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History and Meaning of the Tipi

The Apsáalooke call the tipi ashé, home, or ashtáale, real home. The term ashtáale began to be used after the Apsáalooke started living in homes that the government had built. These homes were either made of logs or bricks. The log homes were called baalaawaasúua, wood house, and the brick houses were called awappóoshawaasua; awappóoshe is the term for bricks.

The different parts of the tipi have significance to Apsáalooke people. There are usually twenty one poles for a tipi, and each one of them represents something. In the story of Yellow Leggings some of the symbolizations of the tipi poles are explained. This story centers around the exploits of a man named, Issaatshíilish, Yellow Leggings. At first, he was sent by the spirit man White Owl to kill an elk that had captured all of the winds. The elk had two helpers which were the owl and the coyote. So, when Yellow Leggings killed the elk, he brought back the owl and the coyote.

On the tipi there are two outer poles which are used to move the smoke flaps; the one on the south side is the coyote and the one on the north is the owl. According to the religious history of the Apsáalooke, they are sentries that watch the home and warn of evil or bad things.

This idea is contrary to other peoples beliefs who say the owl is a symbol of bad fortune. To the Apsáalooke, however, póopahtataale, the great horned owl is thought of as one who protects the home. The Apsáalooke do believe, as others, that bilíkaashee, the screech owl, warns families of impending death. The two outer poles then are the coyote on the right side and the owl on the left side.

The two door poles, according to the story of Yellow Leggings, represent the mountain lion and the grizzly bear, also protectors of the home. The north pole of the door is the mountain lion, which was a gift to Yellow Leggings from Juniper On The Bridge Of The Nose. The south pole is the grizzly bear which was a gift from White Owl.

The four base poles that the Apsáalooke use represent the four seasons. Since the Apsáalooke think of Spring as the beginning of the year then they consider the first base pole, the one on the southeast, Spring; the southwest base pole Summer; the northwest base pole Fall; and the northeast base pole Winter.

There are five poles on the north and south, between the four base poles. The two on the north, from the rear going forward represent well being and health. Then the two on the south, going from the rear represent good fortune, and wealth. There are then three poles remaining on each side. Whatever the owner of the lodge feels is sacred to him, these things are assigned to the six remaining poles. In addition to these meanings, the pair of five also represents the ten lunar months of pregnancy.

Then in the rear of the lodge, the pole that the covering is tied to is called the chief pole, which represents the owner of the lodge. The two poles that are to each side of the chief pole are referred to as helpers. One helper pole represents a helper from the natural world and the other is a helper from the spiritual realm.

The tipi itself is white because White Owl instructed Yellow Leggings that the home is not to be touched by anything that is bad or evil, therefore the cover should be white, to represent purity. Therefore, the Apsáalooke did not paint their tipis except in very few cases when they were instructed to by visions or dreams. Even today when the Apsáalooke set up there tipis at Crow Fair, the Tipi Capital of the World, most are pure white, only a few are painted.

When the Apsáalooke first received the tipi they did not use stakes or pins, instead they used stones to set on the bottom portion of the lodge. The Apsáalooke refer to that time period as Biiakaashiisshipee, When They Placed Stones On Their Homes. The tipi rings that can be found on the Northern Plains are the stones that were used on the bottoms of the lodges. Many years after Yellow Leggings had brought the first tipis a man by the name of Big Metal was visited by the badger. The badger instructed Big Metal to fashion stakes and pins for the tipi. He told Big Metal that there was no force on earth that could move him from his home, because he could dig his claws into the earth. Therefore by making stakes the tipi could be similarly held tight to the ground so that even strong winds could not knock it down. To represent the badger's gift to the Apsáalooke, some people will make stripes out of the bark on their pins and stakes, to symbolize the stripes on the badgers back.

The rear of the lodge is the place of honor; people that are respected, either spiritual leaders or outstanding warriors, are allowed to sit at the rear of the lodge. The area at the door is for the bravest men. The bravest men sit at that place because if the camp was attacked by enemies or some other emergency arose they could respond quickly and meet the crisis.

