Parfleche: Art History on the Northern Plains
An Examination Of The Origin Of An Art Form
Kills Two, a Sicangu Lakota medicine man paints an entry on the Big Missouri winter count.
Winter counts, waniyetu wowapi, were made and kept by a tribal historian, in Lakota they were called Ehanna wicohan oyakapi, or they who relate the past to the people. The winter count keepers kept the history and added to it annually with a new pictograph to remember the year by. Pictography is a Plains Indian man’s art.
The Red Horse Owner winter count.
Things changed for winter count keepers at the turn of the twentieth century. At least three women kept up the winter count tradition. Two sisters maintained the Red Horse Owner winter count. Yellow Lodge Woman maintained the Blue Thunder winter count after the death of Blue Thunder.
Before these women carried this responsibility, winter counts were kept by men.
One could argue the advantages and disadvantages, the strengths or weaknesses of a culture where roles are determined or defined solely on a person’s sexual identity. That’s not going to happen here.
A Hunkpapa Lakota parfleche.
Parfleche were made and designed by the women. In Lakota, parfleche are known and named by the shapes and uses of it. Only the early French traders and trappers called everything that was utilitarian and was made out of painted rawhide, parfleche. In Lakota these rawhide cases are generally referred to as Wizipan. The parfleche cases were decorated with geometric and symmetric shapes. This geometry is a Plains Indian woman’s art.
A native woman creates a parfleche on a stretched out rawhide in the shade of her lodge.
Things changed for parfleche makers in the twentieth century. Men began to learn this craft, this art, and in present day
there are two renowned parfleche makers, a Mr. Butch Thunderhawk, one of the finest instructors living today of traditional Plains Indian arts, and Mr. Leroi Laundreaux. North Dakota
Again, this writer or you, dear reader, could argue about the roles of men and women in society until all are blue in the face. Let this writer reiterate: that’s not going to happen here.
Winter counts tell us what happened when and where. Winter counts are about the people. Parfleche shows us the subtle changes in culture throughout the past three to four hundred years on the Northern Plains. Parfleche shows us the simplicity and balance of a woman’s role with her people and with the men.
A Lakota Parfleche painted with beautiful scarlet, royal blue, a brilliant yellow, and a touch of green.
When the Dakota-Lakota people came out onto the
Northern Great Plains, they were still woodlands people. When the D/Lakota entered the vast open plains it was somewhat by choice, somewhat by force. It wasn’t because the Chippewa had guns and or were superior in woodlands guerilla fighting technique. The Chippewa certainly had many guns, from the French. The D/Lakota had guns too, only not as many, but from the English, whose make was superior to the French arsenal.
The Chippewa pushed the D/Lakota westward in 1682 in a great battle around Mill Lacs, located in
. The D/Lakota carried through with the westward momentum onto the plains between present day Minnesota Grand Forks and Fargo, both in , or thereabout. The D/Lakota took the fight where there was little or no cover to ambush or hide. The Chippewa had referred to the D/Lakota in various terms in their language as Nadowasis or Nadowasuaig, which can be translated as “The Lesser Snakes” or “Snakes in the Grass.” The word “Sioux” is not a French word, rather a French corruption of an indigenous word. North Dakota
An early example of a French trade musket.
The word or words should be understood in the cultural context of the late seventeenth century, that is, the D/Lakota took the fight to the prairie grasses, and managed to hide where there was no place to hide, with sticks they carried to count coup (a Lakota military honor of touching the enemy). The Chippewa grudgingly acknowledged that skill with a name to reflect that respect. The coup stick that the D/Lakota Akicita carried to the fight was as a snake in the grass, hidden in that grass, ready to strike back.
When the D/Lakota came unto the Northern Plains, they were yet a woodlands culture and they needed to adapt. They brought their guns and other English trade goods with them and used their weapons to their best advantage. In 1691, not ten years after being on the Plains (this author does not believe that the D/Lakota were displaced and wandered aimlessly) they encountered the horse where the James River converges with the Missouri River near present day Yankton, South Dakota.
With guns from the English and the horse escaped from the Spanish, the D/Lakota arrived at the right place at the right time. But this is becoming a completely differently subject altogether than what this writer intended.
Boxes made from Birch bark.
The D/Lakota women brought with them unto the Northern Plains, boxes and other containers incised with designs. These boxes were cut from birch trees, the parchment-like bark “folded and sewn with root splints into various forms,” and were used to contain and protect a person’s most highly valued personal items.
