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Tepee brings history to life

Staff writer

From the outside, it looks small and cold, but inside, Keven Hiebert’s tepee is warm and surprisingly roomy.

Saturday afternoon, Hiebert of rural Goessel, set up the tepee for visitors to enjoy at Kauffman Museum’s annual Kansas Day celebration in North Newton. Complete with a small fire and furry buffalo robes to sit on, visitors enjoyed a brief escape from the biting northwest wind on that day.

“It’s probably about 18 feet of living space inside,” Hiebert said. “It is in kind of an elliptical shape and is about 15 feet high in the middle. The air rises real well.”

Hiebert, who takes part in several historical re-enactment and educational programs each year, said the tepee, a main piece of his mountain man or Kansas plains presentation, is very heat efficient.

“It’s nice and warm in here, even in the worst winter weather,” he said. “Probably the coldest I’ve ever been out camping in it was about -14 degrees. It was warm inside, but ice crystals from our breath covered the interior walls. When the sun came up, everything just glistened.”

Hiebert said he takes the tepee out about six times each year, and each time it takes about one and a-half hours to put it all up.

To start with, he places 17 poles in a tripod shape, with each pole varying in length from 22 to 26 feet. He then wraps the poles in yards and yards of marine grade canvas, made to be water proof and mold resistant.

“This canvas is actually the same type that Indians in the 1800’s would have used,” Hiebert said. “It took about 15 to 18 buffalo hides to make a tepee. By the 1830’s, the Indians figured out it was more efficient to trade three tanned hides to the U.S. officials for canvas, and then sell the rest of their hides for profit, rather than keep them. The canvas was lighter weight and easier for them to pack around, too.”

Hiebert, a life-long history buff, said his research led him to believe that treated canvas was given to the Indians in the 1860’s as part of government annuities used to keep the plains tribes, in particular, peaceful.

“There are records of the things they gave them, and often, specific sizes of canvas are mentioned, the size needed to wrap around tepees,” Hiebert said. “It was very durable and lasted a long time.”

Hiebert said his tepee was about 30 years old. A friend gave it to him about 20 years ago, and ever since, he enjoyed using it for family and re-enactment outings.

“Just last year my daughter, Lauren, used it for her birthday party sleep-over,” he said. “It was perfect for the girls. We put up some lights in it and let them go at it all night long.”

As a founding member of the Kansas Muzzleloaders Association, Hiebert often stays in the tepee a week at a time for annual conventions, or at other similar events. He said he used it for Santa Fe Trail re-enactments, several different museum events, public and private school demonstrations, and other displays, as requested.

“Last Friday I did five different presentations for school children in the Burrton district,” he said. “The focus there was mainly on Kansas bison, as that is our state animal. But I did a lot of explaining about Indian way of life and how they used buffalo skins.”

At the Kauffman museum’s Kansas Day celebration on Saturday, Hiebert said he answered questions that probably were not thought out real well.

“One boy asked if the fire was real,” he said. “Another wanted to know if the buffalo rug was real. It’s good to get a chance to teach children about how life used to depend on nature, and how Indians and pioneers used to live.”

When he is not involved with setting up, taking down, or explaining how to live in a tepee, Hiebert lives and farms about 800 acres with his wife, Debra, and daughter Lauren, southwest of Goessel. He also is involved with the fur trade, and makes and sells Native American crafts at his farm shop, Bear Paw Traders.

Last modified Feb. 1, 2012

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