making a Plains tipi livable on Kauai


We’re having a bit of a time preparing the tipi for Kauai’s climate- which can range from clear blue skies to torrential downpours in a matter of hours. While the utility and beauty of a Plains tipi, specifically in the Sioux style, is unmatchable for its indigenous climate…it just won’t work as well here on Kauai. The resident architect has a few ideas to waterproof the space, including sawing off the tops of those beautiful bamboo poles to accommodate a sort of rain cover- which would work. It would be such a shame because those poles are gorgeous! According to the Laubin’s book The Indian Tipi the appearance of the poles and the height of their projection over the tipi are symbolic of the woman’s reputation as a housekeeper. Poorly trimmed poles were no good for her status.
Luckily, my reputation as a housekeeper is terrible anyway- so we might go the route of trimming the poles.

Creating a comfortable living space on the interior is key. We aren’t camping in this tipi, we are living in it. A friend of Aaron’s recounted her experience in a tipi and described it as living ‘with’ the tipi rather than in it. The way the space breathes is huge. Traditionally a liner is used that ties to the inside of the poles all the way around the tipi creating a sort of draft space between the tipi cover and the liner. If rain collects on the poles and runs down into the tipi, the moisture will run behind the liner rather than into the living space. On hot days the liner pulls cool air in through the bottom and pushes hot air through the top. Also, when we have our fire going inside the tipi- the liner creates the same effect and pulls smoke out of the smoke flaps at the top.

I’ve been researching different waterproofing methods so that we can make our own liner using 8 ounce canvas dropcloth. We need something that’s both effective yet non-toxic. Something that doesn’t allow water to permeate the space yet doesn’t off-gas chemicals or give us all lung cancer. There is a database called Toxnet that is really user friendly and allows you to determine the toxicity of products. A simple search provides you with information about the ingredients in tons of products and gives you a greater sense of power over what you buy. Super resource for green building professionals.

One way to waterproof canvas effectively is to use wax mixed with turpentine. Except turpentine is listed as an agent that can cause asthma and contact dermatitis on Toxnet . So we keep looking.

Aaron suggests a waterproofing spray, one that we used on our boots during a snowboard trip to Whistler. It worked like magic! I look up the toxicity information and am blindsided by the results. This stuff is SO toxic! An article in the New York Times describes the lack of federal regulation against products like this. And so, we learn about yet another product allowed on the shelves that literally poisons us. We used it once, I wonder how badly off people are who use it on a regular basis? Or how sick the Boy Scouts are who’s parents spray it on their tents? It’s very widely used with little to no regulation.

So far everything effective is highly toxic, yet one article sparks my interest. The product developers used bio-mimicry to create a formulation that works like the leaf of lotus flower-
one of the most water repellent and stain resistant surfaces in nature. Since this product isn’t out yet here we need an alternative. The best think we can come up with is a mixture of beeswax and mineral oil, both safe for the environment as well as the health of our children. By melting the wax and combining it with the mineral oil we can paint it lightly across the canvas and, with luck, it will prevent the tipi from becoming an indoor swimming pool!

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