May 10, 2021

Whose Tipi?

By Deb Mitchell, Program Specialist

Museums are generally recognized as good places to go to receive reliable answers about history and material culture. Oftentimes, however, we are the ones with questions.

Tipi on Front Lawn at MHS
Plains Indian Tipi on the Front Lawn at the Montana Historical Society (2021).

At the beginning of every summer, we set up a Plains Indian tipi on our front lawn to pay homage to Montana’s original inhabitants. This year is no exception. We recently posted photographs on Facebook of our friend Cary Youpee erecting the tipi (with a little help from MHS staff). Subsequent comments on the post questioning the tribal affiliation of the tipi made me curious, so I did some investigating; here’s what I found out.

The record documenting the provenance of this tipi is both sketchy and contradictory. It was donated to MHS in 2006, by Gundrun Erikson from Arendal, Norway. It had been in storage in Havre with Myrtle and Burton Bosch for several years before that. The tipi was originally owned by Rol Careleno of Havre, where it had been in his basement for quite some time and was in need of repair. Rol gave it to Gundrun, who had it repaired, probably in Havre at a shoe repair shop by the owner who did excellent work. We do not know when the tipi was made or how long it was in storage before it was given to Gundrun, or how long Gundren kept it before donating it to MHS.

The tipi came to the MHS education department in a storage container marked as “a 14 foot Crow tipi.” Presumably, the unnamed tipi maker was the one who identified it as being Crow. Consequently, we have always erected it in the Crow style, which is with a four-pole set-up. Most often, Crow tipis are solid white, however, and this one clearly is not. According to Dr. Shane Doyle—a tribal member and expert on Crow history— there are exceptions in instances where individuals have dreams or are gifted a design. Thus, though somewhat unusual, it is not out of the question that this tipi is Crow.

Digging deeper in response to the Facebook comments, I found correspondence that indicates that the tipi is “a Cree lodge … painted on the Rocky Boy reservation.” What? Now we are wondering, is it Crow? Is it Cree? Or is it a Crow-made tipi later painted by a Cree artist? Just what is the rest of the story?

We hope that someone out there has additional information that they are willing to share with us. We always want to be as accurate as we can and if we do find out that it is truly a Cree tipi, we will need to begin setting it up with a three-pole style. If anyone has the answer to this mystery, please contact me at