A new generation of Westerners - and their guests - camp out the Plains Indian way.
The Tepee is back. Drive through Wyoming or Montana these days, and you'll notice a tepee B&B here, someone's "folly" there. If the buzz is to be believed, one might conclude that the traditional dwelling of the Plains Indians has become the preferred guesthouse for a new wave of Western homesteaders. Jane Fonda gave Ted Turner a tepee for his birthday. Jeff and Susan Bridges keep one near their ranch on the Yellowstone River. Bruce Weber and Nan Bush have six. Yawn. Fads expire, and one would assume that when the canvas loses its luster, these circular tents will be replaced by igloos, yurts, geodesic domes. Fashion must move on. Yawn. But if the tepee can outlive its transitory glamour, it may even surprise its owners - with its master of climate, wind and smoke; by its soundness; by the elegant shadow it has cast through a history once neglected, now rediscovered.
Of course, I'm a fine one to speak. Want to hear how I came into possession of a tepee? My sister, the decorator, had been frequenting a trading post on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana, just a few miles from where General George Armstrong Custer met his absurd end in 1876. She made a deal: one of the tepees left over from the filing of Son of Morning Star, a made-for-television disaster, was on the block, and she bought it at a knock-down price. Years passed as the canvas moldered in a shed at our Montana fishing camp, and we awaited an arthritic Absarokee Indian who would no doubt appear one day and show us how to erect it. Then three years ago no Native American at all, but a cowboy known locally as Tepee Don, walked stiff-legged into our lives. He produced lodgepoles, pegs, lacing pins, a door cover, a liner, and within a few minutes the tepee was the evocation of our valley's glorious past. "Hell of a tepee," muttered Don, surveying the hybrid. "Part Crow, part Cheyenne with an odd mixture of Blackfoot." He took off his hat to rub his forehead. He'd noted earlier that the canvas had been purposely darkened to give the effect of many moons of smoke and weather. "Showbiz," Don said, shaking his head.
And that was the extent of my association with the tepee for another year until my 11 year old niece and her au pair began conducting their summer tutorials inside. They reported on the tepee's remarkable brightness and unearthly calm, and concluded it "wasn't at all like a tent." So one early autumn evening I set off for the tepee, placed in a meadow and protected by stands of trees along the river's edge. I stooped to negotiate the door and, once inside, lowered its cover to complete the effect of enclosure. Lying on a sleeping bag to read, the only thing I could see beyond my immediate world was a trapezoidal section of bitter sky and frantic cloud through the open smoke flaps above me. Tribal streamers laced to the lodgepole tips snapped occasionally in an indolent wind. Even from this womb I sensed that the aspens had begun to shift from yellow to amber, their reflection adding candlepower to the dusk. Was I a giant parchment lampshade? And might the light have been from within? Sounds, too, were magnified. Two sandhill cranes yammered rude "gar-oos" as they flew in formation. A Canada jay alighted high on a lodgepole and never looked down. Within this shadow play in the round, anonymous bird silhouettes flitted past: meadowlarks, nuthatches, pine siskins? Much later, when the sky turned the color of eggplant, I sensed-but could never be sure - that a great horned owl had taken up a position overhead, calling to a mate in the canopy of trees along the river. The mountain mournfulness stirred me to gather kindling. This was my first experience with an open fire in canvas dwelling, but the fire drew as well as in any chimney. The evening chill soon vanished. I lay back again, this time beneath the ozan, a partial canvas ceiling used to trap warmth. Here I dreamed of eggshells brimming with the long-forgotten faces. Look at any campfire and it's possible, after a fashion, to levitate. But when I studied this fire, it became the aorta of my tepee existence. The crackling drowned out the rush of the glacier melt tumbling through the boulders nearby. My normally ordered mind spun a wild filibuster of memory, reaching back to days on either side of birth.
Soon it was too much. I wasn't used to such cal, such massive introspection. I checked the fire to make sure it was safe; then struggled to more familiar ground - a square house. When I looked back, the tepee had become a giant luminaria, and about if a ceiling of smoke had settled high in the branches of the trees, cathedral-like. A few days later Tepee Don set me straight. His wavy hair was slicked in place, his snap-button shirt without a wrinkle. He welcomed me to his house in Livingston with a smile that spread seamlessly from ear to ear. By tradition, cowboys are not champions of the Indian. But this cowboy, as modest and reassuring as the Virginian, was in the business of tepees not only because he liked them, but because - or so it seemed - he could right a few cultural wrongs. Here every artifact was a story. Yes, he said in cowboy fashion, he knew a thing or two about tepees and, by the way, would I be interested in a Manhattan?
Don Ellis, of Swedish descent, is arguably North America's most exacting producer of tepees. One of his lodges is on display in the St. Labre Museum on the Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana. Dowanda Little
Coyote Backbone is a prominent member of the tribe. Her family owns four of his tepees, including one of Crow design (ironic because the Crow were longtime enemies of the Cheyenne). "I'm real pleased," says Ellis,
"to be able to give back some of the heritage we stole." Ellis's fascination with things Indian began at age four, when his father, a rancher, ran sheep on the Blackfeet Reservation near Browning, Montana. During the
summer of 1933, at the time of the tribe's encampment, the small boy slipped into one of the tepees. "I can remember how cool it was. It may as well have been air-conditioned, and there was a stillness there - quite
different from the bustle outside." The impression lasted a lifetime. When he acquired his own ranch in his thirties, he discovered the remains of a buffalo jump on the property. Here he could retrace a route across the
plateau where Indians - one dressed in a wolf skin to harass the herd - had driven the bison into the glaring sun of dawn, forcing them over the edge of the cliff. At the base he found not only buffalo remains, but also
ancient tepee rings marked by stones outline the perimeter of the tents. Here these long-ago hunters had feasted.
