Country Lore: A Homemade Tipi

This reader dedicated herself to building a beautiful, unique tipi with recycled materials.
By Theresa Leonhardt
August/September 2004
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Theresa Leonhardt's tipi was a labor of love.

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Thanks to an article on the Plains Indian tipi in the first issue of Mother Earth News, I launched a 10-year recycling project. The project began in 1993 when I was cleaning up debris on our vacant acre. I decided to turn the debris into a wickiup, a stick-frame shelter that looks like an upside-down bowl.

My three children and the birds loved it. I left it standing for a couple of years but envisioned a true tipi as the children got older. For the second stage, I gathered some aspen logs and started a 10-foot-high tipi structure. A canvas covering was far out of reach of my budget, so I pinned old sheets and blankets together.

That first weekend we went camping with a few friends in our backyard blanket shelter and stayed very cozy even though the temperature dropped to 32 degrees Fahrenheit and a snowstorm hit. What a heavenly experience to be able to reach over and start the fire without first getting out of the sleeping bag. As the early spring day warmed up, we were cooking breakfast in the tipi, wrapped in the warmth of our sleeping bags, the small fire and the joy of the whole experience.

Wishing for more than just a blanket-pinned tipi, I started thinking of sewing together materials to make a better cover. Recycled jeans were a perfect choice to simulate a canvas-covering. Many of the jeans had seen several owners before they became a part of the tipi. Each spring I would cover the tipi with what I had sewn together and pin blankets to the bare areas. By 1999, I nearly had the tipi covered when I decided to change the framework to be taller. With the help of a friend, we replaced the poles, and the structure took on its final 15-foot height with the original 15-foot diameter.

But the jeans covering didn’t fit properly; I was back to being half-done. I started pricing canvas again, but I have always been committed to showing my children the value of recycling. Then a friend handed me an article from Mother Earth News about the Plains Indian tipi. With the guidance of the article, I could envision the completed project. Dedicating myself to taking apart the old design, I refashioned the covering using the article as a reference. After about a year and a half of cutting, sewing and measuring in my spare time, I was ready to see if it fit the framework. It was breathtaking!

Now my family and friends stare at the tipi in awe, knowing its humble beginnings and the struggles and dedication it took to see my vision become reality.

Theresa Leonhardt
Bailey, Colorado

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