National Geographic : 1944 Jul
Indians of Our Western Plains It is probable that the more severe climate in the north, together with less favorable ag ricultural conditions, prevented any consider able occupation of this section in aboriginal times, so that it was left open to the escaping Woodland groups. Tepees Supplant Earth Lodges Most characteristic dwelling of the Plains Indians was the earth lodge (page 101). Be fore Coronado, the central Plains had been dotted with earth-lodge villages of agricul tural peoples. Their remains may still be seen from North Dakota through Kansas. Some of these groups had evidently brought with them from the northeast knowledge of the conical tent. In the northeastern Woodlands this structure was bark-covered, but in the Plains buffalo skins were substituted (p. 76). The simplicity of the tent's construction, and its knockdown, portable nature made it extremely useful to the earth-lodge peoples when they adopted the custom of following the buffalo for part of the year. With the introduction of the horse, the Indian could increase the size and portable range of his tent, or tepee. As time went on, a number of the tribes moving westward to ward the Rockies abandoned the earth lodge and its accompanying agriculture, became nomadic hunters, and used only the skin tepee as a dwelling. Typical of such tribes were the Comanche, the Kiowa, the Arapaho, the Cheyenne, and the Crow, most of whom have definite tradi tions of splitting off from the earth-lodge trilpes. The size, and to a certain extent the form and details of construction of the tepee, varied with the different tribes. Among the Crow and Blackfeet, tepees were in exceptional cases more than 50 feet in diameter. For the cover of a typical tepee, 10 or 12 buffalo skins were required. These were divested of hair and tanned on both sides, then skillfully tailored to fit tightly over the coni cal framework of poles. The tent poles were usually from 14 to 16 feet long. The bark was peeled off and the poles rubbed smooth. To erect the frame, three or four poles, de pending on the tribe, were laid on the ground and lashed together about three feet from the small ends. These tied poles were raised and the butts spread apart the required dis tance and firmly set in the ground. Ten to 20 more poles, according to the size of the tent, were then arranged with their bases in a circle and the upper ends laid in the forks made by the tied ends of the origi nal poles. They were set in place so they would lock one another, making a frame firm enough to resist a high wind. A flap was built in the upper portion of the cover, next to the opening on top, for use as a ventilator. This was attached to a separate pole, the position of which could be changed according to the direction of the wind (p. 100). Women Literally the Homemakers Making, erecting, and transporting the tepee was strictly the work of the woman, and the tepee was considered to be her property (Plate VI). Frequently it was decorated by painting. A simpler, more graceful, or more practical dwelling was never devised by man. A large tepee encampment of the western Plains around the middle of the last century was one of the most picturesque sights offered in the North American Continent. To build an earth lodge, a well-drained level spot was selected and a circle from 30 to 60 feet in diameter was marked out. The sod within the circle was then removed to a depth of about a foot and the earth thrown around the circle in the form of an embank ment. Small crotched posts about 10 feet high were set 8 or 10 feet apart around the circle, and these were joined by beams laid on top. Split posts were laid against this frame, the lower ends being braced against the inner bottom of the embankment, forming a slop ing wall. An opening was left for a doorway, usually facing east. Halfway between the wall and the center were placed four heavy crotched timber up rights, 10 feet high, with beams laid across the tops in the form of a rectangular frame, to support the roof. The rafters were made of long, slender, tapering poles, stripped of their bark. The butts were tied to the lower frame with bark strips and also were fastened in the same manner where they crossed the upper frame. The small ends were drawn together at the top, tightly woven together with bark cords, and cut to equal lengths, so as to form a circular opening .for ventilation and the egress of smoke. Across the rafters, willow branches were placed horizontally and lashed closely. Over these was placed a heavy grass thatch suffi cient to shed water. On the grass was put a thick layer of sod, the segments overlapping like shingles. The sod then was tamped with earth, to be impervious to rain. From the door was built a tunnel-like entranceway, with movable skin curtains hung at both the inner and outer openings.