Jack McNeel
An assortment of objects for different purposes all created from buffalo rawhide by Phillip Shortman.

Keeping Culture Alive: Traditional Buffalo Hide Parfleches Are Still Made

Jack McNeel
7/24/14

The parfleche was absolutely beautiful, although the painted design on it was unusual. It had been made recently on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana, but had a floral pattern inspired by the Cree.

It’s unusual today to find people making traditional parfleches, even though historically they were commonplace. They were used for carrying personal items and typically were strapped to a travois or tied to a horse. They varied in size but were generally about 14 inches by 26 inches when folded and laced together. Suitcases have replaced parfleches and only a few traditional artisans still occasionally make one, largely as a decorative item rather than a useful one.

Dr. Phillip Shortman is one of the few. His doctorate is in education and he worked many years in that field. Now retired, he spends his time working with buffalo hides. “I just do this because I like to do it,” he said. When asked if he wanted to be called “Doctor” or “Phillip” he laughed and said, “Anyone who wants to be called doctor has got problems.”

Dr. Phillip Shortman, Gros Ventre and Assiniboine, one of a few artisans who still makes parfleches, and one of an even smaller number working with buffalo. (Jack McNeel)

He started working with buffalo hides 15 years ago. “I’d seen it off and on over the years around here. The lady next door used to do good work, but she passed away. Then my mother said ‘you should try it.’ She told me how to do it, how to do the hides.”

His mother is also the one who got him into artwork, both painting and beading, which he incorporates into items he makes from buffalo rawhide. The floral pattern is Cree from his mother’s side. Phillip also has both Assiniboine and Gros Ventre ancestry, the two tribes that occupy Fort Belknap.

The term parfleche has been expanded to include many more shapes and purposes than the flat envelope or suitcase style. Phillip’s work shows many of these shapes from a cylinder case used for carrying and protecting a war bonnet, to flat cases with buckskin adornment for smaller items, down to such things as gun cases, awl cases and knife sheaths. The one thing in common is all are made from buffalo.

Phillip started with deerskin—it’s much easier to work than buffalo. He experimented with different ways of removing the hair and stretching the hides. He made lots of mistakes at first, then progressed to working with elk and then strictly with buffalo. “That’s all I do now,” he said. “They take a long time. They’re hard to work with.”

A knife case made from buffalo also shows Phillip’s skill at beadwork and painting. (Jack McNeel)

Buffalo hides are readily available on Fort Belknap, with the presence of two buffalo herds. Though preparing them for the final product is a long, tiring process. He often attaches a rope to the raw hide and tosses it into a nearby flowing ditch, leaving it for several days. He may use a barrel of water, but that takes a little longer. Now he’s experimenting with adding ashes to the hide, which will allow the hair to be removed faster. Then the hard work of fleshing begins, both the hair side and the fleshy side.

“Just doing the hide, with no holes, that’s a challenge. You can’t mass produce this stuff,” he said. “They also stink and that’s why a lot of people don’t want to do them. The only time you can cut it is when it’s wet and even then it’s hard. I use a leather punch to make holes, but you have to use one made for steel. The others kept bending.” He estimated it would take two weeks of hard work, working every day, to prepare a buffalo hide.

His results help keep a cultural activity alive that’s slowly disappearing, especially using buffalo.

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