Manataka American Indian Council














T I P I   P A I N T I N G

by Ernest Thompson Seton

The most conspicuous effort at painting that the Indian attempts -- and perhaps his most characteristic -- is the decoration of the tipi. It certainly adds more to a picturesque camp than any other painting that the ordinary camper can master.

Having constructed the tipi according to the directions in the previous chapter, and giving some ideas about decorations, it is ready for painting. This is most easily done as the cover lies flat on the ground or floor.



The following color of paints I have found most useful:  Red. Red lead is the only beautiful red that will stand the weather. Also, it is inexpensive.

Blue, cobalt or ultramarine, lightened with white lead. These are beautiful blues, but no blue will stand the sun indefinitely; all fade in time.

Medium chrome yellow, burnt umber, chrome green, lamp black, and white lead complete the list. All of these, except the last, I prefer to have as dry powder, to be mixed as I need them with raw linseed oil and a little Japan dryer. Often a little kerosene is used  with the oil, to thin the colors and reduce the expense.


Some like to keep the canvas of the tipi pure white as a background, on account of its beauty in the landscape and its lightness inside. Some prefer khaki. I have seen a beautiful tipi made by dipping the whole thing in red dye before it was painted with the designs. The fact that the dye takes unevenly only adds to the good effect.




To paint it, lay the cover flat on the floor--all the better if tacked down; find the exact point around which the half circle was drawn in making it. With a string held at this point, and a chalk at the proper distance, trace all the semicircles that are indicated, or are needed for guidance. Chalk is best for this, as it is easily washed off later--one shower of rain and it is gone.

With these semicircles as guides, now sketch in the animals, etc.

Two sizes of brush are needed-one about 2 inches wide for large areas; and one 1/4 inch wide for stripes, etc. When changing from one color to another, brushes should be washed clean with kerosene, turpentine, or hot soapy water.

The tipis in this picture are shown without smoke poles, pegs, etc., for the sake of simplicity.  Click on the picture to enlarge.

In the first example, the Sioux tipi, most of the pattern is black on the buff ground of the leather. The star is blue, and each of the four wolves is black with red ankles, kidneys, and heart; also red and blue bands on tail and on the life-line that goes down the throat. The black decoration at the bottom is supposed to be alternated trees and distant mountains. The light spots below are lakes, and may be buff or blue. On the smoke flaps are stars; these also may be buff or blue.

The second tipi was recorded by F. A. Verner of Toronto, Canada. It had a green chevron on the lower part. I do not know how authentic this was. The old Indians had neither green nor blue; and the best looking tipis I have seen were painted in red, black, yellow, and white.

Paul Kane gives a sketch of a Red Bear tipi as shown. The only colors are the red band, out of which the red bear comes; and the buff color of the leather.

On the lowest and last tipi, the animals were flat brown tint; the line on which they stand with the medicine ladder, blue.

Thunder Bull's tipi, I bought from him some twenty-five years ago in Oklahoma. It was not painted, but decorated with beaded shields, from each of which hung three tassels of grass and horsehair. The four shields on the side were about six inches across; the big one up near the lifting strap was twelve inches wide.

This tipi was part of my Indian Village at Cos Cob in 1902. I lived in it off and on for years--till it rotted away and was replaced by those now in use.




The world's largest teepee was commissioned for use during the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics by the Red Hawk Trading Company. It is located at the Canyon Ski Resort until the end of March, 2002.


Height: 46' 2"  up to middle

    55' up the front 

    52' 7in up the back.  

Circumference around the base is 165'.

The floor area is  2166 square feet.

The cover weighs over 700 Pounds

675 sq yards of canvas were used.

Contains 1340' of seams

32 interior poles

2 59ft long smoke flaps poles with 55 lacing pins 

The teepee is done in authentic style witch includes tilt back which makes the base oval.





Lodge Pole Pine Tipi Poles

We have excellent Lodge Pole Pine tipi poles available. Lodge Pole Pine are "thinned" from the forest to allow Ponderosa Pine to grow. Because Lodge Pole Pine grows so tall and thin, it was the Native's first choice of tree for their poles - it was from its use as a tipi pole that the first settlers named this tree" Lodge Pole" Pine. Our poles are hand-peeled and are usually sufficiently dry for immediate use. To get your poles perfectly smooth to the touch, sand them down with medium-rough sandpaper, then rub them down with Linseed Oil. This gives the pole a beautiful, light brown color, helps preserve it, and will prevent it from turning grey from exposure to the weather. Lodge Pole Pine is not the only species of tree that will make a good tipi pole. Any tree will do that is reasonably straight and can be thinned down to approximately 2-1/2" to 3" in diameter at the butt end. Tapering the pole is most easily accomplished using a drawknife. Poles should be dry before applying Linseed Oil. A set of poles will last more than 15 years if properly cared for. You will need 17 poles for your tipi - 15 poles are used on the inside and two poles on the outside for the smoke flaps.

