Baby Teepees are like, totally, in.

In cultural appropriation, design, teepee, tent, tipi by Adrienne K.21 Comments

The newest accessory for your already perfect nursery? A tipi of course! Eagle-eyed readers Andrea, Laura, and Mieko spotted these “adorable” tipi’s all over tumblr last week. Most of the pictures are from Design Chic, and here’s how the author sets up a slew of tipi-pics:

Grown-up or child, we all need a little bit of space that is all ours. Last week, I was looking for the perfect gift for my nephew’s two-year-old birthday. I wanted to give him a cute tent to put in the yard, but Mom suggested a teepee instead. What a perfect gift! He loves it, learned a great, new, easy-to-pronounce vocabulary word, and, most important, it looks adorable in the house but can go outside at any time. Definitely a winning combination.  These teepees are not only the perfect place for a child’s imagination to run wild, but also add a whimsical design touch to the room (or yard). We hope you love them as much as we do!

Um, yeah. I laughed out loud at Julia’s commentary on her tumblr (she blogs at A’allure Garconniere as well), and I really don’t think I can say it any better:

Teepees are great because they are whimsical! (as opposed to tents, those are just boring) teepees are great because it’s a new, simple, easy to pronounce vocabulary word for a two year old! (because “tent” is just so overly complicated). teepees are great, because as a rich white privileged person, they allow me to relegate western plains native people to this archaic, whimsical, historical vestige of the past, instead of confronting my nation’s history of colonization and acknowledging native people’s lives and ways of living as complex and multifaceted. this new teepee trend is just so great, because now expensive design companies can make a buck by selling western plains native iconography as playtime places for kids in the suburbs!

I’m so happy incorporating teepees into my home decor allow my child the opportunity to erase my nation’s history of violence and cultural genocide by encouraging his imagination run wild about the ways he, too, can be cultural appropriative when he grows up. 

Love it! Whenever I post about tipi’s, like when I talked about the Glastonbury music festival in the UK last year, I tend to get push back. “It’s just a tent!” people say. “We’re not allowed to appreciate Native technology?” they protest. My problem is that the tipis I see and the discussions around them always seem to involve some level of fantasy play, you’re not just hanging out in a tent that looks like a tipi. At the music festival it was adding to the whole free-rugged-in-nature-wild-thing athestic, these kid-tipis are encouraging “playing Indian” in the most literal way possible. I don’t know if you can have an innocent usage, because I feel like no matter what there’s a fetishization of “how Indians lived before”–and it continues the stereotypes that we all live/lived in tipis. I don’t know. I’ll ruminate as we look at a bazillion more pictures:

All of these are from Design Chic, and there are more on the post, if you need them. So what do you think? Cultural appropriation? Cringe-worthy? Should we just be glad the benevolent design bloggers have deemed us cool for a minute? Should I fly into a uncontrollable rage? NATIVE HULK TEEPEE SMASH!!
(Thanks Andrea, Laura, Meiko, and Julia!)
  • i agree that her description was ridiculous and i laughed my ass off at that parody. i’m torn. i like the idea of it because it’s way prettier than the crappy plastic tent i got at target that is an eyesore in my living room. i gotta admit that i want to play inside it. does that mean i suck? (wink) i think that it could be used in a way that isn’t lame. but it also has the potential, as you said, for a lot of negative play. and since the people who buy it will likely be the same hipsters who went to the glastonbury festival….this doesn’t bode well.
    as always, i love your blog! <3 you always give me food for thought and make me laugh.

  • I think the basic act of selling mass produced tipis rests heavily on the assumption that kids are “playing Indian”. Sure, hipster parents will say “no, it’s just that they are designed better”, or something like that. However, the tendency to participate in “ancient cultures” that are “more connected to the earth” runs very deep. Of course, this is the just a manifestation of a bigger problem, namely, the marginalization/commercialization of indigenous cultures “for fun”.

  • oh man, when we were young my dad and my grandfather set up a tipi in the basement to teach us about how things used to be when my grandpa was trapping in the woods. complete with a functional trap. wich my brother put his hand in.

    I think that was the last traditional thing they tried to teach us.

  • I find the “Ships and Maps” (creator’s name, not mine) one particulary creepy!!! So creepy that I hunted down the creator’s Etsy show just to see what she had to say about it.

    What I have to say is not so friendly:
    “Wow! Look boys and girls! It’s not just a tent, it’s not just a tipi, it’s also an illustrated guide to colonialism!”

