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The Sacredness of the Tipi

The Cree people use 15 poles to make the structure of the tipi. For every pole in that tipi, there is a teaching. So there are 15 teachings that hold up the tipi. Other Nations use 16 poles, and maybe more or less.

The tipi does not have to face east all the time; it can rotate in any direction. It is only the first time that it is requested that the tipi face east, because of the opening ceremony.

To start, we take three poles and bind them together to make a tripod. Each pole also has a very specific meaning. 

These three together fortify the structure. They are obedience, respect and humility. Notice the poles, the way they stand. If they stood straight up and down, they couldn’t support a tipi. But balanced properly together, they are able to reinforce each other.

There’s a teaching in that. In order to make a family, you need three: the two parents and the child, to make that balance.

The tops of the poles have many teachings. Each one points in a different direction. We are like those poles. We all need the strength and support of our families and communities, but we accept that we all have different journeys and point in different directions.

The poles also teach us that no matter what version of the Great Spirit we believe in, we still go to the same Creator from those many directions and belief systems; we just have different journeys to get there. And where the poles come out together at the top, it’s like they’re creating a nest. And they also resemble a bird with its wings up when it comes to land, and that’s another teaching: the spirit coming to land, holding its wings up.

We could talk about each of these poles for a long time; each one holds many teachings, and takes a long time and much experience to truly understand. I will give you some words on each pole, to give a beginning idea of what the poles represent.

OBEDIENCE Obedience means accepting guidance and wisdom from outside of ourselves, using our ears before our mouth. We learn by listening to traditional stories, by listening to our parents or guardians, our fellow students and our teachers. We learn by their behaviors and reminders, so that we know what is right and what is wrong.

RESPECT Respect means giving honor to our Elders and fellow students, to the strangers that come to visit our community, and to all of life. We must honor the basic rights of all others.

HUMILITY We are not above or below others in the circle of life. We feel humbled when we understand our relationship with Creation. We are so small compared to the majestic expanse of Creation, just a “strand in the web of life.” Understanding this helps us to respect and value life.

HAPPINESS After the tripod is up, the fourth pole completes your doorway. This fourth pole teaches us happiness. We must show some enthusiasm to encourage others. Our good actions will make our ancestors happy in the next world. This is how we share happiness.

LOVE If we are to live in harmony we must accept one another as we are, and accept others who are not in our circle. Love means to be good and kind to one another and to our selves.

FAITH We must learn to believe and trust others, to believe in a power greater than ourselves, whom we worship and who gives us strength to be a worthy member of the human race. To sustain our spirituality, we need to walk it every day. Not just sometimes, but every day. It’s not just once a week; it’s your life.

KINSHIP Our family is important to us. This includes our parents, brothers and sisters, who love us and give us roots that tie us to the lifeblood of the earth. It also includes extended family: grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, and their in-laws and children. They are also our brothers and sisters and give us a sense of belonging to a community.

CLEANLINESS Today when we talk about cleanliness, most people think hygiene, and that’s very important. But years ago, when old people talked about cleanliness, they meant spiritual cleanliness. When I used to sit with the old Kookums in their tipis, spiritually, they were so powerfully clean. Clean thoughts come from a clean mind and this comes from our spirituality. With a clean mind and sense of peace within we learn not to inflict ills on others. Good health habits also reflect a clean mind.

THANKFULNESS We learn to give thanks: to always be thankful for the Creator’s bounty, which we are privileged to share with others, and for all the kind things others do for us.

SHARING We learn to be part of a family and community by helping with the provisions of food and other basic needs. Through the sharing of responsibilities we learn the value of working together and enjoying the fruits of our labor.

STRENGTH We are not talking about physical strength, but spiritual strength. That was instilled in us when we were young people through fasting. We must learn to be patient in times of trouble and not to complain but to endure and show understanding. We must accept difficulties and tragedies so that we may give others strength to accept their own difficulties and tragedies.

GOOD CHILD REARING Children are gifts from the Creator. We are responsible for their wellbeing, spiritually, emotionally, physically, and intellectually, since they are blessed with the gift of representing the continuing circle of life, which we perceive to be the Creator’s will.

HOPE We must look forward to moving toward good things. We need to have a sense that the seeds we are planting will bear fruit for our children, families and communities.

ULTIMATE PROTECTION This is the ultimate responsibility to achieve the balance and well being of the body, mind, emotions and spirit for the individual, the family, the community and the nation.

CONTROL FLAPS The control flaps on a tipi teach that we are all connected by relationship and that we depend on each other. Having respect for and understanding this connection creates and controls harmony and balance in the circle of life. When we don’t know how to use the flaps, it gets all smoky inside the tipi, and you can’t see, which is like life – because if we can’t live in balance, we can’t see clearly where we’re going.

CONCLUSION For every time that a pole is added, a rope goes around to bind that pole into place. You have to be there and see it to appreciate that teaching. That rope is a sacred bond, binding all the teachings together until they are all connected. 

I have shared these teachings with you with the hope that they will help keep the women strong and will help our communities to nurture healthy, balanced people.

- Mary Lee, Cree Elder

Painting by: Aaron Paquette

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