Certain protocol and behaviors were expected inside the home. People were instructed not to cry, nor say words that were intended to ruin another's good mood inside the lodge. People were expected to joke, laugh, and sing inside the home. The Apsáalooke would say that a good home could be recognized by the singing and cheery voices that could be heard from inside the lodge, even when there was inclement weather.

The home is said to be the property of the woman, and in fact is believed to represent a woman, a second mother. The Apsáalooke say that a person’s biological mother is on loan from the Creator, but as long as an individual has a home that offers security and happiness, then he has a second mother.

As property of the woman, it is said that the others in the home live there by her grace and invitation. Even when the most outstanding chief would invite people over to eat, he would say, in reference to his wife, "We will eat some of her food, she might provide us with soup". The women had pride in being a good hostess, especially in being able to provide good food for her visitors.

The Apsáalooke say that a good home has a road to it. This is in reference to a home where people like to come and visit. A good home is one where people can come and be fed, take home gifts and good thoughts. The sharing ethic of the Apsáalooke is well expressed when people come to the home. They say, "If you have nothing at all, at least send your guest home with a kind word. Or, if you are down to your last morsel of food, cut it in half. Share, even if it is just a cup of water".

The Apsáalooke also believe it is impolite to knock or ask to be admitted to a home. At a good home visitors are always welcome. Even in contemporary Apsáalooke homes a visitor is at least given a meal, if not extra food or gifts to take home. And if the visitor should be from a great distance or end up staying late, a bed is often offered. This practice is based on the Apsáalooke belief that, "When people grace your home, they bring with them good feelings, good thoughts, and good fortune. And since they have shared that with you then you should try to treat them well and make them feel good so when they leave they are happy".

The Quests Of Yellow Leggings: The Origin Of The Tipi

Before Yellow Leggings brought the tipi to the Apsáalooke they lived in caves or holes dug in the ground. There was a man named Yellow Leggings and he is the one that first brought tipis to the Apsáalooke. He brought not only the tipi but the ethics and values associated with it.

Yellow Leggings liked to trap eagles. He would skin a rabbit for bait, dig a hole, sit in it, and cover it with brush. He would wait for an eagle to come along to eat the rabbit, then he would reach up and grab the feet. If the feet of an eagle are caught the bird is docile. Yellow Leggings would take the good feathers, the two middle feathers and let the eagle go.

One time when Yellow Leggings was trapping eagles, he had caught three and he went for a fourth. He waited a long time, then he heard noises like an eagle coming. He waited, but then suddenly the pit was dark. He put his hand up and felt a rock or boulder covering the pit. He was trapped by a rock rolling over the hole. He tried to move it. He pushed on it but he could not move the rock. He tried to dig his way out, but he could not dig around the rock. He sat down and started to cry. Then he saw something moving in the corner of the pit, it was a mouse. He begged the mouse for help. The mouse took him to a hole. The hole looked too small for him to fit, but he pushed his way in and he could pull himself along. Then it got bigger, so that he could crawl, then he could stoop, and finally stand up. Once he could stand he started to run.

He came out of the tunnel and found himself in a new unfamiliar land. He looked around. He walked to a river and there he saw a white tipi. As he approached the tipi he was charged by a bear. An old woman came out of the tipi and called the animals back. She told Yellow Leggings to go inside.

He entered and stood by the door. There was an old man sitting in the back. The man told him to come sit by him. The man’s name was White Owl. The woman was stirring a pot of soup and when Yellow Leggings looked in the pot he saw a human hand swirl to the top.

White Owl asked Yellow Leggings if he was hungry. The wife scolded him saying, "He is a human, humans don't eat what you eat". White Owl then told him, "There is plenty to eat around here. Go and eat what you want and rest awhile. Then come see me for I have something for you to do."

