First you kill a dozen buffalo.
That's if you want to make a tepee exactly the way the Plains Indians did it -- stretching the animals' hide for the skin of the structure and using their gut and bones to hold it together. If you're willing to compromise a little on authenticity, you can skip this step and use sheets instead of buffalo hide.
"The sheets are already dyed brown because last year they were the upper deck of a whale ship," explained 10-year-old Rebecca Simons, who recently helped make a tepee at John Eaton School in northwest D.C.
"We've been studying Indians, and I thought this would be a good way to wind up our study," said reading teacher Pat Goodnight. To supervise the project, Goodnight enlisted the school's architect-in-residence, Bob Corcoran, who spends two afternoons a week at Eaton under a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and the Eaton parents' group.
In addition to the sheets, the project took three 8-foot 2x4s, five 12-foot closet poles, tenpenny nailes, string and an electric stape gun -- and paint to decorate the structure. Corcoran sawed the 2x4s in half and the kids laid out five of the four-foot boards in a pentagon shape on the floor.
"To make sure it was a true pentagon, we measured the angles with a protractor," said Corcoran. "They all had to be 72 degrees. Then I sawed the 2x4 we had left over into five pieces and nailed a piece at each angle to hold the pentagon together."
When the basic shape was laid out, Goodnight divided the group into builders and decorators.
"I hate to see all the boys end up building and all the girls decorating," complained Goodnight, trying unsuccessfully to convince Jonah Edelman, 10, to join the decorating crew. But Elizabeth Eidenberg, 11, and Rebecca resisted role stereotypes and signed on with the construction crew.
As Corcoran climbed a ladder to tie the closet poles together at the top, Goodnight started the decorators on designing Indian symbols to adorn the tepee.
"First draw them on paper so when we paint them on the tepee we'll know how they'll look," she instructed. As the decorators drew their own versions of the Indian symbols found in a book called The Sound of Flutes by Rick Erdoes, the builders nailed the bottom ends of the closet poles to the frame with tenpenny nails.
"The Indians just stuck the poles in the earth, but we have this asphalt floor," explained Corcoran. "I'd love to make one outdoors, with canvas. Then you could just make the ends of the poles pointed -- with a stone ax, of course."
Indians, according to Corcoran, used pins made from buffalo bone to fasten the skin of the tepee to the poles, but the Eaton crew used staples. One sheet didn't cover the whole frame, so another was put on over it, with a lot of overlap.
"It was the same concept as shingles on a house, so that when it rained, water didn't come in. There was also a sort of natural air conditioning. You could raise the skin at the bottom to let in the cool air from the ground. The hot air went out through the hole in the top. That had a flap over it to keep out the rain. Without another pole on the outside of the tepee, you could adjust this flap to control the amount of draft to come through. This also served as a flue, so you could control how hot the fire was," explained Corcoran who spends most of his time designing such projects as the $60 million Parkside housing-office-retail complex in northeast.
When the basic construction was finished, Goodnight put a packing bag -- in lieu of a woven mat -- on the floor of the tepee and explained that students would use the structure as a reading corner.
"We'll have enough light," she said. "We'll just choose one of the overhead lights for our sun."
Out of work, the builders wanted to decorate, or, at least, to kibitz with the decorators.
"It's not a cow. It's a buffalo and it's a sign for a chief's tepee," Gillian Schultz, 11, told one of the builders.
"Sometimes they painted scenes from battles on them," explained Michelle Cilley, 10, showing a postcard picture of a tepee at the Smithsonian. When Melissa Mersh, 10, finished painting a bright red sun over the door flap, the tepee was pronounced ready for occupancy, and small groups of kids crawled in to the sound of war whoops.
"The ones the Indians built were much bigger, usually about 20 feet high," said Goodnight. "They just took them down and pulled them behind horses or dogs when they migrated to hunt buffalo. Tepees made good homes. We had a man come talk to us who was party Cheyenne. He said the Indian agent was always trying to get his grandmother to move out of her tepee and into a house. She never would, and she lived to be a hundred and something." BUILDING YOUR TEPEE Nancy O'Neill's second graders at Capitol Hill Day School built their tepee by a different method. After dyeing three sheets "buffalo brown," they cut the sheets into triangles and sewed them in a rough semicircle about 10 feet in diameter. The students then painted Indian symbols and designs on the semicircle. The teacher gathered tree branches and cut about 10 eight-foot lengths. The sticks were tied near the top with strong string. Sticks were adjusted as necessary to stabilize the structure. Holes were cut in the material and the "skin" was tied to the sticks with yarn -- instead of buffalo gut. The result is a smaller, but more portable, tepee