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Chapter 3.4: The Apsáalooke Tipi

Apsáalooke Writing Tribal Histories Project

The Apsáalooke style tipi is different than other tribes. By tradition and custom it should always be pure white. The plain white of canvas makes it easily spotted among tipis that are decorated. The Apsáalooke tipi has twenty one poles, each one representing an important component of the home. In the story of Yellow Leggings, he brought back owl and coyote when he killed the elk. Owl and coyote were watchers for the elk, and the two poles that represent them, the smoke flap poles, are symbols of those helpers that watch for and warn of threat. The owl sits on the left side, and coyote on the right. The lodge should face east, towards the sunrise.

The Apsáalooke tipi uses four base poles that support all of the other poles, and these poles represent the four seasons. Spring, which is thought to be the beginning of a new year, sits on the southeast corner of the frame counted as the first base pole. The southwest base pole is summer; the northwest base pole is fall and the northeast base pole is winter. Five poles on the north and south are stacked between the four base poles. From the back, the two poles to the north represent well being and health, the two to the south represent good fortune and wealth. The three poles that remain on either side that are to represent whatever is sacred to the owner of the tipi. These two sets of five poles also represent the ten lunar months that a baby is carried.

There is one pole in the rear of the tipi that the covering is tied to. This pole is called the chief pole, and represents the owner of the lodge. The two poles that are placed on either side of the chief pole are referred to as “helper” poles, they signify a helper from this world, and one from the spiritual world.


Traditionally, the tipi was made of several hides of animals sewn together, but today the coverings are made from canvas. The Apsáalooke do not paint or decorate their tipis, with rare exception, as White Owl instructed Yellow Leggings that the home is not to be touched by anything that is bad or evil. The clean and plain covering represents purity.

At first, stones were used on the outside of the lodge to hold the covering in place. This was the practice for some time, and today, there are still tipi rings that can be found along the northern plains from this period. Some time after the tipi was brought to the Apsáalooke, a man, Big Metal was instructed to fashion stakes and pins to secure the tipi to the ground so that it would not be easily moved. Since then, stakes and pins have been used to secure tipis.

If you consider all the things that are represented in the tipi, they are all pieces of what people hope for in a home. The protection that is represented by the helper poles, both spiritual and from the natural world, so that the home would be safe and its inhabitants looked after. The foundations of the tipi are the seasons, so that the home is made to last the whole year through, offering shelter from all the elements. The representations of wishes of health and good fortune, combined with the poles to represent what is most important to the owner of the tipi are things that people everywhere hope for today within their own households. The combination of protection, health, happiness, guidance, with the addition of strength (when the poles and stakes were added), combine to represent the kind of home that many would like to live in. For the Apsáalooke, the tipi was a physical home, while also having the symbolism in each of its parts to remind the dwellers what a good home should contain.

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