Indian Peoples of the Northern Great Plains - Montana State University Library

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Painted Tipis of the Blackfeet Indians by John C. Ewers - 1975

Some of the most striking mural paintings in the American West were the big, bright and bold designs the Blackfeet Indians of Montana and Alberta painted upon the outer surfaces of their mobile homes.

Their traditional homes were tipis, ingeniously designed as dwellings for nomadic buffalo-hunting Indians, using materials readily available to them. The tipi was essentially a home comprising a foundation of tall, thin poles tied together near their tops, over which was stretched a cover of buffalo cow skins pieced and sewn together. This cover was held in place by a vertical series of wooden pins at the front, and a circle of pegs at the ground. Tipis always were pitched so that their doorways faced the east and the rising sun. Their backs were made steeper to brace these structures against prevailing west winds, so they were not perfect cones: they were tilted ones. Each tipi was furnished with a pair of flaps or ears at either side of the open smokehole above the doorway. A long pole reached from the ground to the upper front corner of each ear; these poles were used to move the ear so as to control the emission of smoke from the fire inside the lodge.

Experienced Indian women could erect or dismantle a tipi in less than an hour. They could take it down in the morning, fold the cover and secure it on the back of a pack horse, tie the poles in groups to the sides of pack horses, transport the tipi and all their household possessions fifteen or more miles during the day, and re-erect their home in a new location before nightfall.

There can be little doubt that Plains Indians lived in tipis before the first Spanish explorers met some of them in 1541. The explorers' accounts indicate that those tipis were rather small, and that both the poles and covers weretransported by strong dogs. After the Plains Indians acquired horses, and theycould move larger and heavier loads with considerable ease, the size of theirhomes increased. By the mid-19th century an average tipi required some 12 to 14buffalo cow skins. The necessary skins were saved and a large supply of sinewthread was set aside for the day when the lodge cover was to be made at a sewingbee during one of the warmer months. An older woman, experienced in the task, waschosen to lay out the skins. Many women were kept busy sewing the large skins together.

The custom of painting some tipi covers with painted designs may date back topre-white times also; certainly some Spaniards briefly reported seeing tipispainted red and white as early as 1599. The custom of painting tipi coversappears to have been known to all the nomadic tribes of the Great Plains beforebuffalo were exterminated in the 1870's and early 1880's. But only among theBlackfeet tribes did more than a few painted tipis survive the transition frombuffalo hide to canvas tipi covers.

The Blackfeet treasured painted lodges as sacred objects. An origin legendrelates how each painted lodge was acquired by its first human owner. Manypainted tipis, according to these legends, were given to their first Indianowners in dreams or visions. In such a dream, the original animal owner of thelodge appeared to the sleeper and promised to give him some of his power, whichincluded his painted lodge and other objects sacred to him. The animal told thereceiver how to paint the lodge and how to make the other sacred objectsassociated with it. When the man awoke, he proceeded to follow theseinstructions.

Each painted lodge was not an entity in itself, but part of a complex of sacredobjects belonging to its owner. Related sacred objects commonly were preserved infringed rawhide cases. They were brought into the lodge at night, but were hungon tripods behind the tipi during the day. The lodge owner had to perform certainrituals and recognize taboos as long as he possessed the lodge. When he sold hispainted lodge to another person, he had to perform an elaborate transfer ritualand to teach this ritual to the new owner. It was considered a great honor to owna sacred painted lodge. Painted lodges were transferred, often at considerableprice, from members of one Blackfeet tribe to others of their own or anothertribe. Over the years, memories of the tribal membership of the original ownersof some lodges have become lost. Even so, the tribal membership of the originalowner was not a matter of great importance to the Blackfeet: for them all paintedlodges were individually owned. Only the rightful owner was permitted to use thedesign painted on his tipi. No other person would copy or reproduce it. Instancesare known, however, of the owner of a painted tipi giving it to another withoutformally transferring the right to reproduce that tipi. Later the original ownerremade the lodge, since he had not given up his right to do so. Consequently morethan one version of some lodges have been preserved among the Blackfeet.