  • yea the map one is super-creepy

  • I don’t come from tipi-dwelling tribes (Cherokee and Choctaw here) but this doesn’t bother me very much. I do see how it can be problematic, but I think how problematic it is really depends on the kids and the parents. I also think they are more appealing than the brightly-colored plastic tents most kids end up with. I also don’t think that the tipi is a piece of plains Indian iconography: it is a piece of white people’s iconography, of the mythologization of Indians. It’s a plains Indian dwelling.

    Also, when I was a kid, I did “play Indian”. I also played cowboy and farmer and caveman and princess and astronaut and pioneer. Some of the characters I pretended to be were fantasies (like Wonder Woman) and some were not. I do not think that “playing Indian” relegates Indians to the domain of fantasy. The point of pretending to be someone else is imagining what it’s like to be another person, to live another life. And I think this is good for children: it is GOOD to foster imagination and empathy, and furthermore, it is a way that children choose the kind of lives they want to lead as adults.

  • Aza

    Where is my floral-print mini earth lodge at?

  • W

    Reptile Girl, I really like your comment, and I feel like you put into eloquent words a feeling I often have. Not that I disagree wholly with what Adrienne has to say either. (I mean, that description? Yikes.) But as far as the kiddo-tipi goes, I dunno – when I was a kid, I pretty much wanted to play in any cave or fort type space that felt secretive and me-sized.

  • So we’re getting a photo booth for our wedding. It comes with various props people can put wear or use: hats, mustaches, and…wait for it…native american headdresses. Remembering one of your posts, I thought maybe we should nix the headdresses and said how it was culturally insensitive and that one day we will probably (hopefully) look back on their use as hipster casual fashion item with shame. But then I thought, as a white male, maybe all I had done was appropriate native american ire over the casual hipstified use of headdresses. So confused!

  • Coming up next: paisley print sweatlodge.

    I didn’t know us indians were whimsical? Though I secretly would want one for my own kids (I’d probably just make one instead of buying one from IKEA…)

  • @reptilegrrl

    “it is a piece of white people’s iconography, of the mythologization of Indians.”

    Being a white American kid that also played Indian, and astronaut, and a host of other things, I get where you are coming from even though I don’t completely agree.

    To me, these types of things are not necessarily wrong in an of themselves. However, they don’t exist in a vacuum either. There is a history, and that history stretches back to slaughter, genocide, colonization etc. But even worse, the cultural marginalization continues, which leads to misrepresentations about Native Americans living right now, and not just those who have lived in the past.

    So I think that the bigger point is that there is an immediacy to the issue that gets lost in the “insensitivity/offensive” debate. At the end of the day, we are dealing with a population of people that continues to be misunderstood and marginalized. So if this sort of behavior even marginally contributes to this bigger issue, we have a problem that needs a fixing.

  • I also liked @reptilegrrl’s comments. I think it’s not as simple as slapping “cultural appropriation” on it.

    “I do see how it can be problematic, but I think how problematic it is really depends on the kids and the parents.”

    I agree. Raising kids I saw these cloth “teepees” (they were called tents, though) about during the playdate toddler years. I even have a sewing pattern for them (which I haven’t used). I never saw parents encouraging their kids to “play Indian” and the kids never came up with that idea. For my friends, they liked these items because A. they bought them from a semi-local craftsman (who did not do any “Indian” marketing; the cloth was brightly patterned with kid patterns), B. were made of recycleable and renewable materials instead of plastic, C. were wonderfully easy to fold up, given at any minute you need to clear the living room to set up snack, and D. the kids? LOVED THEM, mostly just for a place to have privacy, which children don’t get nearly enough of IMO.

    Your points about how teepees are often used are spot-on. However, I fail to see your last paragraph’s aspects in that last photo, where the setup looks more like a bathing tent than anything else.

    I definitely think people need to see this critique. Because isn’t what bothers most of us the fact “Indian” tech, culture, etc. are used so blithely in all socioeconomic spheres? However I think the use of fold-up tents for children is possible without contributing to, as others have said, a historical tradition of marginalization and oppression.

  • reptilegrrl thinks it is good for kids to imagine what they want to be as adults. She says that as a kid, she played Indian, and, she also played cowboy and farmer and caveman and princess and astronaut and pioneer.

    An odd mix, I think. Cowboy and farmer and astronaut and pioneer are all things that people choose to do with their lives.

    People cannot choose to be an Indian. They can’t choose to be Black, or Asian, or Latino/a… See the difference? And when children “play Indian” —- just what kind of Indian are the playing? Usually they’re playing a stereotype (the wild, menacing Indian, or the noble one). Either way, the actions and items they wear are problematic.

