The Old North Trail, by Walter McClintock, , at sacred-texts.com
The tipi as a dwelling.—Impressive spectacle of the "White City" of the Blackfeet.—Protective designs of tipis.—Their sacred character and origin.—Strict secrecy of the owners.—I secure an Otter Tipi that was believed to have lost its protective power.—The ceremonial of transfer and its rules.—Special ceremonials and feast.—Transfer of the Cross Stripe Tipi to Wolf Tail.—Methods of painting tipis.—Kinds of paint used.—Manner of securing paints.—Medicine Weasel's superstitious fear of copying an Otter design.—Five different Otter Tipis in one camp.—While guest in an Otter Tipi, I learned the symbols of its decorations.—The War Tipi.—Description of its picture writings.—I secure a War and Hunting Tipi.—Relation of Painted Tipis to Sun-Worship.
OF all types of primitive dwellings, the tipi of the plains-tribes, with its conical shape, tapering poles and ingeniously devised "ears" for facilitating the upward draught for the inside fire, is one of the most picturesque and beautiful. It has been evolved in the distant past to meet the requirements of a nomadic people for shelter. Like the snow igloo of the far distant Esquimaux, it displays much skill in the adaptation of available materials to the necessities of their environment. It is a perfect habitation for comfort, convenience and good ventilation in both summer and winter. Its design and interior arrangements are so complete, they never change. In recent years canvas has been substituted as a covering in place of buffalo skins, because of the practical extinction of the buffalo.
No one who has seen the "White City" of the
[paragraph continues] Blackfeet, during their annual Festival of the Sun, can ever forget the strange and fascinating beauty of the scene. With the snow-capped Rocky Mountains for a background, hundreds of white tipis, uniform in shape,
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CROW TIPI IN 1896 (MADE OF SKINS). REAR VIEW.
and pitched in perfect order by clans, are spread upon the plain in a great circular encampment.
The rapidity with which such a great camp can be either "pitched" or "struck" is almost incredible. Catlin, in describing the sudden striking of a similar camp by the Sioux, says: "At the time announced, the lodge of the chief is seen flapping in the wind, a
part of the poles having been taken out from under it. This is the signal, and in one minute 600 lodges (on a level and beautiful prairie), which before had been strained tight and fixed, were seen waving and flapping in the wind, and in one minute more all were flat upon the ground. Their horses and dogs, of which they had a vast number, had all been secured upon the spot in
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CROW TIPI IN 1906 (MADE OF COTTON DUCK). FRONT VIEW.
readiness, and each one was speedily loaded with the burden allotted to it, and made ready to fall into the grand procession."
The tipi has received an added element of individuality and picturesqueness, originating, no one knows when, by the use of painted decorations in colours, representing prominent events in the history of the tribe, or of the owner, or symbolical designs of religious significance. The symbolical designs, medicine bundles
and ceremonials attached to them, which are believed to secure for their owners and their families protective power from sickness and misfortune, suggest a large and interesting field for investigation and study. These designs and the make-up of the medicine bundles were always
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BIG ROCK TIPI.
secured through dreams, after long fasting and solitary communion with nature. They thus became, by right of discovery, the exclusive property of their owners, who might transfer them to others, but there could be no duplicates. When a painted tipi became worn out, a new one, with the same decorations, could take its
place, but the owner must destroy the original, sacrificing it to the Sun by spreading it upon a lake, and sinking it beneath the water. The Yellow Buffalo Tipi, also the Crow, Otter, Serpent, Cross Stripe, Black Buffalo, Big Rock and others, with their bundles and the legends of their origin have been handed down
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through many generations, and are considered preeminent in their strong protective power. Their ownership is still jealously guarded by the head men of the Blackfeet, who, because of their sacred character and power, and consequent value to the tribe, will not sanction their disposal to white men. Through several years of repeated failures, in trying to purchase a painted tipi, I was made to realise the force of the rigid
customs governing their ownership, the religious barriers of ceremonial requirements and the strict secrecy of the owners. I finally secured an Otter Tipi from an Indian, out only because of the unusual circumstance, that he
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CROSS STRIPE OR BEAVER TIPI.
believed it had lost its protective power, his wife and all his children having died.
