teepee

This word has a much fuller flavour from experience for me than it probably has for most of you reading this. I grew up on the Stoney Indian Reserve in Alberta – the Stoneys are a branch of the Sioux people. In their own language they’re the Nakoda (compare Dakota for a better-known branch of the family). My parents worked for the Stoneys and had – and still have – many friends among the Stoneys. My father is fluent in the language.

So there were many evenings in my younger childhood when we would go to a pow-wow (yes, a pow-wow – a big social gathering with dancing and drumming and lots of socializing, and no alcohol on a dry reserve like the Stoney reserve, just lots of tea) and I would trail my parents around as they greeted and chatted with scores of people one at a time, each greeting starting with “Âba wathtech” (sounded like “umba wastich” to me at the time) and a handshake.

And at the Calgary Stampede we would always go to the Indian Village and stop by the teepees of people we knew and go in for a cup of tea. And then another at the next. And another at the next. Until I was full of tea pee from the teepees.

Many people probably think that teepees are some Hollywood thing or are a racial stereotype or what have you. Actually, setting up the teepee and spending some time in it are now sort of the Stoney equivalent of what many city dwellers do when they open up the cottage in the spring and go up to it for weekends, or the same with the dacha for the well-off in Russia. Teepees are a part of the cultural heritage, somewhat improved with the availability of canvas (just as tea and bannock have become very important imports in the cuisine); they are no longer principal residences, but they are still valued. And when I was a young teen and we lived in a large piece of land at the edge of the reserve and the foot of a mountain, we had one that we set up a short distance from our house and would go out to it with guests.

We also had salt and pepper shakers shaped like teepees. Little ceramic teepees. We didn’t use them much at the table – we had others that poured better. There was also a motel in Canmore that had a teepee-shaped cottage or cabin or whatever you want to call it; it was two storeys tall. We stayed in it once, due, I think, to renovations on our house. It was cold and the shower had poor water pressure, and it wasn’t very pretty inside. It’s not there anymore.

So anyway, teepees were once the portable residences of Plains Indians such as the Nakoda, permanent residences in that they always lived in them but not permanent in location. Now they are temporary and second residences and tend to be set up in more or less the same place every year. The impermanence has shifted from location to habitation.

And where does this word, teepee, come from? And am I spelling it correctly? Indeed, there are other spellings. You may see tepee; more common recently is tipi. It happens that I grew up with teepee, but the tipi spelling appeals to me, as it exactly matches the International Phonetic Alphabet spelling of the word. We used to render the [i] sound with ee by default; now that we are much more aware of the orthographical traditions of other languages and are less confident in our own, tipi seems a better way to spell it. And that is how you spell it in the language it came from.

Which is not Nakoda. Not quite. Tipi is a Dakota word. The Nakoda word is tibi (same spelling as the Latin for ‘to you’). If you look in the Oxford English Dictionary, you will read that the word comes from “Sioux or Dakota ˈtīpī tent, house, dwelling, abode.” But that’s not quite the whole story. Where to get the accurate goods on it? From my dad, of course, fluent Nakoda speaker and trained linguist. I’ll just quote him directly:

Stoney Nakoda ti = “dwelling, house,” etc.

Duki ti = “Where does he/she live/dwell?”

Duki tibi (or in Dakota Sioux, tipi) = “Where do they live/dwell?”

Tibi ze = “the place where they live/dwell”

Tibi (Dakota, tipi) = “they dwell”

BECOMES ENGLISH BORROWING WITH QUITE SPECIFIC MEANING: “teepee/tepee” = “conical canvas tent used principally among Plains Indigenous people”

So there you have it. A bit of linguistic teepology for you.

And so a teepee is where they dwell. Not where we dwell – where they dwell. It’s an English-speaker’s word, taken from someone else’s language, for where those someone elses live. Or lived. I don’t know if there’s any verb morphology available to express that it’s now habitual but intermittent.

Teepee sounds, obviously, like TP. I don’t see connection between a teepee and toilet paper, though. I would be more inclined to think of a teepee as a DP as in “dwelling place.” But DP also stands for displaced person. That term usually means someone who has had to move from where they lived. For some people it’s more accurate to say they had to stop moving with where they lived. Now they’re placed, and their displaceable dwellings are no longer their permanent impermanent addresses.

Maybe I would do better to think of TP as standing for tea place. Because that is one thing it certainly is. But I won’t dwell on it.

6 responses to “teepee

  1. A fascinating piece. Thank you! Tom Priestly (TP).

  2. Really interesting. Enjoyed the stories.

  3. I very much enjoyed this piece (as well as, of course, each one you post). Whilst living in Calgary in the early 1970s, I took a course in the Stoney language – teachers were John Robinson Twoyoungman and Rod (whose last name I’m sorry to say I can’t remember) I still have some of the handouts from the course. All the best, Stephen H

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