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The nehiyo tipi embraces the elements. This architect thinks more structures should too

Krystel Clark, who is El Salvadorian and Cree from Montreal Lake Cree Nation, works as an intern architect for Patrick R. Stewart Architect. She studied the architecture of the tipi as part of her master’s thesis. 
Krystel Clark is an intern architect with Patrick R Stewart Architect. She studied the design of the Cree tipi and compared it to the skylight in common architecture. (Submitted by Krystel Clark)

Most buildings and houses in Canada today are built to ward off the elements; sealed buildings repel snow, wind and rain.

But some of the structures built on Turtle Island weren't meant to seal off the elements — some, like the nehiyo (Cree) tipi, were designed, in part, to embrace them.

Krystel Clark, who is El Salvadorian and Cree from Montreal Lake Cree Nation, works as an intern architect for Patrick R. Stewart Architect. She studied the architecture of the tipi as part of her master's thesis. 

The tipi is a woman's structure, Clark said, usually built by respected women in the community who could sew well. Each pole has a teaching associated with it, coming together to build the foundation for a good life.

The structure of the tipi includes a hole at the top, where each pole meets. The hole allows smoke from the fire to escape, but means the structure is not totally immune to the elements.

But this, Clark said, was intentional.

"Water was never meant to be 100 per cent resisted," Clark said. "Some of the water would still trail through the tipi."

To solve this, two smaller sticks wrapped in sinew would be placed near the hole to guide the water down the poles all the way down to the earth. 

A detailed diagram from Clark shows where the small sticks wrapped with sinew are located on the tipi. They start near the top and follow the stick down the pole all the way to the ground. (Submitted by Krystel Clark)

As for cold air, it's pushed out before it can enter by the fire smoke lifting through the top. "It's so important to the structure of the tipi to function properly," Clark said. The structure of the tipi, once made with almost entirely natural materials, was meant to co-exist with the environment, and was not meant to last forever.

In her master's work, Clark looked for the closest comparison to the tipi hole in Western architecture. She found the skylight was the closest comparison.

Like the tipi smoke hole, the skylight lets natural light in. But it is intended to deflect rain, snow and wind, unlike the tipi. It is much less responsive to the natural environment in which it's situated.

It's about time that Indigenous communities have control of their own structures. Each landscape is unique and different, and therefore, each structure and house should ... respond to the environment that they're in.- Krystel Clark

Despite this, it is prevalent in the architectural typography of cities, towns and reserves across Canada. 

"Canada has a history of imposing architecture on Indigenous communities," Clark said. "If you look at a lot of the different reserves across Canada, you can see there's a singular typology that should not expand all of the provinces and territories.

"A lot of them look very similar because they were imposed on those sites."

Clark said it's important that Indigenous people see themselves reflected in the buildings in which they live and work. 

"It's about time that Indigenous communities have control of their own structures," she said. "Each landscape is unique and different, and therefore, each structure and house should ... respond to the environment that they're in, each one should be unique." 

"Right now, I don't think they really respond to that."

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