September 2009 Artifact of the Month

Lakota Parfleche Envelopes

ca. 1920
Lakota Sioux, Great Plains
2001.2.16
Materials: buffalo hide, paint

Lakota Parfleche Envelopes

The Lakota, whose name means "allies," are part of the larger Sioux nation. They lived in what is now present-day South Dakota, but their nomadic lifestyle meant they traveled frequently. They did so in order to follow their main food source, the American Buffalo. Everything revolved around this aspect of their lives, including how they stored and organized their belongings. They needed something to use that was convenient, sturdy and resilient. The parfleche envelope was created for that purpose.

Normally, the Lakota used buffalo hide to make their parfleche envelopes. They found that the hide itself was flexible, adaptable and easily manipulated into any size and shape that they wanted. The envelopes held everything from blankets and ceremonial items to household goods, clothing and dried foods.

Even though these envelopes were used for utilitarian purposes, the Lakota women painstakingly decorated them with bold designs and colors. Paint was not readily available on the Great Plains, so they ground vegetable and mineral sources into a fine powder. They then mixed the pigments with fat and applied it with a porous buffalo bone. They favored the colors red, blue, yellow and green and always outlined their geometric designs in black dyes. As for their designs, they decorated with such shapes as rectangles, triangles and diamonds to create interesting abstract paintings.

Our parfleches have the same elements in their designs. Triangles and diamonds in daring reds and rich blues decorate the outside of the buffalo hide. The shapes themselves are thinly outlined in black.

The Lakota resisted westward expansion and settlement for as long as possible, tangling with the U.S. Cavalry on many occasions; however, the massacre of 146 Lakota men, women and children that resulted from the Battle of Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890 was the last blow to their resistance. They surrendered their arms and submitted to reservation life.