When I bought my first tipi, I already had an all-weather tent, a good set of bender tarps, and the option of two RVs to live in. What did he need a teepee for? None of that mattered. I fell in love with its sheer beauty.
Beauty goes far beyond appearances. The circle is an organic and healing form, a powerful medicine for anyone who has been locked in rectangles for half a lifetime. Contact with the earth is not a metaphor in a tipi. When I sit down, I can feel our mother’s skin under my butt. I look up and see the circle of poles rising into the air to meet the patch of sky through the smoke hole. In the center of the circle, the flames of a fire dance their dance of life. From where I am leaning I can hear the gurgling of a nearby stream that falls asleep to the sound on a still night.
A tipi is a very practical way of living outdoors. In fact, with a teepee beauty and practicality are the same. The idea that something is useful but ugly, or beautiful but useless, is largely a product of our unbalanced industrial society. A tipi is strong, roomy, weatherproof, easy to assemble, and above all, it has a fire inside it. It was developed by the people of the great plains of North America, and it is difficult to improve on a structure that has allowed people to thrive in such a harsh environment.
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Ways to use your teepee
There are many ways to use a teepee, from a weekend tent to a permanent home. Some people keep one just for fairs and festivals and while this can hardly be called a teepee living, it’s a good use for one. A tipi adds dignity and grace to a scene, and provides a space where people can gather, make tea and music, and dry off when it gets a little wet outside.
A tipi placed in a home garden can provide an additional bedroom, a refuge from the rectangular confines of brick and mortar, or a space for meditation. But if it is left to rest for a long time, it must be used well, since it will rot without regularly lighting a fire inside to dry the canvas.
Living in a tipi year-round is tough. Personally, my health is not up to par, so I used to spend about eight months a year in one and the other four in a caravan. But there are many people who have no other home. In Wales, there is a village of over 100 people who live in tipis; and there are several such communities in France, Portugal, Germany, Italy, and New Zealand. There are also individual tipi dwellers dotted around the countryside, including, I’ve heard, in the north of Scotland.
Being part of a tipi village, where all its neighbors lead the same lifestyle, is perhaps a more complete way of living tipi than being the only tipi inhabitant of the locality. The tipi village in Wales has now reached its optimum size, and there is surely a need to create new villages in other parts of the country.
A cultural context to live tipi
We live in a society that is unbalanced. The intellect glorifies itself over emotion and intuition; material wealth is emphasized to the point where it becomes the main goal of life; human beings are set apart from all other living things on earth, which are condescendingly lumped together under the heading of “nature.”
Living outdoors can restore this balance, without rejecting the good of our culture, and there is no better way to live outdoors than in a tipi.
It is also a good feeling to live in a house that you have made with your own hands. Of course, there is a lot to be said for buying your first teepee, to find out what they are all about, before you embark on self-building. It is a personal choice.
What size teepee?
The first thing to decide is the size. This is always spoken in feet and refers to the distance from top to bottom of the front cover. The diameter of the floor space is a foot or two less than this.
The smallest size to live in a teepee, as opposed to a toy, is 13 feet. This is large enough for one person to live comfortably, but gets a bit cramped if you have visitors. Fourteen to sixteen feet is a good general purpose size, and eighteen to nineteen feet is a home for a family of four or five. Larger than that, up to 25 or 30 feet is what is generally referred to as a ‘big lodge’, normally only used as a common space in a tipi village.
What materials are the best for building teepees?
Most teepees are made from pure cotton canvas treated with a waterproofing and anti-rot compound. There is also a material called Regentex, part cotton and part man-made fibers, which is much more durable; but I would never live in a Regentex hostel. The fabric is made up of thousands of little squares about a quarter of an inch in size, and from the inside these are actually quite visible. Squares and artificial fibers are the kind of things I live in a teepee to escape from.
Do you want to buy a second-hand tipi?
When buying a second-hand country house, you need to have a good rot look. It is not very helpful to simply ask how old he is. If it’s been up for a year in a humid part of the country, a tipi may only last five years. If it has been disassembled and stored for the winter, or installed only in drier climates, it may be as good as new. And one that has only been used for festivals could last a lifetime.