The Plains Indians were nomadic hunters of buffalo. This meant that they had to follow the buffalo herds when the animals moved from place to place, looking for fresh grass to eat. This required that they be able to unpack and move to another location quickly. They needed a shelter that was portable, durable and water resistant. The tipi was perfect for that. Made of brain tanned buffalo skin, the tipi was water resistant and easily disassembled.
The tipi’s structure consisted of lodge pole pines placed and secured in a cone. Then 14 to 20 buffalo hides were sewn together in a circle with sinew, and stretched across the poles with a smoke hole at the top. A flap was designed to enter and exit the dwelling. The firepit inside the center of the tipi served to provide warmth. Beds were placed against the tipi walls and buffalo furs served as rugs. The tipi was lined in the winter for warmth and privacy.
The structure lasted an average of 10 years. When the tipi was replaced, the old one was made into clothing or patching material for other tipis.The outstanding characteristic of the tipi was its portability. It took women only minutes to disassemble the tipi and transport it by horse. Tipi hides, poles, and household articles were placed on a device known as a travois and dragged behind a horse. Before they had horses, they used to make smaller tipis, because the tipis had to be carried by or dragged behind a dog.
A skin tipi might last two to three years, depending upon the amount of traveling done, and the weather during its use. New covers were very light in color. As time went on, the top portions became darkened with smoke from the fires inside, even though the fires were kept small. After replacing the cover, the old one was cut up for moccasin soles and other useful items. Leather of this kind was nearly indestructible and permanently waterproofed because it had been so thoroughly smoked.