For five winters and six summers. I had a tepee. I built it with help from my son, husband and granddaughter, but mostly, I built it myself. I never lived in it full-time. The lack of plumbing or electricity required I begin and end my day in the house, about 150 feet away. Nonetheless, the tepee was my home in a way no place before or since has ever been.
I peeled her poles with my draw knife, one pole at a time. I sanded them, sanded them again and coated them with water seal. Fourteen poles for a 12-foot tepee, 12 for support, and two to work the smoke flaps. Completing the poles took me the entire summer of 2007. While I peeled the poles, I thought about life, the meaning of things. When I was through peeling the poles, I painted the designs on the tepee door, based on drawings I found of old tepees. The front was a buffalo shield, and inside, I painted a big circle and filled it with a heavy coat of white paint. Then each member of my family dipped a hand in paint and pressed it into the circle so the tepee would know who lived in the house and would be at home in the tepee.
My granddaughter loved the tepee almost as much as I did. She spent many afternoons and nights with her own friends by the fire.
Winters are very cold in New England, so I became one of the best and fastest fire builders you could imagine. Working from a stack of wood, I could produce a warm bright blaze in under 2 minutes. I was good. Speed was critical. With the snow falling all around the teepee and temperatures hovering around zero, you had to get the fire going very quickly or your hands would be too frozen to do it at all. And may I add that I don’t know about anyone else, but I can’t build a campfire while wearing gloves.
Tepees don’t need chimneys. The shape of the tepee is very efficient. If you have set the smoke flaps properly, the smoke will be drawn up and out, leaving the air in the tepee warm and comfortably clean.
Once the fire was up, the teepee warmed quickly. All I had to do was feed logs to the firepit and poke it occasionally, jiggling the logs to remind the fire to stay awake. My granddaughter and her friends became adept at keeping the fire too, so after a while, I felt comfortable trusting them to have a fire without supervision.
Above all, my favorite times were spent alone in the teepee by the fire. It got so warm even in the depths of winter I needed to keep the flap open, and sometimes had to sit partially outside because of the intensity of the heat.
The tepee, by the fire, was the most peaceful place I’ve ever known. Warmed by the fire, silent except for the crackling of the logs, I could lie there on one of the three beds covered with blankets and big feathery pillows and do absolutely nothing for hours at a time. It was pretty in the tepee. I had made a peace pipe and decorated it with leather and feathers. In a Navajo bowl, I burned sweet grass, sage and cedar which somehow increased the sense of peace and rightness.
The tepee survived well for those years, not at all bad for what is really nothing more than some sticks and canvas and when finally, the weather defeated my tepee, my son quietly took it down without requiring that I help dismantle it. I was grateful. I’m not sure I could have done it.
This was the fire at the heart of the tepee, forever and always my symbol of home. My home.