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American Indian Bags

Much is often made of the idea that Indian people developed so many specialized bags, pouches, and other leather containers to assist them in their nomadic wanderings from place to place. In reality, though, Indian bag-making was just as prominent in highly settled agricultural tribes like the Cherokees and Navajos as it was among the Plains tribes who followed the buffalo herds. A leather bag is better suited for carrying certain objects than a pot or basket is, and native North Americans tended to place great importance on how well-matched a carrying case was to its contents.

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Not only were native bags specially sized and shaped to hold an individual type of object, they were often decorated to indicate precisely what belonged inside of them. There were two very basic styles of American Indian bags: soft pouches, made of tanned animal hides (usually deerskin or elkskin), and parfleche, made of stiff rawhide. Some modern Indian artists blur the two traditions by creating tanned buckskin purses with rawhide siding on the inside to give it the boxy parfleche look.

Regardless of their material, Native American bags were often painted, beaded, or quilled with the characteristic tribal designs of the craftsperson (usually a woman) who made it--particularly if the bag was designed to hold something sacred, such as a medicine bag or tobacco bag, or was being made as regalia for a fiance, daughter or son. In recent centuries the great specificity of Indian bag design began to change, with the development of the catch-all "possible bag" that could be used to transport any of one's possessions. Today, both specific and possible bags are still being made and decorated by artists from many different tribes, and they continue to be a lively and practical part of native life, much more so than baskets or pottery (which are generally treated only as artwork these days). Since non-native women also like to carry a purse or handbag, Indian bags are commonly made as trade items today as well.

If you are looking to buy purses or pouches that were actually made by Native Americans--either because it's important to you to have the real thing or because you want to support native people with your purchase--then here is our directory of American Indian artists whose bags are available online. If you have a website of Indian bags to add to this list, let us know. We gladly advertise any individual native artist or native-owned art store here free of charge, provided that all bags were made and beaded by tribally recognized American Indian, Inuit, or First Nations artists.

Thank you for your interest in Native American art!

Native American Bags

On our main site we do our best to avoid slowing down our page loading with graphics, but this page is about art, so we'd really be remiss in not showing a few representative bag pictures. All photos are the property of their respective artists; please visit their sites to see their work in more depth.

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Traditional Native American Pouches and Parfleche

Neokistomi Beaded Bags
These two Blackfeet ladies make classic Plains Indian beaded pouches, tobacco bags, possible bags, saddle bags, and knife sheaths.
Ancient Ways Purses and Bags
     Beaded buckskin, elk hide, and parfleche bags by Shoshone and Arapaho artists.
Dakota Creations Beaded Leather
     This Dakota Sioux couple makes beaded leather medicine bags, flute bags,
    and knife sheaths in Plains Indian styles.
Parfleche Folders and Containers
     Plains Indian parfleche in traditional envelope and cylindrical shapes, by a Cheyenne-Arapaho artist.

Contemporary Indian Purses and Handbags

Seminole Patchwork Purses
Seminole Indian purses decorated with traditional patchwork designs. Colorful and inexpensive.
Tammy Beauvais Designs
Beaded purses from a Mohawk Indian fashion designer.
Dorothy Grant Indian Purses
Designer purses embossed or embroidered with Northwest Coast Indian designs by a Haida artist.

Bandolier Bags

Bandolier bags are extremely intricate beaded shoulder bags of great ceremonial importance to the Cherokee and Woodland Indians. The most beautiful of tradtional Native American bags, they are still made and used for cultural and ceremonial occasions (the Ojibway men were wearing bandolier bags at the opening of the new museum in Washington DC), but not as tourist items. Some Indian artists do bead and sell them as museum-quality fine art, but you will not find an authentic bandolier bag being sold for less than $1000.

Martha Berry Bandolier Bags
     Traditional bandolier bags by a prominent Cherokee beadwork artist.

Pipe Bags

Arapaho Indian Pipebag Crafts
Traditional Plains Indian pipe bags made of beaded buckskin with fringework.
Blackfoot Beaded Pipebags
Another Plains Indian artist selling lovely pipe bags with traditional beadwork.

Flute Bags

Turtle Island Native American Flute Bags
Traditional Iroquois Indian flute bags made from fringed deerskin.

Amulet Bags

Beaded amulet bags are actually jewelry, not true bags--they are necklaces with small beaded lockets for holding a personal charm. If you're looking for an amulet bag, have a look at our Beadwork Jewelry page. Most native artists who make beaded jewelry will make amulets like these, but artists who make beaded bags and pouches by stitching beads to leather generally do not.

Books About Indian Bags
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Glass Tapestry: Plateau Beaded Bags from the Elaine Horwitch Collection
     Art book primarily focused on Nez Perce and Paiute shoulder bags, parfleche and beadwork.
Bags of Friendship: Bandolier Bags of the Great Lakes Indians
     Small art book primarily focused on Ojibway and Potawatomi beaded bandolier bags.
Beauty, Honor, and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts
     Outstanding exploration of Plains Indian beaded and quilled leather arts. Many photographs.
Native North American Art
     A good book on American Indian art history in general from ancient times to today.

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Links About Indian Bags

Here are some other good internet resources for learning about or purchasing Native American bags:

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act: US law against passing off fake American Indian crafts as genuine.
What constitutes Indian art fraud, and how to report it if you find it.
Native American Leather Bags and Pouches: Illustrated history of American Indian pouch art, with instructions for how to make
a needle case, tobacco pouch and strike-a-light.
Bandolier Bags: Excellent online exhibit of articles and pictures about the spiritual traditions and artistry of the bandolier bag.
Bags and Pouches of the Canadian Natives: Anthropology text about First Nations bags.
Native American Arts and Crafts: Orrin contributed to this larger directory of Indian crafts, many of which are authentic.
Native American Cultures: View our pages for individual Indian tribes, most of which have artistic information.

About us: This website belongs to Native Languages of the Americas, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting endangered Native American languages. We do not make bags ourselves, so if you are interested in buying some, please contact the artists directly. Though we have featured only Indian bags and purses identified with the name and tribal affiliation of each artist, we haven't called the tribal offices to check up on any of them, and we only know a few of them personally. We also don't guarantee any of their products. This is not an exhaustive list of Native American bags--if you would like us to add your site to this page, please contact us with your URL and tribal affiliation. We advertise any individual native artist or native-owned art business here free of charge. We do not link to medicine bags which are not made by tribally recognized American Indian, Inuit, or First Nations artists, so please do not ask us to. And finally, websites do occasionally expire and change hands, so use your common sense and this general rule of thumb: if the creator of each individual artwork is not identified by name and specific tribe, you are probably not looking at a genuine Native American bag.

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