Yellow Leggings went and killed a deer and ate his food and rested. Then he went back to the tipi. He went in and White Owl told him, "I want you to do something for me, I want you to kill a treacherous elk and bring me the right front tine of his antler to eat my soup with. This elk is very dangerous. It has helpers that watch it when he sleeps. He’s very dangerous". White Owl gave him one arrow and said, "You have to kill the elk with this one arrow, you have just one chance".

Yellow Leggings went outside and began to cry. He was worried about what to do. He cried until a snowbird came to him. This little bird told him to ask the moles for they could help him.

He went to a rocky hill where some moles lived. He cried and cried. A mole came out and told him to go away. Yellow Leggings continued to cry, and finally the mole came back and asked him why he was crying. Yellow Leggings explained what he had to do and the mole agreed to help him. He told him that they could dig a tunnel under the elk so Yellow Leggings could get to his heart. To kill the elk with one arrow, he had to shoot him in the heart.

As the mole dug near the elk his two guards, coyote and owl, would call a warning. The elk would jump up but he could not see anything since Yellow Leggings and the mole were under the ground. As they got near the elk they could hear its heart pounding. The mole reached up and felt where the elk's heart was; he told Yellow Leggings to fire at that spot. Yellow Leggings fired his arrow and the elk jumped up and pushed his antler into the ground. Yellow Leggings ran down the tunnel, but the elk was right behind him. Just as Yellow Leggings felt the antler in his back, the elk died. Yellow Leggings cut off the antler tip on the front and returned to White Owl.

White Owl told him that he had done well, but that now he wanted him to get the head of Isshiiooshé, Red Hair. Yellow Leggings returned to the moles and cried. The mole came out and when Yellow Leggings told him that he now had to kill Red Hair, the mole said he could not help him. Instead, he told Yellow Leggings to seek the aid of the Ant Woman.

Yellow Leggings went to her tipi and Ant Woman told him that she would help him because Red Hair was always bothering her by asking her to marry him. She said they could change bodies to fool Red Hair so Yellow Leggings could get close enough to him to kill him. They rubbed their bodies together, all over, and in this way they changed bodies. So, Yellow Leggings had received Ant Woman’s body. She also gave him a louse to put in the place of Red Hair's head and four corn pemmican balls. Red Hair lived with his mother on an island and Ant Woman instructed him, "When you get to the water there will be a bishkahpisée, big eared dog. The dog will be waiting for you. Once you straddle the dog, he will swim across the wide body of water. When the dog tires feed him a pemmican. Just put it in the corner of his mouth, to pick up his strength again". Then she said, "When you find Red Hair you need to wear him out, don't let him sleep with you. Make him work for three days and on the fourth day he will be so tired, he will fall sound asleep, and it will be easy to kill him and take his head. Then place this louse where his head was at".

Yellow Leggings did as he was told. He went to the river and the dog took him to the island where Red Hair and his mother lived. He got off the dog and he fed him the second corn pemmican and asked him to wait.

Yellow Leggings walked until he got to the tipi of Red Hair and his mother. The mother was suspicious when she saw Ant Woman since she never wanted to marry Red Hair in the past. But Red Hair wanted her for his wife, so he told her to be quiet. That night they lay together. Red Hair kept making advances, but Yellow Leggings kept putting him off. Over the next three days Yellow Leggings made Red Hair work; bringing water, cutting wood, things that would tire him out. Finally on the fourth night Red Hair fell into a sound sleep and Yellow Leggings cut his head off and put the louse on the pillow.

The mother was suspicious so she kept asking Red Hair if he was okay. The louse would answer, "Be quiet. I'm trying to sleep." But the louse got weaker and weaker with each answer, so by the fourth time the louse could hardly speak. The mother jumped up and went to the bed and pulled the covers back. There she saw her dead son with his head missing and Ant Woman was gone. She said to herself that she knew Ant Woman was up to no good and she took off after her. The mother could fly and see flew over the trail, but by that time Yellow Leggings had already crossed back across the water and gone into Ant Woman's tipi. The two hurried to change bodies back. They touched all over, but in their haste they missed the armpits. That is why the armpit of a woman is larger, more muscular, than a man's.

The mother got to the tipi. This woman had a spear like thing on the back of her head and when she got excited the spear thing would stand up. She used it to destroy things.

Ant Woman’s tipi was hard as rock. The mother began striking at the lodge with the spear on her head. She would fly up, real high, then come down and hit the tipi. She would punch a hole where she hit. Each time she would do that, Ant Woman would wet her hand with her saliva and patch the hole.

The mother finally realized that she could not penetrate the tipi, so she pleaded to see her son’s head. She said, "If I could just see my son’s head I will leave you alone. Let me look at my son, let me just look at his face."

But they knew she was going to try to trick them into letting her in. So, they placed the head in the center of the tipi where it could be seen and then Yellow Leggings opened the door just wide enough for the mother to put her head in. As the mother put her head in she said, "I tricked you, now I'm going to kill you". But when she put her head in, Yellow Leggings closed the door, chopping off her head. So, by this he destroyed the Red Hairs.

Yellow Leggings took the heads to White Owl. As he got close to the tipi the wife of White Owl came out and said, "You have done more than he asked, so I'll tell you instead of just taking what he offers you, when he asks, say you want him".

Yellow Leggings went inside the tipi and White Owl was glad to see the heads. He then laid out many sacred items and asked Yellow Leggings which ones he wanted. Yellow Leggings refused all of them and said he wanted White Owl. White Owl said, "My wife must have told you to say that, she talks too much! But since you did more than I asked I cannot refuse". So he gave Yellow Leggings all his powers which included a fawn and an owl. The owl represented him. As Yellow Leggings was leaving, White Owl told him to be careful because four women would approach him, "The first three will be treacherous, but the fourth will become your wife".

As Yellow Leggings went, he came to a beautiful woman. He lay with her, but she jumped up and ran away. As she ran he saw she was an otter. The second one, same thing, but it was a deer, and the third, an elk. The fourth one was a woman, a human, and he lay with her but she did not fear him, so she became his wife.

This woman had seven brothers. Her brothers were supernatural, they had special powers. The youngest was Juniper On The Bridge Of The Nose and he had a pet mountain lion. When Yellow Leggings and his new wife went to her home, the youngest was there, the others were away hunting. When the others came home, they teased Yellow Leggings. They pulled off their heads and other parts of their bodies and threw them about. Yellow Leggings got out his fawn and owl, and the owl grabbed the fawn and as it squeezed the fawn the brothers hollered in pain. They pleaded with their sister to make Yellow Leggings stop, and he called back his owl.

Juniper On The Bridge Of The Nose told his brothers, "I'm ashamed of you. You should respect your brother-in-laws." And he gave Yellow Leggings his mountain lion as a gift. This began the custom of giving a gift to a new brother-in-law, to show respect.

Since all the bad things were destroyed, the brothers decided to become something that would be there forever. So, they had a meeting among themselves. "What shall we become, so we can last forever?" asked the oldest. One replied, "Why don't we become trees?" The others said "But trees die." "Why don't we become rocks high in the mountains?" said another. "Rocks will fall from erosion." "Why don't we become water?" said another. "Oh, water sometimes will dry up from the heat." So, they had a long discussion on this and finally one of them said, "Why don't we become where they point the pipe stem to the stars? We can be there forever, and that way, we can watch the Bíiluuke forever." So they said, "That’s a good idea." So the brothers became Iipchalapaachuoo, Where They Point The Pipe, the Big Dipper.

Yellow Leggings returned to the Apsáalooke with the four white tipis, one from White Owl, one from Ant Woman, one from Red Hair, and one from his brothers-in-law. This is how the Apsáalooke first received tipis.

[Adapted from, Dale D. Old Horn, and Timothy P. McCleary, Apsáalooke Social and Family Structure. Crow Agency, MT: Little Big Horn College, 1995]