    Do you encourage your children to “play Black” to foster empathy for African Americans? How do they dress up to do that?

  • @ Debbie Reese – excellent.

    These pictures bother me because they bring my school years rushing back, all those classmates who asked, “Do you live in a tipi?”

    1 – My ancestors lived in longhouses.

    2 – My house is across the street from yours, but it might as well be on another planet.

    I don’t know if that makes them bad per se, but if I saw one of these in someone’s house, it would be unnerving. I would not like it, then I’d need to decide how “political” to be in addressing it.

  • J

    I think Aaron’s comment touches on something important that I probably wouldn’t have thought of had it not been for him speaking about his experiences.

    This trend had more to do with the mainstream media’s depiction of Indigenous peoples then the peoples themselves [ourselves].

    I really think the images being perpetuated by these cute “Teepees” have way more to do with mid-century western movies than anything else.

    It’s the image that the general population always comes back to when it comes to Indians. Warrior Plains peoples.

    No one is ever going to set up a birch or cedar longhouse in their child’s room. ever.

  • Actually, Debbie, I said that it’s good for kids to imagine living various kinds of lives. I never said anything about kids imagining “what they want to be as adults.” I don’t appreciate you saying I said something I didn’t; this is dishonest of you and in my opinion indicates that you are not participating in this discussion in good faith. You could have made your point without dishonest accusations.

    I don’t have kids. If I did, they would of course be Indians like myself! I would encourage them to imagine what it’s like to be a black person in America today, because I think that’s good for people; when I ask white adults to do it it tends to blow their minds.

    I think a toy teepee can be a discussion point, a contextless toy tent, or a mindless appropriation. It depends on the parents.

  • what makes a tipi, specifically a tipi?…and how is it different from “just” a tent?
    curious in orlando…. (grew up near tuskarora, iriquois, etc. in western new york)

  • anyone else particularly alarmed by the print on the fourth tipi down? images of ships, maps of america?

    to me that definitely makes me think colonisation. I may be totally off the mark – but if they are going for that feel that definitely puts these in the realm of ‘playing indian’ – I mean, that imagery doesn’t relate only to native innovation and design – it says a lot more. revolting.

  • “because I feel like no matter what there’s a fetishization of “how Indians lived before”–and it continues the stereotypes that we all live/lived in tipis.”


  • I had a teepee as a kid. It was horrifying – yellow plastic canvas with some sort of Native image stenciled on in red. A dancing brave, or some such.

    And I played Indian, yes I did. Complete with feathers in my hair, my ragdoll in a carrier as my papoose, and bows and arrows my dad made me out of sticks and string. I was four or five, and somebody had to have explained this whole “Indian” thing to me well enough for me to be offensive as heck, complete with war whoops.

    I didn’t know any better. The adults around me should have.

    I shot arrows out of bows unaware that my own ancestors practiced archery, and pretended to be a chief without knowing that I was descended from people who organized into semi-nomadic tribes, each with their own chieftain. (I’m a Highland Gael, BTW.) White people were all in the present, Natives were all in the past. I didn’t need to play Indian to explore a different lifestyle or time period.

    I think I’m trying to say that there are lots of ways to do play tipis wrong, and all that wrong is so easy to do. And there are so many other cultures to go to for a tent, or a game, or whatever it is you feel you need – including your own. And if your own people sold out their past to feel modern, don’t borrow someone else’s – take yours back.

    And I want to say one other thing: I’m sorry.

  • Y’know, last week I was looking for information about the Sami people (from the Arctic Circle regions of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia) – info. written by Sami people, that is, which isn’t all that easy to find.

    Guess what? A lot of them used to live in tipi-like structures. Check this guy’s site (he is Sami and he makes them):

    The interesting thing is… lots of Sami people have tried to “pass” as non-Sami, because they were hated and persecuted for their religious beliefs, way of life, etc.

    (And yes, when I was a kid, back in the early 60s, I had an awful-looking “teepee” complete with a stereotyped images… but, coming from a Mid-Atlantic state, i was aware – even as a little kid – that most people here either lived in longhouses or smaller birch lodges. I can’t imagine what it is like to see wrong images of one’s culture flooding the market… but I can tell you that not everyone out here is totally ignorant of Native history. Most of us are – and I include myself in that, since there’s a ton that I don’t know – but not everyone thinks of phony headdresses and cigar store statues when the words “native American” or “Indian” come up, either. Just sayin’…)