Painted Tipis may change ownership, in the fulfilment of vows, made by either men, or women in time of peril, or in behalf of the sick. Anyone, who is willing
to observe the rules of the medicine and to keep the secrets of the ceremonial, can make the vow. There are, however, certain penalties, in the form of sickness, or loss of property, which are believed will fall upon their owner, if the ceremonial is not carefully followed. Each painted tipi has its medicine bundle composed of the skins of birds and animals, or other articles, that
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THUNDER TIPI (ON LEFT), RED STRIPE TIPI (IN CENTRE).
(Thunder Tipi was painted blue, with Thunder-bird at the back.)
are used in the ceremonial of transfer, and at other times. The man, receiving the tipi, makes payment to the owner with horses and other gifts. His relatives generally contribute, to show that they take a deep interest in the transaction, and to demonstrate to the tribe that they are willing to sacrifice their property to help their clansman.
The ceremonial and feast are also given at a certain time of the year. The time for the Thunder Tipi is
when the first thunder is heard in the Spring, and for the Beaver Tipi when the first grass is seen,—the time when the beavers are opening their winter lodges.
During a Sun-dance camp, Wolf Tail, in fulfilment of a vow to buy the Cross Stripe or Beaver Tipi, called upon Wipes his-eyes, the owner, and gave him a horse and a pipe as a retainer. According to the rules of the medicine, Wipes-his-eyes could not refuse to part with the sacred tipi. The ceremonial, with full payment, took place at a later time. On the day following, when I was told of the occurrence, I visited the Cross Stripe Tipi and saw Wolf Tail's horse tied outside, while the wife and children of Wipes-his-eyes were mourning because they must give up their home, to which they had become deeply attached, having lived in it for many years. Later in the day I saw the tipi taken down, to be pitched by Wolf Tail among the clan of the Skunks.
Although the use of paints as a preservative was unknown among the Blackfeet, the decorative painting of tipis and the symbolic marking of sacred objects, were in such general use, as to make the procuring and preparing of paints a business in itself. Onesta and his wife Nitana, my companions while visiting the Bloods and North Piegans in Alberta, were known as "paint gatherers." They traded in them with their own people and also with other Indian tribes. Onesta told me of the best places for securing the different coloured paints and their methods of preparing them.
There were formerly men who made a speciality of painting tipis. Their names were Marrow Bones, Calf Looking and Eagle Flag. Whenever anyone had a tipi to be painted, he gave a feast and invited his
friends. After songs and prayers, all present would assist the leader chosen to do the painting. The pencils used for painting were made from buffalo bones, which were porous and readily absorbed and held the paint. A different pencil was used for each colour. Willow sticks were used for ruling the lines, which were first traced out with a white liquid scraped from a hide.
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BLACK BUFFALO TIPI.
The paints were dug from the ground. The yellow and black colours were found at certain places along the Marias River. The yellow clay was first worked into a dough-like mass, and then roasted on a hot fire of coals, when it became a red powder. This is called the sacred red paint and is used in the ceremonials. Black was made from charred wood. The green paint was formerly secured from a large lake north-east of the Katoysix, (Sweet Pine Hills). It was made from the scum taken from
the surface of the water and dried. Most of the yellow came from a place on the Yellowstone River near some warm springs, but was also made out of the buffalo's gall.
"There was once a large camp of Blackfeet at these springs. Some of them had made a tunnel into a high cut-bank and were hard at work getting out yellow paint. One old woman, who made a speciality of paints, was digging, while about eighty women, with their paint bags, were waiting outside. Suddenly, the old woman called from the cave that her arms were caught. She was frightened and said that she wanted to come out. An Indian, seated on a butte not far away, shouted to them that the bank was caving in. At first it came slowly, and then with such a rush, that the women could not escape. They were buried beneath great masses of earth. Almost all of the women were caught. The Indians worked night and day to uncover them, but many were taken out dead."
