By Ben Temperley
Professor Jon Davey teaches Architecture History III: Non-Western Architecture at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC). This is a required class of the recently accredited Master of Architecture program at SIUC. As part of this class, Professor Davey gave his students the assignment to build a model of a non-western piece of architecture. I chose to build a Native American Sioux tipi. You may ask, “Isn’t that a western structure?” It is not in the sense that western refers to the tradition of building traced from the Greeks, to the Romans, to the Europeans, and to the United States. Native architecture is considered separate from this tradition.
According to Merriam-Webster, a Tipi is “a conical tent usually consisting of skins and used especially by American Indians of the Great Plains”. Tipi is a Dakota word meaning “to dwell”. A tipi is not the same as a wigwam. A wigwam is “a hut of the American Indians of the Great Lakes region and eastward having typically an arched framework of poles overlaid with bark, mats, or hides”.
I was greatly aided in my endeavor by a book entitled, The Indian Tipi: Its History, Construction, and Use by Reginald and Gladys Laubin. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in a reliable description of the Native American tipi. The authors describe in precise language and detailed diagrams how to build a full scale tipi in the manner of the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Crow, and other Native American tribes. They also describe the utility and beauty of a tipi, the furnishings in a tipi, and how to transport a tipi.
After reading the Laubins’ book, I drew a model of the cover of a Sioux Tipi in AutoCAD at full scale according to the detailed diagrams in the book. I then scaled the drawing to 1 ¼” = 1’-0” and printed it in the School of Architecture computer lab on trans-bond paper. Next, I purchased materials. I bought twenty 5/8” thick dowel rods from Walmart for the poles. I bought two packages of two-yard long pieces of off white canvas for the cover. I bought yarn and string from Walmart. I didn’t find the fabric paint I wanted at Walmart, so I went to Hobby Lobby. I used the fabric paint to paint designs on the cover.
After purchasing the supplies, I trimmed the dowel rods to the correct size in the Blue Barracks wood shop. I also sanded the ends to points to give the tipi a more realistic look. To transfer the design onto the canvas, I first laid the canvas on a table. I then laid transfer paper over the canvas. Next, I placed the AutoCAD paper printout on top. I traced the design with a pen, which transferred to the canvas via the transfer paper. Next, I cut out the cover. Some of the hems I folded over and ironed together with iron-on adhesive. After that, I painted the design on the cover with the fabric paint.
To assemble the tipi, I followed the instructions provided by the Laubins’. I had to learn what a ‘clove hitch’ knot was to tie the three base poles together to form a tripod. With the tripod erected, I laid the remaining poles in place and tied them together. I attached the canvas cover and inner lining to the poles. Then, I closed the front cover using cut-to-size tooth picks as lacing pins.
I enjoyed my tipi experience. I learned that tipis are ingenious, elegant structures. There is more to their design than you might expect. I challenge you to find out more about them. If I had more space to write I would tell you about the smoke flaps, the inner lining, their insulating properties, their adaptability to winds, how they are not perfectly cone-shaped, how to transport them, etc. If you ever want to build a full-scale tipi, it might be worthwhile to build a scale model like I did first for practice.