Staying Warm and Dry on the Plains

European settlers built squat, square structures out of wood with dirt floors and rectangular openings for doors, windows. They cut a hole in the roof for a chimney.  These cabins were familiar and deemed sufficient to keep enough of the cold and wet out to make life bearable.  Settlers considered the Native Peoples’ dwellings to be less civilized, but what they didn’t realize is that the tipi is a resourceful and innovative dwelling.    

Native peoples constructed their homes by tying together three poles to form a tripod base.  These support poles stood upright and were held together with animal skins in an oval. This egg-like shape made the tipi sturdy, and when the wide back end faced the winds, the tipi could withstand gale-force gusts.

Instead of a chimney, the tipi’s smoke hole had flaps that didn’t open or close around the support poles.  This means that the top opening around those poles would be completely closed for rainstorms, keeping water away from the inhabitants.  Also, when the smoke hole faced downwind, it provided draft for the fire and vented smoke outside the dwelling.  European chimneys’ design meant that wind often pushed smoke and soot back into cabins and made lighting or maintain a fire difficult in strong wind.

Even though tipis were made from animal skins, they kept their inhabitants very dry.  Tipis generally had two layers, the outer skins blocked the wind and kept moisture condensation away from the living space. Another skin, or dew cloth, lined the interior of the dwelling and was pegged to the ground.  This meant that air could run up the sides of the tipi and out the smoke hole and provided a layer of insulation that kept the interior warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Thus the tipi was an efficient and elegant solution to life on the Western Plains.

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