It would be a mistake to think that all tipis in the Plains culture and the adjacent Plateau culture were painted tipis. In fact only about ten percent of lodges were painted and the design was considered to be something deserved by the individual who used it. Often the design was given to a deserving and distinguished individual through a vision from a medicine spirit. Just as often, the design was passed on by a distinguished individual through his family. It was sometimes possible to purchase a tipi or design from one who had earned it, but the purchaser had to be worthy of the design and had to honor the responsibilities and ceremonials that came with it. Never did someone casually say, “I guess I’ll paint the tipi today, Honey. What color do you like?”
The pigments for the paints used on the tipis were obtained by gathering, manufacturing, and trading with tribes from all over the west. One tradition tells how the Chief Beaver gave the knowledge of the locations, methods of preparation, and symbolism behind all of the pigments to the people. Clearly each substance, hue, and shade did have special meaning. The paint itself was valuable and significant.
Every painted lodge reflected a harmony with the surrounding environment even when individual themes and totems predominated. Some lodges made a clear and simple statement about their particular significance. The Blackfeet Thunder Tipi, for instance, was painted sky blue with a Thunderbird on the back. Most tipis, however, reserved the central surface for individual themes. All lodges were decorated according to a consistent and logical formula. The bottom of the tipi was encircled by a dark earth toned-band. The design of the bottom band of the tipi often depicted familiar terrain, mountain peaks, rolling foothills, or gently undulating prairies. Sometimes the bottom band would include one or two rows of bright circular shapes called dusty stars. These represented the puffballs that sprang up overnight like magic on the prairies. Some believed that the puffballs were fallen stars. Some saw them as a kind of manna sent down from the Above Ones.
The broad central portion was reserved for portrayal of sacred medicine animals, medicine objects, or other protective spirit powers that were important to the family that occupied the lodge. Sometimes family history and important exploits or events were depicted on the central band.
A dark band around the top and including the ear flaps represented the night sky. Within that band, the Sun, the crescent Moon, the Morning Star, and important constellations were depicted. For the Blackfeet, the Morning Star was represented by a symbol resembling a Maltese cross. The cross looked like a butterfly or a buffalo vertebra. Both the butterfly and the vertebra were considered to have the power to bring protected sleep and powerful dreams. Occasionally a buffalo tail was appended to the center of the cross.
The Great Bear (Ursa Major or the Big Dipper) was an extremely important constellation to all Indians because it served as a daily clock and a year-round calendar. The legends of the constellation varied a great deal from tribe to tribe. For the Salish and Ktunaxa, it usually represented a hunted bear. Legend tied in with death and rebirth of the seasons. To some Blackfeet, the Big Dipper represented the Seven Sons of Creator Sun being pursued across the sky by their vengeful mother, the Moon.
The Pleiades or the Lost Children were also frequently depicted in the sky band - a reminder to the people to always take special care of children who are orphaned or not as privileged as others in the community.
Whatever the decorations might be on a lodge, one could be assured that they were of extreme cultural and probably spiritual importance to the occupying family.
There was a great deal of protocol with regard to the placement of tipis, the internal arrangements, how they were put up, taken down, and transported. The tipi was circular at its base. Within the community, the lodges were arranged in a circle. At large gatherings like the Sun-Dance Ceremonial, the tipis of individual bands would be arranged in circles which collectively made up a larger circle. In the center of that circle stood the Sun-Lodge. All doorways were positioned to face the east where the sacred circle, the Sun, rose each morning.
It was the Sun that gave all life and set all cycles in motion. All of the spirit animals received their power directly from the Sun. American Indian life and habitat was centered on the Sun and its cycles.