Big Trouble in Little Tipi
As some of you know I bought a Tipi a few months back to serve as one of my shelters on this urban hunter- gatherer adventure. I have learned a great deal about tipis in the last few months. Mostly gleaning information from the book, The Indian Tipi: It’s History, Construction and Use, which covers much more than just tipis and has tips on Indian lifestyle that I have heard no where else.
The story goes like this: I ask Erin if I can dig a scout pit in her backyard. She says sure. I take a long hard look at her yard and realize a scout pit won’t work there. She jokes about me buying a tipi and living out of that. I laugh and then think, “what the hell.” I order a small tipi online and two weeks later it’s on her front porch.
I open the box and find the canvas bag inside surprisingly small. I pull everything out. There are 5 poles, each one separates into two pieces for storage. There is the canvas cover. There are a bunch of plastic stakes. A canvas bag for all of that, and a piece of paper with the instructions on it. I set the whole thing up in her backyard in a matter of minutes. It looks really cool and is really small. I am a small guy, so what do I care?
A few days later I come back and decide I should light a fire inside and see what happens. Almost immediately the entire tipi is full of smoke and not enough air to breathe. Erin has a friend over, a guy who makes his living building wheel-chair accessible tree houses, who has known friends who have lived in tipis before. He tells me that I need to get a liner for the inside, and that will help with the smoke problem. That’s when I realize it’s time for me to do some real research on how tipis work.
I do an internet search for books on tipis and it seems there is one that everyone really respects called, The Indian Tipi: It’s History, Construction and Use. I look at the picture of the book and realize that I have it already. In fact, my mom gave it to me several months back, before Erin even suggested I get a tipi. It looked like one of those books about “Indians” from the 1970’s that would be full of misinformation and racism. So when my mom was like, “Hey Peter, I was going through my old books and I saw this one and thought you might like it,” I hesitatingly replied, “Oh. Sure. Thanks mom,” not wanting to make her feel bad.
I found the book buried under a pile of junk in the corner of my room. Of course the first thing I notice is that it was written by white people, which generally makes me, a white person, skeptical. The first chapter is everything I thought it would be; a disappointing, racist history of the tipi. This chapter however, was written by someone else. The rest of the book is written by Reginald and Gladys Laubin, a married couple who I notice as I skim the book, are pictured wearing full Plains Indian garb. They even claim to have stayed in a tipi on their honeymoon. Despite the authors continuously reminding the reader throughout the book that Indians “think were cool,” it is a really great read.
The part that caught my attention was this:
When you have pitched your tipi and pegged down the cover, you have a tent open at the top and all around the bottom, since no matter how tightly you have pegged it, the cover cannot possibly reach entirely to the ground all the way around. It should come within a couple inches of doing so, but even a two-inch space permits a lot of draft. You have, in fact, merely a temporary shelter, just a chimney, not really fit to live in. The wind blows in at the bottom and a heavy rain will run down the poles and drip on everything inside. If poles and cover are all you have, your tipi is drafty, wet, coldâ€“or hot in warm weatherâ€“and as cheerless as a log cabin without any chinking. One reason why so many people have been disappointed in tipis is that they thought the cover and poles were the whole thing. Far from it!
The lining, besides keeping away drafts and dampness, prevented rain from dripping off the poles and served a number of other purposes. It gave increased ventilation, helping to clear the atmosphere of smoke. The warm air rising inside the tipi drew in cold air from the outside, which came in under the cover and went up behind the lining, creating a perfect draft for the fire and taking the smoke out with it. Someone once said that the Indian lived in his chimney, which is literally correct, but in effect not true if a lining was used and the fire handled properly. The air space behind the lining also served as insulation, which helped to keep the tipi warm in winter and cool in summer.
At this point I understood what Erins friend had told me, and realized that I needed a lining. I bought 6 white wool blankets from the local military surplus store. I measured and sewed them into a liner. I chose wool because it’s warm, fire resistant, and soft. I chose white because it will reflect the most amount of light inside. I will put a circle of rocks around the inside to hold the liner in the corners. The rocks will double as hot rocks for cooking and heating. I hope this works.
The smoke hole flaps don’t work. I don’t understand how they are supposed to go together. I’m going to tie the off to the ground or something. It came with two sticks to hold them upright, but the sticks aren’t long enough. They look limp and floppy. I’ll need to figure that out soon.
The five poles that came with the tipi are not going to hold up under the weight of the wool liner. They look like dowels made in a shop. I’m not sure what kind of wood it is. They are already starting to grow mold. I will need to get real lodge poles at some point. Pine is the classic, but I may go with Doug Fir, which is more available around here.
I’ve covered the floor of the tipi with Western Red Cedar bows from Irving Park. This will hopefully prevent rot, provide a nice aroma, and create insulation from the ground.
The authors in The Indian Tipi suggest piping in air to the fire pit from under ground, especially in small tipis. Since mine is very small I’m going to do this with some sort of metal pipe I find. I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for anything I can harvest for it.
Using the Tipi requires several elements. The first is transportation and size. My Tipi is very small (8.5 feet in diameter) and can only fit maybe two to three people max. That’s with a fire and not much supplies. Although the tipi is small, it is not something I can carry around with me like a modern backpacking tent. The Indians used dogs, then horses to carry their tipis. In place of animals I suppose I could use a cart that attaches to my bike. This would only work so far as there are roads wide enough and easy enough to roll a cart. This would limit the amount of other useful items I could carry on such a cart, like firewood. While I appreciate and honor the invention of the tipi, I acknowledge there was a time and place for it and the urban environment ain’t it, unless you don’t mind being sedentary.
The second thing about the tipi is that it is not designed for rain forest conditions. Here in the NW coast, everything is wet almost year round. People here rarely wore buckskin, mostly keeping it warm and dry inside for blankets. Their houses and clothes and canoes and everything were made from the Western Red Cedar, whose high tannin content make it very rot resistant. The tipi is not a shelter that would last long in the Northwest.
The bottom line is, the tipi was design for open country environment and with the ability to transport the shelters with the aid of animals. What does this mean for me? Nothing. I’m still going to use it, and still get the best out of it that I can. Tipis are awesome shelters, regardless of the conditions I have mentioned. Luckily for me, I don’t need to transport the tipi anywhere, and even if I did I could just make a few trips on my bike since nothing in the urban environment is too far apart. I wouldn’t be taking it for miles and miles. I might however, retire the tipi during the wintertime to avoid getting it moldy. I may build a cedar plank shack for the winter or get a small wood stove for the tipi. We’ll see.
This brings up a lot of the philosophy behind shelters. It seems there are three distinct shelter strategies used by nomadic indigenous people; carry your shelter with you, move from stationary shelter to stationary shelter, build small temporary shelters wherever you set up camp. Each one seems to be an adaptation to habitat, weather patterns and available methods of transportation.
I am planning on utilizing all three of these methods. I have several sedentary shelters, in various friends’ yards, that I will migrate from. I will also build temporary shelters in parks and such. And I will also carry my shelter with me, in the form of a sleeping bag and a tarp. In fact, it seems the best kind of shelter for the nomadic urban hunter-gatherer may just be a tarp and a sleeping bag. Of course, homeless people figured this out long ago. I differ than homeless people since I’m utilizing my friendships for access to garden space, fire pits, bathrooms, tap water, etc. This is so I can avoid trouble with the authorities and deepen my relationships with the friends I have.
1. What should I use to pipe in air?
2. What should I do about the smoke hole flaps?
3. How well insulated will it be?
4. Was the wool the right choice?
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