Crafty DIY Kids & Parents: Building a Teepee

Ulm Pishkin tepee at the first people buffalo jump state park in Ulm, Utah. By DM Daniels, via Flickr/Wikimedia

Ulm Pishkin tepee at the first people buffalo jump state park in Ulm, Utah. By DM Daniels, via Flickr/Wikimedia

By Lela Nargi

As soon as summer vacation hits, my family craves the outside. There are only four of us—one mom, one dad, one kid, one dog—so the getting out is relatively quick and painless. And we're fortunate, too, that even as city-dwellers, we have a lot of outdoor options available to us: New York City parks, area beaches, beaches further afield in coastal towns in Massachusetts where my husband and I both have lifelong friends who welcome us for extended visits. But one of our favorite places to go in the warm months is the little camp my husband's family built in the 1960s in Adirondack State Park.

We didn't always feel this way about it. When we first got married, and then had our daughter, we visited only in winter, when we could drop in at a nearby cross-country ski resort and later, when Nordic skiing wasn't quite fast enough for Ada, an Alpine center a few towns north. The first time we visited in summer, we didn't know quite to do with ourselves—we hadn't yet discovered the lakes, or figured out how to get the canoe to the boat launch. So, we made do: first with bonfires in the yard; then with archery, thanks to an excellent bow and arrow gifted to my daughter by my father-in-law; and then, finally and most happily, with a tepee.

I'd like to say that for us this project also tied in neatly with all sorts of local Native American history and craft from the surrounding area. But as the New York State tribes were mainly Lenni Lenape, and Lenape lived mostly in longhouses, this is not the case (and longhouses are slightly beyond our comfortable family crafting level). However, a project like this does offer all sorts of opportunities to discuss American tribes more generally: the various dwellings they lived in (like wigwams, wattle and daub houses, chickees, brush shelters); the movement of peoples—and of course, to read the still vibrant and engaging classic about the western expansion of non-natives, Little House on the Prairie, which opens up whole avenues of conversation on its own. 

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Building a tepee is also a great way to get active as a family, and to practice some building and spacial awareness skills. And if your family is anything like our family, it will be the centerpiece for a whole host of activities for as long as you leave it standing. 

What you'll need:

  • Sturdy shovel or spade
  • 3 long, straight-ish tree limbs, at least 8-feet tall (if you want to be historically accurate, the original Plains Indian tepees were 12-feet tall)
  • 1 large tarp (Plains Indians used buffalo hides—by all means, use those if you happen to have a stash of antiques miraculously available to you)
  • Roll of butcher's twine 

1. Loosely arrange your tree limbs to get a sense of how far apart they need to be. Then use your spade to dig three shallow holes.

2. Arrange the tree limbs in the holes, then tie them at the top with butcher's twine. 

3. Drape the tarp over the tree-limb tepee skeleton, making sure you arrange the ends of it toward whichever part of the structure is the front, so they can flap over and create an entrance. Depending on how unstable this structure now is, secure the tarp to the limbs with more twine. Now, let the summer outdoor adventure begin! Learn more about Lenape games and crafts here; and art projects that relate to the Plains Indian here