What length tipi pole do you need? For a 14ft. tipi we suggest poles 16 feet long. For a 16ft. tipi, 20 ft. long. For an 18ft. tipi, 24ft. poles. For a 20ft. tipi, 24 ft. poles. For a 22ft. tipi, 27 to 30ft. poles. And for a 26ft. tipi, you will need 0 poles 27 to 30 feet long. (Of course, your poles may be longer than this if you like.)

If you plan to be transporting your tipi poles often but feel that they are too long to carry on your vehicle, here is an excellent solution. Tipi poles can easily be sleeved together in the middle using plastic PVC pipe. Use "schedule 40" PVC pipe that is 1-1/2" in diameter and 16" long. (Longer for 24' to 30' poles.) Cut the poles in half and carefully taper the cut ends so that they fit snugly into one-half of the sleeve. A draw knife is the best tool for the job. Don't worry if you accidentally shave an end a bit too much. A snug fit can be easily created using one or two wraps around the pole with duck tape. Tap the PVC sleeve half way down on one of the prepared pole ends for each individual pole and the job is done. We have 16' poles  sleeved together in order to carry them on our white water raft trips.



Making a Teepee 

Many famous campers have said that the Indian teepee is the best known movable home.  It is roomy, self-ventilating, cannot blow down, and is the only tent that admits of a fire inside.  Click drawing to enlarge.

Then why is not everywhere used?  Because of the difficulty of the poles.  If on the prairie, you must carry your poles.  If in the woods, you must cut them at each camp.

A 10-foot teepee is the smallest size worth having for practical use.  A larger one is easier to keep clear of smoke, but most boys will prefer the small one, as it is much handier, cheaper, and easier to make. I shall therefore give the working plan of a 10-foot teepee of the simplest form.

It requires 22 square yards of 6 or 8-ounce duck, heavy unbleached muslin, or Canton flannel (the wider the better, as that saves labor in making up), 100 feet of 3/16 inch clothesline, string for sewing rope ends, etc.

Get your material machine run together 20 feet long and 10 feet wide. Lay this down perfectly flat (Cut I). On a peg or nail at A in the middle of the long side put a 10-foot cord loosely, and then with a burnt stick in a loop at the other end draw the half-circle B C D. 

Now mark out the two little triangles at A. A E is 6 inches, A F and E F each one foot; the other triangle, A R G, is the same size. Cut the canvas along these dotted lines. 

From the scraps left over cut two pieces for smoke-flaps, as shown. In the long corner of each (H in No. 1, I in No. 2) a small three-cornered piece should be sewed, to make a pocket for the end of the smoke pole, or else a 2-inch hole right through.

Now sew the smoke-flaps to the cover so that M L of No. I is neatly fitted to P E, and N O of No. 2 to Q D.

Two inches from the edge B P make a double row of holes; each hole is 1 1/2 inches from its mate, and each pair is 5 inches from the next pair, except at the 2-foot space marked "door," where no holes are needed.

The holes on the other side, Q D, must exactly fit on these.

At A fasten very strongly a 4-foot rope by the middle. Fasten the end of a 10-foot cord to J and another to K; hem a rope all along in the bottom, B C D. Cut 12 pieces of rope each about 15 inches long, fasten one firmly to the canvas at B, another at the point D, and the rest at regular distances to the hem rope along the edge between, for peg loops. The teepee cover is now made.

For the door (some never use one) take a limber sapling 3/4 inch thick and 5 1/2 feet long, also one 22 inches long. Bend the long one into a horseshoe and fasten the short one across the ends (A in Cut II). On this stretch canvas, leaving a flap at the top in the middle of which two small holes are made (B, Cut II), so as to hang the door on a lacing-pin. Nine of these lacing-pins are needed. They are of smooth, round, straight, hard wood, a foot long and 1/4 inch thick. They skewer the overlapped edges together.