Like many a cowboy, Ellis sashayed through more than one career. There were nine years spent owning a guest resort at the northern end of Yellowstone Park (naturally, a tepee was one of its features). Later Ellis moved his family to Livingston where he took up work as log cabin contractor. Where was he to house his crew? In tepees, of course. The rub was that, at the time, industrial models were of inferior design; most bore little resemblance to their historic counterparts and their seams split after use. Don Elis, the entrepreneur leapt into action. When everyone admired his work crew tepees, he became a regional supplier. When his knowledge of the tepee outstripped the inferior product he was selling, he started making his own. With Marcy, his wife, and Wendell Cooper, an expert sailcloth cutter, he launched White Buffalo Lodges. Today he has made more than 700 tepees of varying tribal specifications. He prefers the Cheyenne and Sioux designs (fashioned around a tripod of lodgepoles), but is happy to accommodate anyone partial to the Crow or Blackfeet style based on four supports.
Ironically, Ellis's tepee intelligence comes not from the Indians themselves, but from other white folks. In 1957 Reginald and Gladys Laubin wrote the seminal work on the subject, The Indian Tipi: It's History, Construction, and Use. A laboriously researched book, it is peppered with odd photographs of the couple done up in war paint and salted with pithy advice, such as, to really enjoy the tepee you should wear moccasins inside - shoes just will not do. The Laubins took up the Native American cause long before Dances with Wolves. They became students of the dances, sweat lodges, and even today from their place outside Jackson, Wyoming, they live according to an Indian ethic. "May the Great Spirit travel with you," they might say to a visitor. A Cheyenne tepee is their summer home; they swear by its calming power. My first misconception, corrected by the Laubins, is that the tepee is perfectly symmetrical. Actually, it resembles a tilted ice cream cone with the steep side to rear. Indians lived in the round; their encampments were circles. It was the white man who thought in square blocks. The tepee probably existed long before 1600. Tepee rings, dating to Pre-Columbian times, generally define small shelters - on average, not much more than 18 feet across. The size was limited by transport technology. The horse reached the northern plains only about 1700; before then, the dog had been the Indian's best of burden, dragging a pole platform known as the travois. The horse would liberate the Plains Indian: with a larger travois, longer lodgepoles could be cut and a tepee could grow some to 30 feet across. No longer merely a hunter's shelter, it was large enough to support an extended family.
Originally, the wall of the tepee was made from buffalo hide rubbed clean of hair. But hardly any 20th century Indian could recall seeing such a dwelling; since by the 1850s white traders were swapping bolts of canvas
for buffalo hides. For the Indian, canvas was another form of liberation, but Ellis says shaking his head, "they paid dearly for it. The exchanged of skins for canvas was always weighted in favor of the white man." But what
a sight those 18th century encampments must have been! In 1832, the artist George Catlin described the speed with which the Sioux broke camp: "In one minute, 600 lodges (on a level and beautiful prairie), which had
been strained and fixed, were seen waving and flapping in the wind and in one minute more all were flat on the ground." By the end of the 19th century, the northern Plains Indians had been exiled to ghettos "reservations".
All things Indian were discouraged, principally the sun dance and the tepee, both of which were deemed savage. Instead, Native Americans were issued the eminently civilized wall tent, an awkward rectangular structure,
hot in summer, cold in winter, with limited headroom in any season. In the 1930s on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation of North and South Dakota and Montana's Crow Indian Reservation, the first tepee seen by most
tribe members belonged to the Laubins. Black Elk, the holy man of the Sioux, noted in the memoirs he dictated at about this time, that the "white men have put us in these square boxes. Our power is gone and we are dying,
for the power is not in us any more. You can look at our boys and see how it is with us. When we were living by the power of the circle in the way we should, boys were men at twelve or thirteen. But now it takes them
very much longer to mature. Well it is as it is. We are prisoners of war while we are waiting here. But there is another world."
I suspect my experience in the tepee had much to do with the imperfect circle. Maybe the Native American uncomfortable with straight lines perceived an earth shape in the tepee. He saw the sky, the stars; the horizon as round. The wind never traveled directly; it whirled. The sun and the moon ad the season formed circles and even a human life began where it ended, one childhood leading to another. In many ways the tepee reflected Indian reality. In the words of Black Elk, "Our tepees were round like the nests of birds and these were always set in a circle, the nation's hoop, a nest of many nests where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children."
I see no reason why the tepee cannot also reflect others' reality as well. I plan to spend lots of time in mine not alone, but in the company of good friends. I take to heart the Laubins' claim that "it's near impossible to have a fight in a tepee." I view promises about the tepee's effect on mood as convincing as those made about the power of the pyramids. Evenings in the West, I can foresee many illuminated tepees - conical lanterns - forming tight circles over plains and river valleys. The big circle will not be just the one visible, but the graceful are through time - the revival of an era before the West was won.
|< Previous Page: Tepee Tranquility Article||Continue to Architectural Digest article|