Tipi Rings

by Lawrence Loendorf, Archaeologist

Researchers working on archaeological projects in the Pryor Mountains and the adjacent Bighorn Canyon area discovered and recorded about 500 sites. One hundred and twenty-two or about one-quarter of these sites exhibit tipi rings on the surface. Some archaeologists prefer to call them stone circles because there is debate about their origin and function.

The debate about whether the rings were used for tipis revolves around several points—the absence of surface artifacts, the lack of interior features like fire hearths, and the absence of any packed floors in the rings. The non-tipi proponents also note that some are too large and others too small to be used with a tipi.

There is also the fact that stone rings can form naturally. This process called “patterned ground” occurs in periglacial settings where stones can arrange in all manner of shapes including circles that can be mistaken for tipi rings. However these circle features are not found in the Pryors where no glaciation took place.

There are many photographs of patterned ground on the internet. These features are on Mynydd Llangatwg, a mountain in South Wales where they formed during glacial times. The ground has eroded and filled in so that some of the rings are missing but others still show in patterns much like tipi rings. The feature in the back ground is a Neolithic mound. Photograph used with permission from Duncan Hawley http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/275817.

While it is true that some stone circles may be natural features and some may have served other purposes, there is unequivocal evidence on the American Plains that the vast majority of them were used to hold down the hide cover on tipis. Perhaps the most important data in support of this use are the dozens of accounts by historic era trappers and traders who say that Indian tipis were held down with stones. Indians also told anthropologists that they used rocks to hold down the edges of their tipis.

The Crow story of Big Metal explains how pegs replaced stones tipi rings. It is a tale about a young Crow boy with a mean stepfather who throws him over the side of Bighorn Canyon. The boy catches on a juniper limb and cries and cries for help. Many animals want to help but they are unable until seven big horn sheep carry the boy to safety. Big Metal, the strongest of the sheep has his name because his horns shine in the sun. He gives the boy his name and then other animals come to teach the boy various things to make his life successful. Badger, with its sharp claws to hold tenaciously in the ground, teaches the boy to use pegs to hold down his tipi. The Crow say this is when they gave up the use of rocks to hold down the tipi. This was after steel axes were available to easily make the pegs.

Archaeologists suggest that the reason there are so few surface artifacts at tipi rings sites is because they are easily seen on the surface and therefore attract collectors who pick up the artifacts. They also point to excavations of buried rings, found in subsurface contexts, where there are often many artifacts. This is clearly true in the Pryor Mountain area. Along the Bad Pass Trail, east of the Pryors in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, we excavated several tipi rings that were not visible on the surface (Loendorf et al 1981). These rings contained numerous artifacts while nearby surface rings were nearly devoid of artifacts. Central hearths are found in some rings; while in others the fires were clearly outside. Archaeologists reason the absence of packed floors is related to the overnight or short term stops when there was insufficient time for a floor to develop.

Some suggest that tipi ring entrances always faced east, but that is simply not true. Ceremonial lodges may have been oriented to the east, but tipis faced all directions in camp circles. Archaeologist have studied the density of rocks in tipi rings to learn that in some settings there are more rocks on the windward side so that the back of the tipi was more tightly fastened down (Finnegan 1983).

A frequent point of discussion about tipi rings is their size. More than fifty years ago, Thomas Kehoe (1958) wrote a thought provoking article about tipi rings on the Blackfoot Reservation. He examined more than 1000 rings on 210 sites where he noted the smaller rings were deeply buried so that their tops barely showed while larger ones were up on the surface. His findings were taken to suggest that the smaller rings were from times when tipis were pulled on dog travois and the larger were post horse in age.

There are more than a dozen studies since Kehoe’s article which disprove this assumption (Davis 1983). In fact there are numerous large diameter tipi rings with interior hearths that date 1000 to 2000 years ago, or long before horses. In other cases, including a series of tipi rings in the Bighorn Mountains, archaeologists found old projectile points associated with large rings (Larson 1979). It is now agreed that tipi ring size is greatly influenced by the season of use, marital status, family size, owner’s wealth, and ethnic affiliation (Kehoe 1983).

