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A parfleche is a type of wallet or bag made from rawhide. Traditionally made by Plains women, they are usually decorated with brightly colored geometrical designs.[1]

A parfleche is a Native American rawhide container. Envelope-shaped parfleches have historically been used to contain items such as dried meats and pemmican. At times they have been used to carry maps, or the designs on them have served as maps themselves.[2] In contemporary usage, they may carry social, spiritual, and symbolic meaning, or be part of traditional regalia.

The bags are usually decorated with a distinctive style of graphic artwork, often symbolizing landscape features such as rivers and mountains.[2] Traditionally women are the main creators of parfleches,[1] first painting stretched out raw hides, then shaping them into their final form. In contemporary culture, both women and men make them.


The increased mobility among the post-contact Plains Indians horse culture required that essential goods such as preserved foods (including pemmican), clothing, medicines and ceremonial items to be transported efficiently in lightweight and weatherproof packaging.[3]:29. While the most common form of the parfleche was the folded envelope or flat wallet, they were also constructed as laced flat cases, cylinders, and trunks.[3]:59.

The production of parfleche bags declined drastically with the European colonists' slaughter to near-extinction of the Plains buffalo herds, and the forced relocation of Indigenous peoples onto government-partitioned reservations.[3]:38. While less visible to the colonists who were collecting them for museums, the nations, such as the Niisitapi and Lakota people, continue to produce parfleches into the present day.[3]:39.


The name "parfleche" was initially used by French fur traders in the region, and derives from the French language parer meaning "to parry" or "to defend", and flèche meaning "arrow".[4]:717. "Parfleche" was also used to describe tough rawhide shields, but later used primarily for these decorated rawhide containers.[4]:717. Different Indigenous peoples have their own names for these versatile packages, including hoem shot (Tsehestano), nes-kes-cha (Apsáalooke) and ham-wana (Hinono'eino).[5]:25.


Historically parfleches were almost exclusively made by women.[1]:101. Creation began with “fleshing”, or the removal of the hide from animals such as elk, deer, and most commonly buffalo.[5]:29. Craftswomen employed bone tools fashioned as chisels for fleshing.[6] The hide was stretched by staking it above the ground, and scraped to an even thickness.[5]:29–30. A glutinous wash (prepared of prickly pear cactus juice or animal glue) was applied for protection before the moist hide was painted.[5]:32. Until the 1890s, natural paints were overwhelmingly used, formed using substances such as charcoal for black, algae for green, and yellow ochre for red.[3]:44. Because artists had a limited amount of time to paint the parfleche design, they had to work with boldness and expertise as revisions were not possible.[3]:53. Once the paint was dry, the craftswomen de-haired the opposite side of the hide using a “stoning” method, and cut the outline of the parfleche using a flint or metal knife.[3]:54. Lastly, the container was folded into its chosen shape and holes were cut or burned to insert ties and laces.[3]:54.

Craftswomen's guilds[edit]

Historically, the Native women with the most talent in producing parfleches, the painted designs, and similar items, have held respected positions in their communities.[1]:101.[4]:716. These women have traditionally formed local guilds, choosing elders to oversee the preservation, practice and teaching of these skills to their proteges.[3]:54. The guilds can also be credited with the consistency in parfleche design across multiple nations, as they preserve and pass down the traditional designs, symbolism, meanings, and techniques.[3]:105.

While parfleches have been stolen, collected and admired as art pieces, their female creators (who are renowned in their own communities) have remained largely unknown to colonial anthropologists, collectors and museum curators, and thus their names tend not to be known to the general public.[3]:25.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Schneider, Mary Jane (1983). "Women's Work: An Examination of Women's Role in Plains Indian Arts and Crafts" in The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women, edited by Patricia Albers and Beatrice Medicine. Washington: University Press of America. pp. 101–121.
  2. ^ a b Goes In Center, Jhon (Oglala Lakota), "Native American and First Nations' GIS" for Native Geography 2000
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Torrence, Gaylord (1994). The American Indian Parfleche. Seattle: University of Washington Press. p. 29.
  4. ^ a b c Lycett, Stephen J. (2015). "Differing Patterns of Material Culture Intergroup Variation on the High Plains: Quantitative Analyses of Parfleche Characteristics vs. Moccasin decoration". American Antiquity. 80: 714–731.
  5. ^ a b c d Morrow, Mable (1975). Indian rawhide: An American folk art. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. p. 7.
  6. ^ Ewers, John C. (1939). Plains Indian Painting: A description of an Aboriginal American art. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press. p. 4.

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