After the cover of a painted tipi became old and worn, the paintings on it weretransferred to a new one. In buffalo days, when these Indians occupied tipisthroughout the year, it was necessary to remake a lodge cover every year or two.The man who wished to change his painting to a new cover called upon one who hadpreviously owned that painted tipi to help him in transferring the painting. Theformer owner, in turn, called upon a man who was known as a skilled artist tohelp. When all was in readiness, the new lodge cover erected and stretched intoshape around the foundation of lodge poles, the painting began. The old, wornpainted lodge, which was to be discarded, stood nearby where the size andarrangement of its paintings could be referred to and even measured with willowsticks or rawhide cords. The former owner told the artist exactly how to mark outthe animal figures on the lodge cover, and the artist proceeded to outline theforms in black earth paint, using red willow sticks for rulers and a bone paintbrush. The outlining of the forms was the only part of the lodge painting thatrequired the services of the most able artist obtainable.

The new lodge cover then was taken down and spread out flat on the ground. Theowner invited a group of people of good reputation for honesty and industry tohis lodge and gave them a smoke. They then proceeded to help him finish thepainting. They used a buffalo tail or a handful of long buffalo hair to apply thepaint to the larger masses. The paint was mixed with hot water only, and rubbedonto the cover with considerable pressure.

When the painting was finished and the new lodge erected, all the ornaments thathung on the old lodge were transferred to the new one by the owner. Then heinvited the owners of other painted lodges in the camp to join him inside his newlodge. There they prayed for the lodge and finally helped the owner make apurification sweat-lodge outside. The ceremony of transferring the sacred symbolsfrom the old to the new lodge was then ended.

The old, worn painted cover was disposed of either by taking it to a lake,spreading it out and weighting it with stones so that it would sink; or byspreading it out on the plains and weighting it with stones. In the firstinstance the old cover was given as an offering to the water spirits; in thesecond instance, as an offering to the sun.

The legends telling of the origins of particular Blackfeet painted tipisgenerally place these actions in the dim and dateless past, although a few tellof painted lodges dreamed by warriors while on horse raids during the historicperiod. My older informants during the 1940's regarded the Snake and Bear tipisas the oldest painted tipis among their people because an account of theiracquisition appears in the well-known and often-told story of the adventures ofthe mythological culture hero, Blood Clot. They also thought the Yellow and theBlack Buffalo painted lodges were very old ones.

Evidence of the existence of bear, buffalo, and bird painted tipis among theBlackfeet as early as the first decade of the 19th century appears in the journalof Alexander Henry, who traded with all of the Blackfeet tribes in the valley ofthe Saskatchewan River in 1809. He wrote then, "Their tents are large and clean.The devices generally used in painting them are taken from beasts and birds; thebuffalo and the bear are frequently delineated, but in a rude and uncouthmanner."

During the summer of 1833 the German naturalist, Maximilian, Prince ofWied-Neuwied, visited the great camp of the Piegan near Fort McKenzie in theheart of the Blackfeet Country on the upper Missouri. He observed, "Paintedtents, adorned with figures, are very seldom seen, and only a few chiefs possessthem." It seems most probable that painted tipis were not common among theBlackfeet tribes in buffalo days, and were limited primarily to prominentpolitical, war and religious leaders. It is doubtful if more than ten per cent ofthe tipis in their great Sun Dance camps were painted. Yet the painted onesattracted particular attention so that they were remembered. During the firstdecade of this century, Clark Wissler's Blackfeet informants, whose memories maywell have reached back to 1840 or earlier, recalled some 57 painted lodges amongthe several Blackfeet tribes-the Piegan in the United States, and the NorthPiegan, Blood and Blackfoot divisions in Southern Alberta.

The earliest illustration of a Blackfeet painted tipi I have seen is a coloreddrawing executed by a Blackfeet Indian for Father Nicholas Point in 1846-47, whenPoint was serving as the first Christian missionary among the Blackfeet Indiansin present-day Montana. This drawing obviously was intended to portray a snakepainted lodge. The method of rendering the snakes with upraised heads facing eastand elongated bodies composed of alternating rectangles of color, zig-zaggingaround the tipi cover was employed in painting Blackfeet snake tipis of the1940's as well as those of a century earlier. However, the early Indian artist'splacement of two snakes, one above the other on the same side of the tipi musthave reflected his desire to inform the viewer that there were two snakes paintedon that tipi. Probably in the 1840's, as well as a century later, there was onesnake on each side of the tipi: a male on the South and a female on the north.This Indian drawing of the 1840's also clearly reveals a pattern of painteddesign layout that was still employed on many Blackfeet painted tipis a centurylater. The conical surface was divided into three zones of unequal height. Abanded area at the bottom two or more feet in height is painted red to representthe earth. Within this red area may be one or two rows of unpainted disksrepresenting puff balls or fallen stars. Formerly cut rawhide circles were usedas templates in outlining these disks, but within the present century lard cantops have served this purpose. On a number of lodge covers a row of triangular orrounded projections upward from this bottom band appears, representing hills ormountains.