Parfleche are highly likely to have originated on the Northern Plains because of the essential utilitarian purpose of them, with the greatest number of parfleche being made in the period from about 1750 to 1880. There are two reasons that parfleche are mostly likely to have originated from D/Lakota hands. One, parfleche is inseparably associated with the horse. Two, its design bearing distinct woodlands culture characteristics, though parfleche are made typically from bison rawhide, a Plains Indian development. Reader, you might thing but this could apply to other Plains Indian tribes, and this reader begs your indulgence in finishing this article.
A native grandmother prepares to break camp by packing her pony drag, or travois, with parfleche.
As Northern Plains Indians began to appropriate the horse into their cultures, they were able to hunt easier, travel further, and wage war more effectively. With these three things changed for better or worse the result was a substantial accumulation of material wealth. The need to transport that material wealth resulted in woodlands culture women applying their cultural knowledge and training from utilizing birch bark to utilizing a steady supply of rawhide.
The fact that the French voyageurs created a word for [painted] rawhide – and presumably the containers made from it – suggests the existence of parfleche at the time of earliest contacts in the late seventeenth century. However, the lack of description in the days of first contact shows that parfleche were either uncommon or were unpainted.
Here is what was a beautiful prime example of a bison robe painted with a box-and-border design. The robe is dated at about 1690. Unfortunately, I was having issues with resolution when I scanned this image.
Since the concept of painted parfleche were relatively few or nonexistent, it is safe to speculate that they were most likely made in the tradition of incised birch bark boxes that were made back in the woodlands. The evidence supporting this is that the oldest parfleche in corporate or private collections, are incised with geometric patterns. Some of the oldest parfleche that aren’t incised are painted. Those early painted parfleche have a limited palette of red, green, and black, with black used to mark the outline of geometry.
The ideology of the painted parfleche most like evolved from the painted bison robe. Some of the earliest surviving examples of parfleche hint at the geometric designs of painted bison robes in their most basic format. This basic format being based on an affinity that women had with the box-and-border designs taken from women’s robes.
An incised parfleche in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian.
The evolution of parfleche can be broken thusly:
- Seventeenth century to mid to late eighteenth century, parfleche are incised.
- Late eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century, parfleche are painted with red, green, and black colors.
- Mid-eighteenth century until the turn of 1900, parfleche featured more colors with the addition of blues and yellows.
An example of an envelope style parfleche in blues, reds, yellows, and greens.
The D/Lakota parfleche patterns were so influential that parfleche made by the
, Hidatsa, and Arikara came to be indistinguishable from those made by the D/Lakota. Some of the three mentioned tribes parfleche are even recorded as having been acquired in trade with the visiting D/Lakota. Nomadic tribes seemed to have a bigger impact on parfleche design, generally speaking on the North Central Great Plains, that upon closer examination of a parfleche that Prinz Maximillian acquired from the Mandan Mandan in the 1830s is most likely a Cheyenne parfleche taken in trade, or the pattern was borrowed – maybe even bought – from the . Cheyenne
This is the parfleche that was collected by Prinz Maxillian and Karl Bodmer in the 1830s. Though it was collected at the Knife River Indian Villages near Fort Clark and labled as a Mandan parfleche, the colors and execution are Cheyenne, not Mandan.
Traditional parfleche were intended to be used. As parfleche was used it became worn or was rendered unusable after a while, so it was recycled to make other rawhide objects (drums, moccasin soles, etc.). As the post-reservation era entered into Indians’ lives, the parfleche became a reminder of the past.
As this writer has written earlier, pictography is a man’s art and geometry is a women’s art, at least historically. This, this writer believes, shows the difference in how Plains Indian men and women think. At least among the D/Lakota, there is an audible difference in how men and women speak.
Pictography, men’s style of painting, probably came from the thought of being as simple and direct as possible, or utilitarian, as in “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Pictography needed to be understood not just in a man’s tiyospaye, band, or oyate, nation or tribe, but by men in other tribes. The stories of his valor needed to be recognized.
Geometry, the women’s style of painting, evolved out of the need to personalize, to embellish her work, even ornamental, and no less important than a man’s painting. So strikingly different are the works of men and women, that with proper training, one’s eye can easily tell the difference of parfleche painted amongst several different tribes. The usage of geometry and color easily distinguished her tribal work from others.
As the Lakota must surely have originated the winter count (the two oldest known winter counts being D/Lakota) so too must have the originated the parfleche.
Howard, James, Yanktonai Ethnohistory and the John K. Bear Winter Count, Plains Anthropologist: Journal of the Plains Conference, Vol. 21, No. 23, Part 2, August 1976.
Mallory, Garrick, Picture Writing of the American Indians, Vol. 1., Kessinger Publishing, LLC., 2006.
Torrence, Gaylord, The American Indian Parfleche: A Tradition of Abstract Painting, University of
Press, 1994. Washington