Storm Cap or Bull-boat

During long continued or heavy rains, a good deal of water may come in the smoke-vent or drip down the poles. To prevent this the Missouri Indians would sometimes use a circular bull-boat of rawhide on a frame of willows as a storm cap.  Click drawing to enlarge.

For a twelve-foot teepee the storm cap should be about four feet across and eighteen inches deep, made of canvas with a hem edge in which is a limber rod to keep it in circular shape. It is usually put on with a loose teepee pole, and sits on top of the poles as shown, held down if need be by cords to its edge.

The poles should be short and even for this.


Putting Up the Teepee

Twelve poles also are needed. They should be as straight and smooth as possible; crooked, rough poles are signs of a bad housekeeper--a squaw is known by her teepee poles. They should be 13 or 14 feet long and about 1 inch thick at the top. Two are for the smoke-vent; they may be more slender than the others, and should have a 4-inch crosspiece lashed on them about 2 feet from the top. Last of all, make a dozen stout short pegs about 15 inches long and about 1 1/2 inches thick. Now all the necessary parts of the teepee are made.  Click drawing to enlarge.

This is how the Indian tent is put up: Tie three (some use four and find it stronger) poles together at a point about 1 foot higher than the canvas, spread them out in a tripod the right distance apart; then lay the other poles (except three including the two slender ones) in the angles, their lower ends forming a small circle. Bind them all with a rope, letting its end hang down inside for an anchor. 

Now fasten the two ropes at A (Cut I) to the stout pole left over at a point 10 feet up.. Raise this into its place, and the teepee cover with it, opposite where the door is to be. Carry the two wings of the tent around till they overlap and fasten together with the lacing-pins. Put the end of a vent-pole in each of the vent flap pockets or else through the holes there, outside of the teepee. Peg down the edges of the canvas at each loop. Stretch the cover by spreading the poles. Hang the door on a convenient lacing-pin. Drive a stout stake inside the teepee, tie the anchor rope to this and the teepee is ready for weather. In the center dig a hole 18 inches wide and 6 inches deep for the fire.

The fire is the great advantage of the teepee, experience will show how to manage the smoke. Keep the smoke-vet swung down wind, or at least quartering down. Sometimes you must leave the door a little open or raise the bottom of the teepee cover a little on the windward side. If this makes too much draught on your back, stretch a piece of canvas between two or three of the poles inside the teepee, in front of the opening made and reaching to the ground. The draught will go up behind this.

By these tricks you can make the vent draw the smoke. But after all the main thing is to use only the best and driest of wood. This makes a clear fire. There will always be more or less smoke 7 or 8 feet up, but it worries no one there and keeps the mosquitoes away.



Tipi Painting: Ernest Thompson Seton

World's Largest Teepee: Red Hawk Trading Company

Teepee Making - Version 2:







Tipis can be found all over the world in dozens of cultures. These fascinating dwellings are experiencing a resurgence in popularity because of their unique qualities: they are easy to transport, comfortable to live in for long periods of time, and weather resistant. Linda Holley explores the many different methods of tipi construction and includes dozens of drawings, photographs, illustrations, and diagrams that show how to construct, decorate, and transport a tipi. 248 pp, paperback.  ISBN: 158655115  March 2007 


"Ms. Holley breaks new ground with her extensive diagrams for for canvas tipis..." -- Peter Durkin, TipiCorner Editor, Whispering Wind magazine


Subjects include:
--History of the tipi             --Living in a tipi
--Construction                    --Decoration
--Poles                                --Materials
--Pitching a tipi                   --Transportation

SKU: 511-6         $18.95 + s/h    




NativeVOices - THE TIPI: Traditional Native American Shelter

By Adolf Hungrywolf

A collection of vintage photographs and historical texts presents an overall view of tipi life among various Native peoples. 13:9781570671746 $21.95 + s/h 



THE INDIAN TIPI: Its History, Construction, and Use...
by Reginald and Gladys Laubin

Reginald and Gladys Laubin are recognized as the world's foremost authorities on the subject of American Indian tipis.  Their excellent book offers great information about tipi etiquette, making a tipi lodge, assembly, storage, painting, maintenance, care and more!   University of Oklahoma Press, 1990 2nd edition Soft Cover, Paper reprint of the 1977 second edition.  Book News, Inc. Portland, OR   Price:  ISBN: 0806122366 $ 24.95 + s/h  


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