A broader banded area at the top of the cover, including the projecting earswhich regulate the emission of smoke from the smoke hole, generally is paintedblack to represent the night sky. Arrangements of unpainted disks within thisdark area represent groups of stars well known to the Indians, such as the GreatBear and the Pleiades (or the seven stars). Within the blackened area and at theupper back of the tipi a lighter-colored Maltese cross sometimes was painted. Itrepresented the morning star, or butterfly, which Indians believed would bringpowerful dreams to the lodge owner.

Practical considerations as well as earth and sky symbolism may have encouragedthe Blackfeet to darken both the upper and lower portions of their paintedlodges. These were the areas of a tipi cover that became discolored mostrapidly-from the splatter of rain and mud near ground level, and from the risingsmoke from the interior fire near the top.

In any case, this layout left a tall, central area for an unpainted or lightlypainted background upon which to paint the sacred creatures who had bestowedtheir power upon the tipi owner, in dark colors which made them stand outstarkly. The body of an animal usually was painted in one solid color-black, redor yellow. The sacred character of many of these figures was emphasized by addingconventionalized representations of their throat, heart and kidneys, the organswhich the Blackfeet believed were the sources of the supernatural power theseanimals possessed.

In picturing snakes and larger animals, such as buffalo, elk and deer on tipicovers, a single pair of animals was painted to represent the mythical originatorand his mate. Generally the male was painted on the south side and the female onthe north side of the lodge, and both faced the tipi doorway and the east.However, the two huge figures of the buffalo painted lodges are orienteddifferently: the male, painted on the east side of the tipi faces south, whilethe female on the west side faces north. When smaller mammals were represented ontipi covers, from two to four pairs of them were depicted.

Of the smaller animals the otter was most frequently pictured on the paintedlodges of the Blackfeet. Probably the most famous of the several otter lodges,the Single Circle Otter Tipi, had a unique design layout. It was owned by RedCrow, renowned head chief of the Blood Indians, when R.N. Wilson photographed itin the Sun Dance encampment of that tribe during the summer of 1892. It wasknown as the Single Circle Otter Tipi because a broad horizontal band nearlyencircled this tipi about four feet above ground level. This band joined avertical band from ground level upward, rounded off at the top some distanceabove the doorway. Six black otters, three on each side of the tipi, ran withinthis horizontal band toward the vertical strip, which symbolized a rock in thebank of the lake where the otters lived. A half century later this tipi was ownedby Chewing Black Bones, an elderly, full blood Piegan Indian who lived in thetown of Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation, Montana. A photographic close-upof two of the otters on the south side of that tipi was taken when it was erectedin the 1943 Sun Dance encampment west of the town of Browning and north of thegrounds of the Museum of the Plains Indian. Doubtless that Single Circle OtterTipi had been repainted on new canvas many times since Red Crow owned it. Yet thedetails of the design persisted, and some Indians still spoke of it as "RedCrow's tipi". Other Blackfeet painted tipis also employed unique design layouts.Among them were the All Star Tipi, the Big Rock Tipi and the Donkey Tipiillustrated in the accompanying plates. There was sufficient range in painteddesigns so that the visitor to a Blackfeet Sun Dance encampment would beimpressed by the variety as well as the boldness and beauty of their paintedlodges.

Even so, Blackfeet owners of painted tipis treasured them more as religioussymbols than as aesthetic creations. They counted upon their painted tipis tobring them good fortune. If the owner of a painted tipi suffered misfortune, ordeath of a wife or husband, he or she would part with it. Thus Mrs. LouisChampagne sold her Bear Tipi to the Museum of the Plains Indian after the deathof her husband and co-owner of that lodge. If a man and wife continued to enjoygood health and good luck as owners of a painted tipi, they were reluctant topart with it under any conditions.

Blackfeet Indian Tipis: Design and Legend is published and copyrighted ©1976-2018 by the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana.