American Indians built tepees big enough to shelter a family in winter or summer. Old movie westerns showed tepees that were open structures with a flap over the entrance. In the movies a tall person had to stoop a bit to enter and maybe four people could fit inside seated around a fire. I was privileged to watch Harvey White Bear and his wife Cathy put up this authentic teepee at Sky Hawk Ranch in Murphys.
The poles are 25 feet long and each one is a birch tree. Over several hundred years, the nomadic plains Indians learned to build a comfortable, practical dwelling that served them well through summer and winter. Harvey walks a rope around and around the structure. Each set of poles is tied the required six times.
The people took down their dwellings about every six months as they followed the herds of buffalo, their main source of food and materials. Precise ways, tried and true, are followed to make the job faster and easier to pick up and move on as a group.
Harvey spreads the canvas centered on one pole. He secures it at the required distance from the top so it won’t slip when it is raised. It is a ritual. He loves staying in touch with his heritage by erecting this tepee according to the custom of his forefathers. “I don’t get much practice,” he said. “I was very happy the Clan asked me to put it up.” Harvey belongs to the Bear Clan centered in Idaho. He lives in Wallace and is Cherokee, raised by Comanche with Miwuk cousins. There is another tepee like this one erected near Laytonville by the Owl Clan.
Cathy and “Grandmother Jan” loosely fold the canvas over the pole. Elder women and men are called “grandfather” and “grandmother.” They are treated with special respect. It is an honor to be a grandmother or grandfather who council the young, and teach them the accumulated wisdom and history of the tribe through the years.
Cathy picks up the heavy end so Harvey can get a rope under the heavy mass of wood and canvas. He ties it in two places.
Cindy holds the heavy end, Harvey takes the great weight in the middle and Jan balances with the top of the pole. Cindy will place the end on the ground and keep her foot wedged against it while Harvey and Jan raise it up to the top.
That plan didn’t work. It was too heavy to get to the top with just three people. And, it also hit some tree branches before it could be placed. Grandmother Jan suggested seating it narrow end first and avoid the branches.
Grandmother Jan got reinforcements by waking up a night working neighbor, Rob. Harvey climbed up a ladder and guided it into the right slot.
From the inside, the poles are pushed out as far as they will go pushing into the canvas and tightening it.
Harvey laces up the door which must face East.
The last two poles are inserted into leather cones that have been sewn into the canvas. This is the air conditioning and draft mechanism for the fire. They can be positioned to take advantage of the wind. They vent the smoke and can be flipped to the other side of the tepee if needed.
The last task is to stake the tent to the ground. Native Americans use metal stakes and canvas and every modern tool they can to make the job easier. Their ancestors had fewer choices. Grandfather John, joined us late in the process.
It took about three hours to raise the tepee. In summer, the air flows up from the bottom and out the top. The air conditioning.
During winter, another canvas is attached to the inside covering the draft. It can be rolled up and down as needed. This tepee will not be used as a dwelling, so the inside cover is not placed. Harvey is active with the boy scouts to teach his particular skills. But, he doesn’t get many opportunities to put up a grand tepee. The ceremony to bless the dwelling with a gathering of the clan will depend on the health of Grandmother Tanya, who is ill and is the head of the Clan. The Clan is of mixed tribes who have joined together for their own preservation. Harvey mentioned that there were about 9,000 different Tribes in North America heavily populated with estimates close to a billion people. Now only 500 distinct tribes exist, most on the west coast. Their combined population is 5,295,700. They’ve been decimated by European diseases, Indian Removal Acts, Broken Treaties, Indoctrination, Re-education, Confinement to Reservation life and killing off the buffalo. The loss of dignity, their oral history, art, respect, hope, language and pervasive alcoholism threatens the thin chain of life for many. Another stage of American imperialism and shame. Europeans are a patriarchal society and could never understand or respect a matriarchal society.
The tide is turning but it is still an uphill battle. I hope to be invited to the up-coming ceremony.