It was time to move. The young woman took down their tepee and secured the poles to the horses, building the travois’ that would carry the rest of their home and other worldly possessions. The bags she had painstakingly decorated with rich geometric patterns representing her family’s life were hung from the pommel of the saddle and attached to the travois. Among the family’s belongings were boxes holding moccasins, tools, shields, personal items, a tube with her warrior’s feather headdress, and bags of pemmican and other foodstuff. The bison were done calving and were now separating into smaller herds to roam among the plentiful grasses of the northern prairies; it was time to move with them. The buffalo they were following not only fed and clothed them, but gave them the material they needed to bring their life’s belongings on the journey; in parfleche bags which were essential for the lifestyle of the nomadic plains people.
The term “parfleche”, (pahr-flesh), was designated by the early French explorers and fur traders, and suggests their existence in this area was as early as the beginning of the 17th century. The word comes from the French words “parer” to ward off, and “fleche” meaning arrow because the hide these containers were made with was tough enough to be used as a shield and deflect an arrow. Parfleche not only refers to an article made through a specific process, but also the process itself which preserved and toughened the animal hide so it would maintain its shape and keeps its contents dry if it became wet.
There was an abundant source of hides for the itinerant people of the plains, but little opportunity to tan skins – thus the practice of producing a parfleche container was used instead. The rawhide was cleaned, stretched and finally dried before being shaped into the type of vessel needed. This process began with the soaking of the fresh hide, and then stretching it and staking it to the ground. The flesh and fat of the animal was removed with specialized tools and the hair was completely removed with scrapers. To make the job easier ashes were used because the lye in the ashes would soften the hide making it easier to scrape off the remaining hair. If it was going to be used for something such as a shield, it was alternately soaked and dried over a slow dense fire to produce an even thicker and tougher material.
If a box for clothing or other such items was desired the hide would be trimmed to a rectangular shape and folded toward the center with the sides overlapping. Other shapes were also made; tubular shapes or a flatter envelope style which was the most common. They were tied together with leather thongs and finally the outside was decorated. It was common for the cases to be made in pairs and then decorated with the same designs and colors. They were usually symmetrical with the same pattern on both sides. The decorations varied from tribe to tribe.
The colorful and mostly geometric designs represented rivers, mountains and other symbols that told the family’s story. Sadly, like so many ancestral items from all cultures, once the parfleche left the family the story was lost. Gaylord Torrence in his book, American Indian Parfleche: A Tradition of Abstract Painting said, “These paintings were inseparable from the world view of their makers, formed from their collective experience and cultural role as women; from the details of their daily lives and the richness and love of family life and tribal associations; from the invisible spirit forces that filled their world and the profound religious traditions that sustained their inner lives; and from their intimate relationship with nature and the sweeping monumental landscapes and incomparable light of the American West which was their home. All of this was given tangible form in these paintings, through an expressive power transcending time and cultural boundaries.”
Traditional parfleche containers, while adorned with significant art, were utilitarian at the time. Now they are a Native American art form. Historically it was the women who were responsible for making and decorating the parfleche bags and boxes. However, one of the great Native American artists who have in modern times created new examples of parfleche cases is a man. At the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame (NDCHF), in one of the displays about the Plains Horse People are examples of parfleche cases, lovingly made by renowned Native American artist Butch Thunderhawk. He created designs like what you would have seen 200 years ago, made with colors from natural earth pigments and minerals mixed with the traditional hide glue and water. Each shape and color has a specific representation; water, turtles, a village and the mountains and hills where traditional ceremonies were held.
Mr. Thunderhawk, who teaches art at the United Tribes Technical College, creates a wide variety of art pieces for museums and other exhibitions. One of the many places his work can be seen is at the Thomas Jefferson House Foundation which has twenty of his pieces for Monticello’s recreation of Thomas Jefferson’s “Indian Hall”. When interviewed in 2015 Mr. Thunderhawk said, “Art is history. All artists share their historical and personal life with others.” Mr. Thunderhawk has done that for visitors of the NDCHF, giving them a glimpse into the lives and culture of that young woman and her family so long ago.
Published in the NDCHF Cowboy Chronicle August 2019
State Historical Society of North Dakota Museum Division, Exhibit Handout Number 91-1
Buffalo Bill Cody Center of the West, Plains Indian Art Trunk Curriculum
North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame
American Indian Parfleche: A Tradition of Abstract Painting, Gaylord Torrence, 1994
The Indians, by Benjamin Capps and the editors of Time Life Books, 1973