Tipi Technology

Student teachers in Washington state experiment with multicultural science

As a teaching assistant, I wanted to show students who were earning their master's degrees in teaching how multicultural education can work in the science classroom. In fact, I wanted to push them further. Washington state has established Essential Academic Learning Requirements for science, one of which states, "Science and technology are human endeavors, interrelated to each other, to society and to the workplace." I wanted to ask my students to reflect on the assumptions we make about science: Is science only one body of knowledge about the physical world? Or do different peoples understand the physical world in different ways?

The previous summer, Long Standing Bear Chief, a Blackfoot friend, had shown me how to put up a tipi. I had always wondered, "How do they balance all those poles together?" and "How do they get the canvas up around that tall cone?" Some of the solutions Long Standing Bear Chief showed me seemed both efficient and counter-intuitive. I thought that if I could get my students to consider the tipi as a solution to an engineering challenge, they might come to understand that the way in which Blackfoot people solved that tough survival problem was scientific. But I wanted them to do more than respect an artifact of another culture. I wanted them to try to understand a tipi as a Blackfoot person might.

Here is how the lesson worked: To begin, I posed a question that Blackfoot people had confronted and resolved over time. Erecting a tipi was traditionally women's work, so the question was "How could two Blackfoot women erect a tipi three times as tall as they were without using a ladder?" The students used dowels, string and rectangles of cloth to plan their solutions.

As the small groups began working on their models, they soon figured out that they needed to tie the dowels together near the tops to get them to balance against one another when they were upright. (Blackfoot people traditionally begin with four poles to represent the four directions.) A greater challenge was to imagine how they would get real poles upright.

Once the students had a standing structure of dowels, they next had to figure out how to make the tipi cover. A mini-geometry lesson on cones would help students surmount this conceptual hurdle. A simple compass made of chalk tethered on a string allows one to draw the smooth curve necessary for cutting the cloth into a semicircle, the approximate shape of a tipi cover.

Next came the challenge of imagining how to get a full-size tipi cover in place. My adult students could reach no higher than about seven feet, while the cover needed to reach twice that height. They demonstrated their novel solution in the second part of the lesson -- outside, using real tipi materials.

They had figured out a system of attaching the canvas while the four poles were still on the ground. When they "popped" the tipi, it flared out umbrella-fashion with its canvas already in place. A drawback of their solution was that the attached canvas prevented them from adding extra poles to round out the pyramidal structure and create more living space.

The problem-solving phase involved hands-on experience with several basic principles the students could identify from European American science. They had to consider leverage when hoisting the tipi cover. Convection, as well as insulation and ventilation, came into play as we considered living conditions inside a tipi. The principle of cohesion of water molecules helped to explain why tipis shed water well even when the buffalo skin (or canvas) with which they are covered is not waterproof.

In demonstrating the Blackfoot solution, Long Standing Bear Chief used a rope about 40-50 feet long to tie the ends of the original four bundled poles together. He wound the excess rope into a coil. After "walking" the poles upright by hoisting the tied ends over his head and working his way down, he opened the bundle and spread the supports. He added more poles by propping them against the apex of the basic pyramidal structure. He then unwound the rope coil and walked around the tipi, whipping the rope up and tightening it to tie the outside poles into the rest of the tipi. The final touch was lifting the canvas, rolled onto one last pole, and unfurling it around the tipi to yield a round roomy living space.

After the construction, Long Standing Bear Chief explained what tipis mean to his people. Plains Indians (including Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Cree, Crow, Lakota and Kiowa) each have their own stories for the origin of the tipi. Blackfoot people say the tipi, nii-toy-yis, was a spiritual gift to women to be used as a family home. Lakota people say the tipi was invented by children playing with sticks and leaves of the cottonwood tree.

The tipi was a portable dwelling that allowed people to move through the countryside to follow the buffalo herds and to meet their spiritual needs. People kept caches of tipi poles along their migratory routes, bringing the tipi cover -- traditionally of buffalo hides -- with them. In popular culture, the tipi became a generic icon for the "nomadic Indian," but for the Plains tribes to whom it properly belongs, it continues to represent a sacred center of life.

Traditionally, the tipi was a family dwelling that housed up to eight people. Men felled the 19 lodgepole pines that made the tipi poles. Both men and women participated in tanning the eight hides that made the cover. Men painted designs on the tipis to indicate spiritual visions. A cross near the top signified a butterfly, the being that brought good dreams. A zigzag pattern along the bottom indicated that the man's vision took place in the mountains, while a straight line showed that it occurred on the plains. (Long Standing Bear Chief has published a children's book that explains the decorative imagery and other aspects of Blackfoot painted tipis.)

Feedback from the students was enthusiastic. They expressed their respect for Blackfoot ingenuity. They teased about the prowess of Blackfoot women, acknowledging that a task traditionally accomplished by two women had taken as many as 14 students to manage. One student, Kate Chadwick, commented, "Science need not be a strict transfer of knowledge about proven theories or principles. It can also be an integrated reflection of how people function in the natural world."

Another student, however, wrote that, while he liked the lesson, he did not think of it as science. I asked to talk with him about that. When we met, I reminded him that those who wrote our state's Essential Academic Learning Requirements for science reasoned that "science and technology are human endeavors, interrelated to each other, to society and to the workplace."

Multicultural science suggests that our understanding of the world may be illuminated if we are willing to admit more than one truth.

"Do you think it's possible," I asked, "that even though Blackfoot people may not see the world as European Americans do, their understanding might be science, too?"

The student said he had not realized that I defined science so broadly. He was right: I define science as the way a people understand the physical world, which validates the knowledge of diverse cultures.

The lesson was so successful with the trainee teachers that Long Standing Bear Chief and I volunteered to try it in an elementary school. My sister, Jeannie Blank, coordinates a program of multicultural activities for her daughters' school, and that was our next venue. We taught the lesson in classrooms from 1st to 6th grade. As with the trainee teachers, the presence of a Blackfoot elder was important to the elementary students. Long Standing Bear Chief's contribution was an essential ingredient for the lesson's success. He could speak about his own culture with authenticity. I could not.

The students at the elementary school worked enthusiastically at their tipi models and were excited to follow up by building a real tipi. Afterwards, they listened to Long Standing Bear Chief talk. I was not aware that any of the children we met that day were indigenous, but one 3rd grader wrote afterward:


Dear Long Standing Bear Chief,

I wanted to say that I learned about the tipi signs because of you. I've always wondered about what those signs meant. I never knew those stories. You see, I'm a Shawnee Indian.

Your friend,

Michael Monaghan


 Although Shawnee people did not live in tipis (they lived in wegiwa, which some people have transliterated as wigwams), Michael found meaning in the lesson. It brought classroom science a little closer to who he was.

In the tipi lesson, I tried to show student teachers and elementary students a different way of looking at the world. Study of other cultures is usually relegated to social studies. Natural science is not about diverse cultures, but it is about how people view the physical world. In science, we can question the assumption that all people look at the world in the same way. Different peoples have constructed different sciences. Multicultural science suggests that our understanding of the world may be illuminated if we are willing to admit more than one truth.