Nitana then said, "just before we started on our northern expedition, I was digging paint on Birch Creek. When I had finished, I prayed for the old chief, Many-white-horses, and then examined my paint, only to find it had turned to worthless dirt. I was so frightened that I hurried back to the lodge. Soon after this, we heard that Many-white-horses had died." Onesta replied to his wife, "If you had prayed for Heavy Breast, as you should have done, because he was then giving the Sun-dance, your paint would not have been changed to dirt." It was the custom, when a woman was digging paint, to offer prayers in behalf of some prominent medicine man."
No Blackfoot would venture to copy the design of a painted tipi, unless it had been regularly transferred to
him, or been received in a dream, believing that such an infringement would incur the penalty of sickness, or death. I first realised the strength of this superstition when I attempted to have a tipi of my own painted. I went to Medicine Weasel—an old friend of Mad Wolf's—asking his assistance and promising to reward him for his trouble. He willingly agreed, not realising fully the character of my proposition. Next day, when I handed him the paints and suggested his making it into an Otter Tipi, he begged to be released, explaining that he had no right to copy the Otter design, and to do so might bring on a severe illness, or even cause his death. After several futile efforts I abandoned my purpose, because of the alarm it caused among my Blackfeet friends.
In the Sun-dance camp, consisting of three hundred and fifty lodges, I counted thirty-five painted tipis—one-tenth of the entire number. They included a great variety of designs, but lack of space forbids my taking more than a few descriptions from my notes. There were five Otter Tipis, each differing from the others, but all having a separate and distinct origin.
In nearly all of these painted tipis, there is an appropriate and logical arrangement of the decorations. There is generally, at the bottom, an encircling band of dark colour representing the earth. Within this band is a row of discs called "dusty stars." The Blackfeet have given the name "dusty stars" to the puff-balls which grow in circular clusters upon the prairies, because they are supposed to be meteors, which have fallen from the night-sky and spring up into puff-balls in a single night. They call them "dusty stars" because they emit a puff of dust when pressed. Resting on this lowest band, we often find a row of
rounded, or of pointed projections, representing rounded ridges or pointed mountain peaks. Upon the broad central space above these is portrayed the protective design of animal, bird, sacred rock, thunder-trails, or other emblems, which imparts to the lodge its protective
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power and from which it receives its distinctive title.
Surmounting all, and including the "ears," a broad encircling band of black represents the night sky, on which are portrayed the sun and crescent moon, the constellations of the Seven Brothers and Lost Children (Great Bear and Pleiades), and a Maltese cross, the
emblem of the Morning Star. This cross is also said to represent the Butterfly (or Sleep Bringer), which is believed to have great power in bringing dreams to the owner.
I was once a guest for a week in an Otter Tipi, and had the opportunity of learning the symbolic meaning of its decorations, the ceremonial belonging to it and
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WAR TIPI OF RUNNING RABBIT.
the pictures and signs which had been painted on the owner's body for the ceremonial of its transfer. A section of the top was painted black to represent the night-sky. On it the Morning Star was represented by a yellow cross, to the centre of which was attached a sacred buffalo tail. On opposite sides of the black band the two constellations were painted in yellow clusters. A procession of otters, painted on the middle space
beneath, made it an Otter Tipi and gave it the protective power promised in the dream, which originally revealed the design. At the bottom of the canvas a broad band in dark colour represented the earth, and on it two parallel rows of discs were painted in yellow, to represent the "dusty stars" of the prairie.
For the ceremonial of transferring the Otter Tipi, all the painting on the face and body of the purchaser was made symbolical of the Otter. Parallel lines on both sides of his face represented otter trails. Upon his arms were painted otter paws. Over his body were otter tracks and upon his breast a circle representing an otter lodge on the river bank.
