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March 28, 2021 3 min read 1 Comment

Our appreciation for Native American craftsmanship is evident in our obsession with their jewelry, but our admiration extends far beyond that. Of course, there is the artwork, and one can’t forget the beadwork, but there is also a lot to be said of the craftsmanship, technique, and resourcefulness in the things they created out of necessity.

“One of the things I’ve always had tremendous respect for was that Native Americans were known for using the entirety of the animals they hunted, especially the buffalo,” said Cheryl McMullen, Creative Director for Double D Ranch. “Beyond meat, they made use of dang near everything – organs and all. Bones were made into tools and weapons and accessories, tendons were used for arrow strings, even the bladder was cleaned and dried to use as a canteen. But, of course, the most useful part of the bison was the hide.”

The practical applications for buffalo hide were innumerable. Hair-on hides were ideal for robes, rugs, bedding; processed hides (without the hair, i.e. leather) were used for things like teepee covers, various clothing items, bags, arrow quivers, etc. And last but not least, the much tougher, stiffer, smoother rawhide was used for things like the sole of moccasins and – the star of today’s show – parfleches!

Cisco Gallery

So, what exactly is a parfleche? (It’s pronounced “par-flesh”, by the way.)

“They were mostly used to store food,” Cheryl explained. “Because they were tough and durable. But even though they were primarily very practical in nature, they were also usually very beautiful. That’s one of the things I love about the culture – everything was an opportunity for art! In many tribes, the women – they were almost exclusively made by women – the ones who were deemed ‘the best’ at creating and decorating parfleches were held in high esteem, it elevated their status within the community.”

Brooklyn Museum

Parfleches are containers, to put it rudimentarily. Usually, they are flat with a flap; sometimes envelope-style, sometimes more of a box with a fold-over closure. In addition to food storage, parfleches were sometimes used as wallets, made in duplicates and used as saddlebags, or essentially treated as luggage.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The process for creating a parfleche is one that definitely required skill, know-how, and – if you wanted to be among the best – artistic ability. First, the hide is fleshed (removed from the animal) using a chisel-like object, usually made of bone. Then, it’s stretched and scraped until the hide is uniform in thickness and a “goo” is applied. [Ok, if you want to get technical, “A glutinous wash (prepared of prickly pear juice or animal glue) was applied for protection before the moist hide was painted,” says Wikipedia.] And then here’s the tricky part, the part where your skill and talent set you apart: the hide has to be painted while it’s still wet, so there is a very limited window – you gotta be bold and you gotta be quick! Like most Native American creations, natural elements were used as “paint”; charcoal, algae, ochre, and the like. Once dry, the hair is removed, and the hide is cut and shaped. And there you have it – a parfleche!

Interested in owning one? Cheryl found a fabulous vintage version that made a cameo in the Cynthia photoshoot -- truly a collector’s item!

1 Response

Melissa schulman
Melissa schulman

March 29, 2021

I love learning this history from you Cheryl. Thank you for sharing.

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