A tipi ring is the archaeological remains of a tipi, a dwelling type constructed by North American Plains people between at least as early as 500 BC up until the early 20th century. When Europeans arrived in the great plains of Canada and the United States in the early 19th century, they found thousands of clusters of stone circles, made of small boulders placed at close intervals. The rings ranged in size between seven to 30 feet or more in diameter, and in some cases were embedded into the sod.
The Recognition of Tipi Rings
The early European explorers in Montana and Alberta, the Dakotas and Wyoming were well aware of the meaning and use of the stone circles, because they saw them in use. The German explorer Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuweid described a Blackfoot camp at Fort McHenry in 1833; later plains travelers reporting the practice included Joseph Nicollet in Minnesota, Cecil Denny at the Assiniboine camp at Fort Walsh in Saskatchewan, and George Bird Grinnell with the Cheyenne.
What these explorers saw was the people of the Plains using stones to weigh down the edges of their tipis. When the camp moved, the tipis were taken down and moved with the camp. The rocks were left behind, resulting in a series of stone circles on the ground: and, because the Plains people left their tipi weights behind, we have one of the few ways that domestic life on the Plains can be archaeologically documented. In addition, the rings themselves had and have meaning to the descendants of the groups which created them, beyond the domestic functions: and history, ethnography, and archaeology together ensures that the rings are a source of cultural richness belied by their plainness.
Tipi Ring Meaning
To some plains groups, the tipi ring is symbolic of the circle, a core concept of the natural environment, the passage of time, and the gloriously endless view in all directions from the Plains. Tipi camps were also organized in a circle. Among Plains Crow traditions, the word for prehistory is Biiaakashissihipee, translated as "when we used stones to weigh down our lodges". A Crow legend tells of a boy named Uuwatisee ("Big Metal") who brought metal and wooden tipi stakes to the Crow people. Indeed, stone tipi rings dated later than the 19th century is rare. Scheiber and Finley point out that as such, stone circles act as mnemonic devices linking descendants to their ancestors across space and time. They represent the footprint of the lodge, the conceptual and symbolic home of the Crow people.
Chambers and Blood (2010) note that tipi rings typically had a doorway facing east, marked by a break in the circle of stones. According to Canadian Blackfoot tradition, when everyone in the tipi died, the entrance was sewn shut and the stone circle was made complete. That happened all too often during the 1837 smallpox epidemic at the Akáíí'nisskoo or Many Dead Káínai (Blackfoot or Siksikáítapiiksi) campsite near present-day Lethbridge, Alberta. Collections of stone circles without door openings such as those at Many Dead are thus memorials of the devastation of epidemics on Siksikáítapiiksi people.
Dating Tipi Rings
Untold numbers of tipi ring sites have been destroyed by Euroamerican settlers moving into the Plains, purposefully or not: however, there are still 4,000 stone circle sites recorded in the state of Wyoming alone. Archaeologically, tipi rings have few artifacts associated with them, although there are generally hearths, which can be used to gather radiocarbon dates.
The earliest of the tipis in Wyoming date to the Late Archaic period circa 2500 years ago. Dooley (cited in Schieber and Finley) identified increased numbers of tipi rings in the Wyoming site database between AD 700-1000 and AD 1300-1500. They interpret these higher numbers as representing an increased population, increased use of Wyoming trail system and the migrations of Crow from their Hidatsa homeland along the Missouri River in North Dakota.
Recent Archaeological Studies
Most archaeological studies of tipi rings are the results of large scale surveys with selected pit testing. One recent example was in the Bighorn Canyon of Wyoming, the historic home of several Plains groups, such as the Crow and Shoshone. Researchers Scheiber and Finley used hand-held Personal Data Assistants (PDAs) to input data on tipi rings, part of a developed mapping method combining remote sensing, excavation, hand-drawing, computer-assisted drawing, and Magellan Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment.
Scheiber and Finley studied 143 oval tipi rings at eight sites, dated between 300 and 2500 years ago. The rings varied in diameter between 160-854 centimeters along their maximum axes, and 130-790 cm on the minimum, with averages of 577 cm maximum and 522 cm minimum. Tipi studied in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were reported as 14-16 feet in diameter. The average doorway in their dataset faced north-east, pointing to the midsummer sunrise.
The internal architecture of the Bighorn Canyon group included fire hearths in 43% of the tipis; external included stone alignments and cairns thought to represent meat drying racks.
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