For over a century, the Northern Cheyenne dreamt of constructing a buffalo hide tipi. The last time such a tipi was constructed was about 1877 when herds of buffalo were on the verge of extinction and reservations were established. The dream of completing a hide tipi was realized August 21, 2014, when seven Cheyenne women from Chief Dull Knife College in Montana erected a buffalo hide tipi they helped complete.
The morning of June 11 began the task of tanning the first buffalo hide for a tipi under the direction of Larry Belitz. The hide was laced onto a frame so buffalo leg bone fleshers used by the workers could jab fat and meat from the skin. After the hide had dried to become stiff rawhide, the hair (wool) was scraped off using an elk horn scraper. The next day the rawhide was soaked in water to become pliable and buffalo brains were rubbed into the hide.
After brains had time to soak into the skin, holes were sewn with sinew and the hide laced again to a frame. The hide was pushed and staked to stretch the fibers so the skin would be soft and not stiff when completely dried.
After working the skin for hours on the frame, the hide was unlaced and another technique used--tossing youngsters into the air. Such a sport was enjoyed a century earlier. As a child sat in the center of the robe, those holding the edges of the hide pulled in unison to send the person into the air. After a dozen tosses, another child got a turn. This unique method stretched the hide, while having fun!
After a month for Belitz to tan five additional buffalo hides, the group returned in August to sew the hides together. The sewing involved poking holes with an awl to attach hides together at their edges using sinew thread. This sewing required three days.
Lodgepole pines were cut and peeled, chokecherry lacing pins carved and a buffalo hide tying robe braided to have everything ready for the dedication. On the morning of the dedication, the tipi was traditionally honored by having seven military veterans walk barefoot across the tipi cover while an honoring song was sung.
Cheyenne elders spoke about the importance of this tipi. The women next set up the pole framework, wrapped the hide cover around the poles, pinned the right and left sides together and inserted smoke flap poles. Alan Blackwolf, Keeper of the Northern Cheyenne Sacred Buffalo Hat, then smudged the tipi. The crowd joined hands around the new tipi and a prayer was offered. Accompanied by drumming and singing from two Cheyenne elders, the group danced in a circle to a Friendship Dance.
To bring this long-sought dream into reality required the effort of the Cheyenne workers and behind-the-scene work of the following: grant writing by Dana Kizzier, Dr. Richard Littlebear of Chief Dull Knife College, Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation Board of Directors and Larry Belitz who tanned the needed buffalo and directed the tipi-making. Funding was essential for the project and came from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund and Wyoming Humanities Council.
By Larry Belitz, Plains Indian Material Culture Consultant