Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cities of Tipis?

Comanche camp (George Catlin)
The Native Americans of the North American Plains were some of the better known nomads of recent centuries. Groups like the Crow, Cheyenne, and Sioux took advantage of the horses brought to the New World by Europeans to forge a successful way of life hunting bison on the plains. They moved their settlements of tipis throughout the year, following the requirements of bison hunting. Life alternated between small camps of  five or ten tipis and larger camps of up to 100 tipis. Some of the larger camps ("cluster camps" in the language of Banks and Snortland 1995) had an unorganized arrangement of tipis, and some ("circular camps") were ceremonial in orientation and the tipis were arranged in a huge circle.

Is there anything "urban" about these big circular camps? Archaeologist Alice Kehoe thinks so. In her textbook, North American Indians, she says:

Nomad peoples were constrained to adapt social affairs to ecological cycles: most of the business that in towns [in other cultures] occurred over the year had to be compressed by the nomads into the few summer weeks when grass was most lush on the open plains. Trading, gambling, visiting friends from other bands, games and sports competitions, and seeking a compatible spouse or comrade were individual incentives to rendezvous in large camps. Adjudicating disputes, discussing policies and strategies for allied bands drew leaders to these camps. Above all, participation in rituals was a magnet (Kehoe 1981:
295). This is the first edition of the book; I have not had the opportunity to check this quote in the more recent 3rd edition.

Lakota camp, 1891
 I really like Kehoe's observation that activities that can be spread out through the entire year in permanent settlements must be concentrated into a few weeks in these large camps.  A few years ago I talked about three major dimensions of urbanism that are used in defining cities: population, complexity, and influence. Big tipi camps did not have urban functions. That is, they were not the setting for activities and institutions that affected  a hinterland. Nor were they permanent settlements, part of Louis Wirth's influential demographic definition of urbanism.
Cheyenne village

On the other hand, these large tipi camps were large dense settlements (if not permanent), and they certainly had a level of social complexity and intense social interaction that was not present in the smaller regular camps. This is the feature described in Kehoe's quotation above. And this is why I have called these tipi aggregation camps "semi-urban settlements," comparable  to pilgrimage sites, festivals, camp meetings, refugee camps, and some contemporary RV camps. These are places that are formed rapidly by an influx of people, who live in a densely-arranged form for a few days to a few weeks before dispersing. See my previous post on semi-urban settlements.That post describes an article I wrote with a bunch of students on neighborhood organization in semi-urban settlements. That paper is STILL in press; the journal is taking forever to get the paper into print. Arrrrrgh........
Quartzsite, AZ: A modern nomad camp?

I've listed below some sources on Plains tipi camps. Roland Fletcher's paper first suggested to me that this kind of settlement was relevant to concepts of urbanism. Banks and Snortland is a fantastic study that uses historic photographs to work out the nature and size of Plains settlements. Hassrick and Oliver are standard monographs on Plains Indian groups. Scheiber and Finley use advanced methods to identify the archaeological remains of ancient tipi sites.

Sioux camp, 1891
Examples like these Plains circular tipi camps are fascinating for illuminating the nature of urbanism. They have some but not all of the traits we normally associate with cities and urban places, and as such they help us understand the nature of human society and how it works out in spatial terms. When large number of people gather quickly, whether in a tipi camp or at the Burning Man festival today, certain kinds of interactions take place and certain kinds of social dynamics play out.

While no one would call a tipi camp a "city", these settlements are certainly part of the Wide Urban World.

Banks, Kimball M. and J. Signe Snortland  (1995)  Every Picture Tells a Story: Historic Images, Tipi Camps, and Archaeology. Plains Anthropologist 40(152):125-144.

Fletcher, Roland  (1991)  Very Large Mobile Communities: Interaction Stress and Residential Dispersal. In Ethnoarchaeological Approaches to Mobile Campsites: Hunter-Gatherer and Pastoralist Case Studies, edited by Clive Gamble and B. Boismer, pp. 395-420. Prehistory Press, Ann Arbor.

Small tipi camp
Hassrick, Royal C.  (1964)  The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Kehoe, Alice B.  (1981)  North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs.

Oliver, Chad  (1962)  Ecology and Cultural Continuity as Contributing Factors in the Social Organization of the Plains Indians. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Scheiber, Laura L. and Judson Byrd Finley  (2010)  Domestic Campsites and Cyber Landscapes in the Rocky Mountains. Antiquity 84:114-130.

Stone circle, "tipi ring" from the Rocky Mountains (Scheiber & Finley)
Smith, Michael E., Ashley Engquist, Cinthia Carvajal, Katrina Johnston, Amanda Young, Monica Algara, Yui Kamoda and Bridgette Gilliland  (2014)  Neighborhood Formation in Semi-Urban Settlements. Journal of Urbanism 7 (STILL in press, maybe 2014 will be lucky).


  1. You might be interested to know that Heike Delitz (Bamberg) to my knowledge is working towards a research project which views big nomadic camps as cities or urban. I think she has African populations in mind, though. In any case, wouldn't you agree that when the camps settles for a while, the hinterland is affected and there are services provided? Or must we assume the hinterland is empty and services were also there when the camp was not settled?

  2. @Benjamin - That sounds like a great research project, and I look forward to seeing it. As for urban functions, you hit on a problematic aspect of my discussion. I hesitated to write that these camps lack urban functions; it depends on the temporal aspect, I think. Things happen in these camps that affect the participants AFTER they leave and move to other settlements. Thing in the aggregation camps may also impact others people in a 'hinterland,' but I'm not sure such effects are enduring and ongoing. does that mean they are not like urban functions, or does it point to a limitation in the concept of urban function? I decided to gloss over these complications, but it is good that you raise the point!