Museum Mysteries: Parfleche
Sometimes the mystery is more about the name of something than it is about the item itself. The “Cultural Crossroads” section of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum features some beautiful pouches, or parfleches, which were made by Native Americans who never used that word to name them. “Parfléche” is a word made up by French fur traders, from “parer,” to defend, and “fléche,” arrow. It sounds weird, but the French considered these bags tough enough to act as a shield to defend against arrows. These pouches weren’t used primarily for defense; they were used to store everything from food to personal items.
Parfleches like the ones shown above were made from a very laborious process: Native American women prepared elk or bison skins for tanning by scraping them clean of hair and sinew, rubbing them with a mixture made from animal brains and urine, and staking them to the ground to dry. If a yellow hue was desired, the dried hides were then smoked. The hides were woven into a variety of shapes and decorated with paint, glass beads, wool strips, and even small pieces of metal earned through trading. The parfleches shown above are from Comanche and Shoshone tribes.
These bags were not only tough, they were lightweight. When an empty parfleche was folded and laced closed, it could be strapped to the side of a horse, acting like armor but still allowing freedom of movement. (Side note: although horses had originated on the North American continent 10,000 years ago, they died out and it wasn’t until the Spanish introduced horses back into North America in the sixteenth century that they became acquired by the Utes, native to this area, in around 1640.)
Other bags, like the ones on the right, were constructed of saddle leather and worn attached to a belt. Although many bags of this type have metal cones known as “tinklers” attached to them, it’s not because they make a pretty noise; it’s because of protocol. People wore jingly things so that others could hear them coming. Women weren’t allowed to be alone with their fathers-in-law, for example. The noise signaled an approach so people could react properly, either by leaving or by getting someone else to be an escort. These bags are from the Chippewa, Ojibwa, Ute, and Iroquois tribes.
Another display features some amulets and fetishes with unique, tiny seed beadwork. These Navajo and Ute fobs were made to last beyond a lifetime: from first holding an umbilical cord at birth and becoming a baby’s first toy, to becoming a fob for a personal item, to finally becoming a burial token. When local Native Americans were sent to sanatoriums to get treatment for tuberculosis, beadwork like this was prescribed as therapy. Natives in this area made quite a business from mail orders.
Other parts of the exhibit display Native American headdresses and bows and arrows, as well as an impressive collection of moccasins and other clothing and accessories from tribes all over the Southwest. Each display shares interesting information about the impact of Native Americans in our local area as well as all over the plains.
Since the museum is free to visit, there’s no reason not to come check out this amazing collection for yourself.
Other articles in the Museum Mysteries series: