Monday, August 9, 2010

My tipi story

(Note: All the images in this post are from the web, as I don't have photos to post from the Sun Dance grounds... but I looked for ones that kind of looked like our tipi.)

While we (my partner & son & I) were in South Dakota last month, we had the opportunity to camp on the grounds of the Hollow Horn Bear Sun Dance, and a friend of mine even said that if we wanted to, he'd arrange to get a tipi there for us to stay in. WOW, YES! I took him up on it.

So on a Tuesday we went to the grounds and met the tipi man there--Peter Gibbs. He's originally from England and still has the accent, but he lives on the Rosebud Reservation (has for years) and teaches at Sinte Gleska University. He brought our tipi, and we helped him set up ours and a couple others.

Setting up a tipi--or, more properly, a tipestola (the Lakota did not call them tipis, but the name stuck once outsiders kept referring to them that way)--is a lot of fun. You first put four poles in place, tie them together at the top with a special knot, and lift up three of them--the tripod. Then you put all the other poles in the tripod, placing them in a specific place on top. Then the rope is wrapped around them, the final pole with the canvas is put up, the canvas unrolled and wrapped around the poles, and the bottom staked down. It's a really neat process, but I kept remembering that WOMEN were the ones who put up and took down the tipis back before the reservation days. I think they must have helped each other; I don't see how one person could do this. Also, they had to have been STRONG!

So on Tuesday night, we slept in our tipi. We had arranged for some modern accoutrements--a cooler, plenty of water, a couple air mattresses, a couple flashlights--to make sure we were comfortable. I am not very good at camping; typically, I don't sleep well on the ground, which means I'm cranky all the next day, which means everything seems annoyingly difficult and frustrating. I asked my friend: was it okay, kosher, to use these things on the Sun Dance grounds? Oh yes, he said, lots of people do what they need to in order to sleep comfortably.

(This is fancier than our stuff; wouldn't you like to stay here?)

So, technically, I should have slept like a baby, comfy on my air mattress, surrounded by my small family and looking forward to Wednesday's activities. But I didn't. I felt like a little kid being told I had to sleep at Disneyland or something--it was just too exciting to sleep!

And it was so beautiful inside there. I looked up toward the top, and the circle of the tipi, with the poles coming down, reminded me a little bit of a spider web. It was awesome, and something I'd never felt in a tent. It was like there was an organic shape around me and I felt happy in it.

Wednesday, Tree Day, was beautiful and moving. (I'm writing about that in another venue, and will share something here once I get it in share-able shape...) And then it was time for Patrick & Dexter to head back up to Pierre, to Grandma & Grandpa's house; after a small dinner and some rearranging of stuff, I visited with some other campers I'd met and then got ready for bed. It was incredibly peaceful in camp that night, and there was a real feeling of community. I felt at peace. And tired. So I fell asleep easily, and soundly. Then...

BOOM! A thunderstorm blew in, the wakinyan spirits visiting us, at almost 1am. And it was really raining! My waking thoughts were pure fear: what if lightning strikes one of these poles? I'll be incinerated!

Then, as the thunder and lightning calmed down, my concern (less panicked now) turned to the rain. My friend had explained the physics of the tipi in weather; he had stayed with some kids in a camp where it was 20 degrees below zero, and they'd been okay (though, of course, they had to sleep in shifts so someone was always awake to tend the fire). I had closed the smoke flaps before turning in for the night, and I'd done a good job--no water was coming in there. And nothing was coming in in the middle of the poles--they were nice and tight, and the water was running down the poles. I'd opted for the liner, so when the water dropped from the poles, it was behind the liner. The physics of the tipi were working perfectly.

(Here's a tipi with the smoke flaps closed. But front door open.)

Only I was getting wet. After an hour of hard, hard rain, the canvas was just saturated and started to drip in several places. I had my flashlight on, inspecting where the drips were coming down, moving stuff and rearranging stuff and putting things I thought shouldn't get wet out of the way... I tried to go back to sleep. But it kept getting worse. And the tarp on the ground was starting to make puddles. My pillow was wet. Ugh.

When the rain finally slowed down, sometime after 2, I gave up and headed for the car; there was no way I was going to be able to sleep in the tipi. I moved the "important" stuff--stuff I wanted to try to keep relatively dry (or not let get more wet)--into the car with me. I sat in the driver's seat, reclined it as far as it would go, turned on the heater for a while, and then turned off the car and dozed somewhere around 3am. My tipi was set up close enough to the circle to be able to see the Tree, even through the thick fog that was beginning to settle over the grounds. The Tree stood strong and straight and steadfast. It gave me a really good feeling. Despite all of that mess in the middle of the night, I felt good.

And then at 4:30 am, the anpo ilowan (dawn singer) started to do his thing, and it was time to wake up and get ready for the dancing, which would begin just before sunrise. On the one hand, I was thinking: well, so much for my good night of sleep. On the other hand, I gave thanks for such a beautiful song. (Florentine Blue Thunder often comes to that Sun Dance just to sing the dawn song for everyone; he has one of the most beautiful singing voices I've ever heard...) And I gave thanks for the tree, our relative, standing in the circle and waiting for us.

After the fog burned off that next day, I spread everything out on my rental car--my "war pony," as my friend called it--and managed to dry it out. The sun was incredibly strong, and the day turned warm after all.

That was my last night in the tipi, as it turned out. (I had to leave after the first day of dancing to go to Moon Camp--see below. :) ) But I loved sleeping in a tipi for a couple nights, and living in one for a couple days. It was much easier than staying in a tent--more roomy, and you can stand up in it. It also felt right, somehow, or appropriate, or... peaceful? I'm not sure what the right word is. But I can't wait to be able to stay in a tipi again. Maybe next year.

May you enjoy where you're staying today!


  1. Hau Hankashi Karen, Hello sister Karen....Tom Weaver here in Minnesota. Thanks for the story about your experience with the wakinyan oyate and the tipi. I am still looking to visit Ohio in October. I have an event from Oct 19024 in Louisville and will likely head to Ohio there after. Would be fun to visit Delaware, the land of Moses Bixby and Leonard Hamlet Cowles, and Lewis Glessner, my ancestors and have new friends of the HHB Tiospaye to visit and share stories with. I have stories from 1990, the second year of the dance, and interesting you joined us with Albert and Duane stepped back to allow, Steve, JR and Carl be the leaders. Dino Holy Eagle from Rapid City stayed with us in MN Camp part of the time, he is another of the leader group whom I have gotten to know over the years. Best regards to your family.

  2. Han, sic'esi Tom! Toniktu ka he?

    You are welcome to stay with us, or if you can't spend a lot of time perhaps at least a visit and a meal... let's keep in touch as your plans develop. I would love to hear more of your stories!

    Safe travels.

  3. I am looking for a way to contact Florentine Thunder. He has stolen $1500 from my family. He was contracted to make some beadwork over three years ago and now refuses to communicate with us. Please help as that is a lot of money for a single income family with 7 children.