By Shelley Grieshop
COLDWATER -- When George and Donna Kinnison first erected their two-story high tepee, heads turned in the neighborhood.
One elderly motorist was so shocked at the sight, he drove his car up over the sidewalk, narrowly missing a building.
"Kids would walk by and do the 'ooh wawawa, ooh wawawa,' " Donna Kinnison says, cupping her hand to her mouth like an Indian warrior. "Yeah, we got a lot of funny looks at first."
It was about 14 years ago when the couple traded in their small marquee -- a tent with open sides -- for the huge Blackfoot-style tepee they special ordered from the remote town of Bloody Stump, Ore.
Both of the Coldwater residents have Native American blood in their veins. George Kinnison, 53, known as "Dog Soldier George," is part Blackfoot. His wife, Jingles A Lot (she loves bells) is part Shawnee. Neither know the details of their ancestry, but they lovingly share the culture that links them together. One of their first dates, "many, many moons ago," was held at a rendezvous (a gathering of re-enactors from the fur trade era). The events are held at various times throughout the year in many parts of the country.
The Kinnisons attend several rendezvous each year and join others dressed as Native Americans and mountain men and women.
"They're social gatherings," says Donna Kinnison, wearing a small-beaded southwestern choker crafted by her husband. "We do a lot of bartering and trading when we go."
Their tepee is their home-away-from-home at times during the summer months, even when it stands just a few feet from their Elm Street residence. Donna Kinnison gets dreamy-eyed as she talks about lying inside the tepee at night, staring up at the stars through the open canvas top.
It takes about an hour to properly set up the 23-foot poles -- made of lodge pole pine trees from Colorado.
"George handles the outside, and I decorate the inside," she says.
The inside easily sleeps six and is filled with authentic Native American items. Colorful blankets adorn each of the three beds; a deer skull and war shield hang on the canvas wall alongside a row of hand-woven pack baskets. A fire ring in the center of the floor warms guests on chilly nights.
The tepee is a Northwestern Native American design with crisscrossed poles at the top. The canvas, with its black, red and green stripes and white circles, was hand-painted by the couple.
"It took quite a long time to agree on the design," Donna Kinnison says, adding the couple merged their ideas into one.
When they initially disagreed on the design, she gently reminded her husband that lodges belong to the women, according to Native American tradition. Men were responsible for other things like hunting.
The pair spread the half-moon shaped canvas across the playground at Franklin school in Montezuma, where Donna Kinnison grew up, and began painting according to their template. A crescent moon was painted near the top and stars signify each of their three children and four grandchildren.
Intriguing paw prints, found along the entrance, were not part of the plan but the work of a stray kitty, they say.
There was a time when the Kinnisons' children, now ages 17, 28 and 32, thought the triangular-shaped structure was "cool," she says. However, they're not as impressed as adults and leave tepee sleepovers to the couple's grandchildren.
The look of leather moccasins and the smell of campfires isn't for everybody, however. Donna Kinnison's twin sister isn't impressed with the culture at all.
"She hates it," Donna Kinnison says laughing.
As winter approaches the tepee will likely disappear from the yard, but the Kinnisons' love of the Indian culture is here to stay.
"We've had so much fun with this," George Kinnison says.
His wife nods her head in agreement.
"I think it's true that you can tell when it's really in your blood," she says.