most modern tipis.  This all said, a French era or British era fur trader or voyageur in western WI, would certainly have had some familiarity and experience with the often romanticized (and just plain cool) tipi.  I plan on using my tipi, not at reenactments, but set up in the prairie grass and weeds well behind my house.  It can give me, my family, and my friends the experience (and fun) of camping out in a tipi.  I am especially looking forward to some nights out in it this winter.

Starting with the local geography in regards to tipi usage; where I live in western Wisconsin is sort of a borderlands between many Indian nations.  The Ojibwe were very close to the north, the Hochunk had villages nearby to the south, Mesquakie and Sauk roamed through this region at various times, and of course there were the Dakota.  Although this was sort of a borderland, “officially” we can consider it Dakota.  In fact, the U.S. government and the various Indian nations of the area came to that agreement in the Prairie du Chien Treaty of 1825 (see map below).  The early French explorers and traders (Hennepin, Perrot, etc.) coming into this area mention the Dakota.   In 1730, the French established a post in modern day Trempealeau, WI for the purpose of trading with the Dakota.  The location of this “Scioux Post” is a less than 20 mi. from my house (“as the crow flies”).  Although the Dakota were often living in wigwams and bark houses, they also used the tipi as a moveable shelter when traveling and hunting.   The use of these tipi are seen in later paintings and drawings by artists from the mid 19th century like F.B. Mayer and Seth Eastman.  These men show tipis in Minnesota and along the Mississippi River in places not far from me, such as Wabasha (a mere 30 mi. as the crow flies).   Certainly traders living in my area had frequent interaction with the tipi.

One interesting and early mention of French usage of the tipi comes from the merchant Moniere’s sales to Marin, Quesnel and St. Germain as they outfitted in Montreal for a trip to La Baie (Green Bay, WI) in 1740.   Outfitting for the 6 canoes heading to Green Bay included 6 “cabanes Sciouzes” which is translated as Sioux tipis by Marie Gérin-Lajoie, editor of the Montreal Merchants Record Project.  I would agree with this translation but find it interesting that they would be supplying with these in Montreal and then headed west.  There is more too this that is missing from the records!  All other outfits headed west tend to have bark for “cabining” listed for shelter, and I have yet to see tipis used like this in other early French documents.  It should be noted that Marin et al. were not only trading out of Green Bay but were charged with heading further west to trade with other nations in what is today Wisconsin and Southern Minnesota.  This would have included the Dakota.  It is possible, but I highly doubt it, that since this was coming from Montreal and headed to the west, that these were fabric tipis that were intended to be tested out at trade items to the Dakota.  If this were the case, I would assume there would have been more information recorded about these being made in Montreal.  Again, we are short on records.  Also, it is too convenient that the number of tipis directly matches the number of canoes and that no other shelter is mentioned. 

In addition to what was likely local tipi use here in Western Wisconsin, many of the fur trade men in this area had travelled much farther west and north west, into territory well known for tipi usage.  While out in these areas, these traders and workers would have spent time in tipis with the local natives and perhaps even used tipis themselves.  This is seen in some images (see  below) as well as mentioned by a variety of writers.  One of my favorite quotes dealing with this is from John Lee Lewis of the Hudson’s Bay Co.  In 1819-20 he states, “The freemen are Canadians and Iroquois of Lower Canada and their descendants. The Canadiens are all the old servants of the NWCo who have Indian women and children by them and of this get completely attached to the Country and Indian way of living and are all like them constantly moving about living in leathern tents made of the skins of the Moose or Buffalo.”

3 Responses to “Tipi living”

  1. Bob Miller says:

    I too have a tipi, which I don’t use for reenactments, but I have set it up for winter camping and display at our local “Heritage Week ” festival. Mine is a smaller size 12 foot tipi, which I was told is closer to the original hide tipi sizes. A hunting size -looks like the Metis camp depicted in the last image is similar. Mine sleeps 3 comfortably. Every time I set it up, it looks a little different-
    haven’t got the knack yet !
    We were going to use it for our hunt camp, but decided on building the wigwam instead. [ which is now completed ! ]
    What size is your tipi ? Does it have a liner ? If not, you need to get one. They make all the difference re livability.

  2. Isaac says:

    It is a 14′ and does have a liner (which I need to hang up yet). The liner was hit my mice and has some holes, so I will need to see how it looks when hung up. If nothing else, I will just go old school and hang rectangular sheets of cloth, blanket, or even hides up for liner.

    • Bob Miller says:

      14 foot is a very nice size. Being born and raised in Manitoba, I have always had an interest in Metis culture. That is what prompted the acquisition of the tipi. Unfortunately, it is not really appropriate for either my 18th C French , or my Loyalist personas


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