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The Sioux Native Americans Series - Housing

BY KATE WEXELL (staff writer)

[This article is one part of a series of articles by Kate Wexell about the Sioux Native Americans, developed in honor of National Native American Heritage Month this November. Read more in other articles of this series!]

The tipi was first developed by Native Americans in the Northern forests. Using thirteen poles that are each fifteen to eighteen feet to create a conical shape, they covered the skeleton with birch bark, caribou hides, and other materials. This was later adapted for use by the Plains Indians. To withstand strong winds, a slight adjustment in the frame was made, and caribou hides were exchanged for the more prevalent buffalo hides.

Usually, tipis were created from 8-20 buffalo skins, and an opening was left at the top as a smoke hole. During the summer, the front openings could be lifted, while in the winter, it was easy to add additional lining. Because of the winds blowing across the prairie, the entrance always faced east. Within the tipi, Native Americans would burn a fire in the center for heat and cooking.

This kind of housing was useful because Plains Indians were always moving to different hunting grounds, and therefore, their houses needed to be easily transportable. To take down a tipi, wooden lodge pins would be removed, and the tipi could then be folded. Two ends of the tipi's supporting poles would be lashed to a horse, and the other ends would form a travois (a type of sledge to carry goods) by being dragged on the ground. Then, the family’s possessions could be placed on a buffalo covering in the center. For thousands of years, dogs were also used to transport belongings. They could pull about 75 pounds of material on a travois.

The Lakota had a deep appreciation for the tipi, viewing it as a “good mother” who protected her children. Inside the tipi, they would place bedding, rugs for a baby, backrests, cradleboards, cooking bags, a supply of fuel, and parfleches (a rawhide container) containing food, medicine, and other necessities. On the walls, they would hang sacred objects, weapons, shields, and other items.

Most tipis weren’t painted if somebody lived within a village. Tipis would sometimes be painted to recall past events, such as to remember a great battle. These would be in geometric shapes to depict celestial bodies and animals. Sometimes, a man would have a dream that they considered to be a vision. They would go through a ceremony before telling the wise men in the village about what they’d seen. They would consult a painter who would place images of the dream on a tipi for remembrance.


Center of the West Museum (Cody, WY)

Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center (Chamberlain, SD)

Crazy Horse Memorial (Custer, SD)

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