The painted War Tipi of Running Rabbit was of an entirely different character, being covered with picture records of tribal victories. It is an interesting fact that Indians never make records of their defeats. The War Tipi had a broad red band encircling the bottom. The top was painted black, with a red star at the back. The picture records in the central space, which were all in red, represented battles with the Crows, Sioux, Snakes, Cheyennes and Flatheads. There was depicted a daring horse-stealing expedition of a Blackfoot chief, who was in the act of cutting loose a horse, tied close to a lodge, in full view of the owner. A warrior was engaged in a fierce hand-to-hand conflict, while seizing his enemy's rifle. A number of successful scouting expeditions of a brave chief were marked, each expedition being portrayed by three sides of a square. A circle around a number of arrows pointing in all directions represented a small entrenchment where a Blackfoot warrior repelled the enemy after a desperate fight. On a long crooked line, representing the course
of a river, was marked the bend, where a famous fight with the Crows took place. The brave act of a warrior was recorded, who saved the lives of two wounded comrades, by carrying one with him on his own horse
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WAR TIPI (REAR VIEW).
(The crooked lines represent rivers where famous fights took place.)
and leading a second horse carrying the other. The making of the first treaty with the whites, by a Blackfoot chief, was recorded as an event of great importance. A warrior stealing the first mule from the white soldiers was also regarded as an act of
special renown, because mules had never been seen before by the Blackfeet.
My own tipi, which was made by Ips-e-nikki (Kills-close-to-the-lake), wife of Big Eyes, was decorated with symbols of the Blackfeet religion, and pictographs of
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MY OWN DECORATED TIPI.
interesting events, both of war and hunting, in her husband's life. The top was painted yellow and had the usual stellar constellations on both "ears." The Sun and Morning Star were at the back with sun dogs at the sides and a rainbow beneath. In two perpendicular rows, one on each side of the door, were representations of Rocky Mountain peaks. At the
bottom was a yellow hand, with a single row of discs for "dusty stars." Figures of men, animals and Indian camps were painted in yellow, black and red on the central space of the canvas. There was an attack by a band of Sioux upon Big Eyes, while travelling with his family, and also his hand-to-hand fight with the Sioux Chief. He was represented as stealing by night a horse picketed close to a Crow lodge, also a mule from a white man; also as suddenly descending at daybreak upon a white man milking a cow; and also in a desperate fight on horse-back with a band of Cree Indians.
On the north-side was depicted Big Eyes’ thrilling fight in the Rocky Mountains with five grizzly bears (a mother bear with two large cubs and two other bears) in a berry patch,—his wounding the she-bear,—her charge and the desperate struggle, when he plunged his knife into her breast and she tore him with her teeth and claws, then, leaving him for dead, to attack and lacerate his horse.
A white man looking upon the inside circle of Painted Tipis, in the great encampment of the Sun-dance festival, would be impressed with their imposing array and with the spectacular effect of their novel colourings and fantastic decorations. But, it probably would never occur to him that he was looking upon pictorial representations of the tipi-owner's religion. As the wearing of the crucifix is the outward sign to the world of the inward faith of many Christians, so these tipi representations of the Buffalo, Beaver, Elk, Otter, Eagle and Antelope proclaim the belief of the Blackfeet, that these sacred animals and birds have been endowed with power from the Sun, and, therefore, that the owner and his family may secure from them aid in danger and protection from sickness and misfortune. Just as patron
saints are worshipped to-day, and the Lares and Penates of pagan Rome were worshipped two thousand years ago for household protection, in like manner the spirit of the otter, or buffalo, or beaver, is worshipped and its visible representation on the tipi is held sacred by the Blackfoot family as their powerful protector.
These symbolic decorations, having a religious significance are an ever present reminder to the family of their obligations to their tutelary medicine, and of the protection they may expect as a reward for their strict observance of its rules. Wherever the ascending smoke of their fires denotes their abode, there they piously display the symbols of their religious faith.