Tipi ring site size is also a topic of study. In the Pryor Mountains we learned there is variation in the numbers of tipi rings per site (Loendorf and Weston 1983). Sites in the juniper breaks environmental zone are smaller with an average of 6 rings per site while sites in the grasslands have 9 rings per site. We reason the larger sites are associated with the increased numbers of people associated with the communal hunts that took place at the buffalo jumps in the grasslands.

The largest sites with 100 rings or more are found along trails like the Bad Pass Trail or the Bozeman Trail. Of course they represent multiple groups of people stopping at different times and not a massive group, like a war party, moving at the same time. We also learned there is little or no correlation between site size and the number of artifacts recovered at the site. More likely the artifact density is related to the length of time people stayed at the site. Major sites like Demijohn Flats with 230 tipi rings have few artifacts because they represent short term use.

The Demijohn Flats site is a good one to visit. To find it, travel up the Crooked Creek road to the Custer National Forest boundary where you can park to walk to the site. A two-track road (which may be closed to vehicular traffic) goes down Demijohn Flats to the south until it terminates at the canyon edge. Along the road you will note piles of rocks that served as markers for the trail that Indians used for access on and off the Pryor Mountains. Tipi rings are found starting about half way down on both sides of the road but they are in greater numbers on the canyon side. There is a large cairn at the end of the flat where the former trail dropped into the canyon. Major cairns are common along regional trails in passes or at high points.

Tipi Rings on Demijohn Flat Aerial photograph of Demijohn Flats tipi rings looking toward Big Pryor Mountain. The larger white spots are uranium mine claim scars while the circles are the rings. You can also see the trail marker cairns along the road scar and the trail into the canyon. Click photo to enlarge

In an effort to record the tipi rings on Demijohn Flats we used white wash to outline them for an aerial photograph of the site. This sounds like a good idea, but the site is so large that when we got high enough to photograph, the rings were so small they were hard to see.

Tipi rings are found in many places across Montana and other northern Plains states. For the person who would like to learn more about tipi rings, I recommend Memoir 19 of the Plains Anthropologist, edited by Leslie B. Davis (1983). It presents the papers from a “tipi ring” conference and although it is now getting somewhat out of date, it contains considerable information. There are also other stone features on the ground like medicine wheels, fasting beds, hunting blinds, and fortification walls. In the future I will write about some of these fascinating sites in the Pryor Mountains.

References Cited

Davis, Leslie B.
1983 FROM MICROCOSM TO MACROCOSM: Advances in Tipi Ring Investigation and Interpretation, edited by Leslie B. Davis. The Plains Anthropologist, Vol. 28, No. 102, Part 2: Memoir 19.

Finnegan, James T.
1983 Tipi Ring to Tipi Ring: A Transformational Model. Pp. 16-28 in The Plains Anthropologist, Vol. 28, No. 102, Part 2: Memoir 19: FROM MICROCOSM TO MACROCOSM: Advances in Tipi Ring Investigation and Interpretation, edited by Leslie B. Davis.

Larson, Thomas
1979 Dated Stone Circle Sites in Wyoming. The Wyoming Archaeologist 23(2-3)9-17.

Kehoe, Thomas F.
1958 Tipi Rings: The “Direct Ethnological” Approach Applied to and Archeological Problem. American Anthropologist 60(5)861-873.
1983 A Retrospectus and Commentary. Pp.326-342 in The Plains Anthropologist, Vol. 28, No. 102, Part 2: Memoir 19: FROM MICROCOSM TO MACROCOSM: Advances in Tipi Ring Investigation and Interpretation, edited by Leslie B. Davis.

Loendorf, Lawrence, James Dahlberg and Lori Orser Weston
1981 The Pretty Creek Archaeological Site 24CB 4 and 5. Report prepared for the National Park Service, Midwest Archeological Center, University of North Dakota.

Loendorf. Lawrence and Lori Orser Weston
1983 An Examination of Tipi Rings in the Bighorn Canyon-Pryor Mountain Area. Pp. 146-155 in The Plains Anthropologist, Vol. 28, No. 102, Part 2: Memoir 19: FROM MICROCOSM TO MACROCOSM: Advances in Tipi Ring Investigation and Interpretation, edited by Leslie B. Davis.