The Tipi, the Traditional Home of North American Tribes

Learn about the Native American tipi and discover why it is one of the best designed homes for camping

What is a Native American tipi?

If you have ever seen Peter Pan or any Western movie, you know what the homes of some North American tribes looked like in the 16th century.

These tall and luminous white cones are called tipis, which means “home” or “place to live” in the Dakota Indian language. They were made from tanned animal hides, generally from buffalo, bison, elk, or antelope, and wooden poles, generally pine, as it was most abundant in the hills and valleys of the Rocky Mountains.

The tipis must always be raised pointing towards the East, as this is the point on the horizon where dawn breaks. Thanks to their ventilation, they stay cool in the summer and warm and cozy in the winter. They are resistant to rain and wind and their shape invites those in them to connect with nature and the spirit. The floor of the tent represents mother Earth, the ceiling father Sky, and each post of the tipi represents that path between man and the Great Spirit. Outside, the Native Americans tended to come together around a bonfire and take part in the cultural and spiritual customs of their tribe or clan.

History of the Native American tipi

The shape of tipis has not always been as we know them today. Due to the nomadic lifestyle of the majority of the clans and tribes that used them, they were forced to reinvent themselves and evolve their shelter according to the needs of the moment until eventually, the tipis looked like what we all know now.

Although it is difficult to determine when this culture was born, according to archeological remains and travel logs, we can say that the first tipi looked more like “two sticks holding up some hides” to protect the lodger from the sun, rain, or wind. Nothing like what we’ve seen in movies or studied at school, right?

It is possible that members of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado’s expedition (1540-1542) were the first Europeans to see tipis in the Native American camps of the Southwestern tribes. From the results of that expedition, we can conclude from the descriptions they wrote that the tipis used at that time were much smaller than customary.

Later on, thanks to the arrival of the Appaloosa horse, the tribes started to hunt bison on horseback, thus decreasing the risk of accidents and obtaining pelts and food in abundance. As reserves grew and exchange between clans became easier, the size of the tipi had to grow bigger. It went from being around 13 to 16.5 feet in diameter to around 26 to 29.5 feet in diameter in order to be able to more easily store belongings, pelts, food, and more.

Structure of the Native American tipi

The Indian tipi is a cone-shaped tent made of the hides of animals they hunted. One of the main advantages of its asymmetrical form is that it protects against the strong winds of the West.

What’s more, it has an interior lining. This layer helped spur on the chimney effect. A current of air moves between the outer and inner walls, which means that the air circulates well, preventing smoke from accumulating or, on the contrary, the condensation effect.

The women were the ones who assembled and moved the homes. They chose the location and organized how the village would be arranged. As they were “portable” homes, they generally could be set up and broken down in one or two hours, which facilitated their nomadic movements.

  1. Smoke ventilation
  2. Ventilation cover
  3. Lacing pins
  4. Rollable door
  5. Entrance
  6. Pegs for the lining
  7. Wood
  8. Firepit
  9. Chair
  10. Bed
  11. Tent pegs
  12. Poles for the smoke flap
  13. Lining
  14. Ozan
  15. Canvas
  16. Lashings

Types of Native American tipis

Despite the exchange of knowledge, every tribe and clan had some peculiarities when it came to creating and/or decorating each Indian tipi. Tribes’ own myths and cultural references could be seen through the decoration of their tents. Three basic prototypes stand out:

Dakota Tipi: The most notable aspect of this tipi is its vertical structure, which helps the rain quickly roll off of it. The top is reinforced in the area where the crossbars meet. The oval base tends to be structured around between twelve and fifteen long poles. It is considered by many to be the tipi that is easiest to repair and is practical and multi-functional.


Crow Tipi: This tipi is probably the most beautiful from an aesthetic point of view. The size of its extendible wings, used to help smoke escape, are in perfect harmony with the nearly conical shape of the tipi itself. The opening of the entrance is traditional and forms a lower-case “a” shape.


Blackfoot Tipi: Its design is most effective in dry, windy areas, as its shape is less vertical than others. The upper opening is more open in the area where the upper poles cross, which allows for rainwater to fall where the smoke exits. The most notable disadvantages of these tipis are that it takes longer to set them up and break them down and repairing them is more difficult.


Sleeping in an Indian tipi

If you have never had the experience of spending the night with your friends in the middle of nature eating, singing, or telling stories around the camp fire and sleeping in a tent, protected from the cold and the night, then now is the time. We have so much to thank the Native Americans for. When you try out an Indian tipi, you’ll succumb to its magic and charm and will never forget the cozy, peaceful moments you spend in it. This experience is worth trying out at least once in your life.

As we’ve seen, a tipi is a perfect place to stay for a life spent in nature, but most of all, it’s the perfect excuse for an original getaway where you can soak up the culture of the North American Indian tribes. Feel at one with nature and experience the charm that these unique and beautiful homes can offer you!