Native American Pouches ... A Place for Everything

Native American Pouches and Bags

How did the Native American pack and move without the help of Samsonite, American Tourister or Eagle Creek?

How were they able to carry small items with them without the help of Fossil, Prada and Coach?

Info Snippet: Did you know... the clothing of the Native American had no pockets?

Well, for one thing, no Native Americans walked around all day with their hands in their pockets - clothing of that time had none! How were they able to carry personal belongings at all times? Where were the pipes, fire-starting gear, food, knives, arrows, tobacco, etc. kept when moved? And, in reality, Native American pouches were just as prominent in sedentary groups (Cherokees and Navajos) as they were in nomadic groups (Plains Indians).

European explorers of North America in the early 1600's observed that Natives "Always carry with them all their goods, as well as their food and green tobacco."


Native American pouches and bags were usually fastened to a belt. Smaller pouches could have hung around the neck or from the wrist.

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Read About Native American Moccasins!

The Plains Indians were a highly mobile people who followed the path of the bison. All of their possessions from their tipis and bedding to their cookery had to be packed up and moved by horse from camp to camp. To carry their belongings, Indian women created bags and cases of various sizes and shapes out of buckskin and rawhide. Native American pouches were highly utilitarian in design, but they were also decorated with care and purpose by their owners. They were beaded and fringed, and feathers, claws and hooves were often incorporated into the decorations. Some storage bags were fashioned from hides that had been wood-smoked to keep the leather supple and give it a golden hue. Other Native American pouches were shaped from wet rawhide and then dried into rigid, box-like storage containers called parfleche bags.

This tradition of creating highly functional, yet beautiful, Native American pouches, purses and bags continued even after the Indians were put onto reservations. In fact, many Native Americans sewed ration bags-small decorated purses designed specifically to carry the ration tickets that Indians needed to collect their monthly allotment of meat, flour and salt from the government.

Each Thing Has It's Place!

A leather bag is better for carrying certain objects than a basket or pot. There was great pride taken in matching the shape and size of the object to its bag, then to decorate it in such as way that anyone knew what was in it.

There were two basic styles of Native American pouches: soft pouches - tanned hides, usually deerskin or elkskin) and parfleche - a stiff rawhide bag, as seen below. Now to go the extra step - these bags, soft or stiff, were often painted, beaded or quilled with characteristic tribal designs of the artisan, especially if the Native American pouches held something sacred such as a medicine bag or tobacco bag, or if it was being made as regalia for a fiancé, daughter or son.


It's in the Bag!

There are beaded Native American pouches, tobacco pouch, possible bags, knife sheaths, parfleche bags, tent peg bags, war bonnet/headdress cylinders, bandolier bags, pipe bags, flute bags, amulet bags, parched corn bag, strike-a-light bag, saddle bags, arrow quiver and bow cases, awl case, sewing bag, paint bag, etc.

Possible bag: is a new development - it was designed to hold all of somebody's possessions. These bags are being made and decorated by artisans from many different tribes and they are more practical than baskets or pottery and are generally treated as artwork these days.

Possible Bag, Cheyenne, 1875


Parched Corn Bag: this held "nokake", parched and powdered corn meal that was mixed with water, then eaten. This was a long leather bag and carried like a knapsack.

Tobacco Pouch: these Native American pouches were called Petouwassinug by the Narragansett of southern New England. It hung either around the neck or from the belt. A separate pipe bag would be made and decorated to hold the pipe.
Native Americans did not use tobacco recreationally. It was used primarily by shamans or medicine men. In addition to being smoked, uncured tobacco was often eaten.

In the 1600's Native American men wore a tobacco pouch "which hangs at their necke, or sticks at their girdle, which is to them in stead of an English pocket". In 1622 Massasoit, a Wampanoag, wore a little bag of tobacco attached to "a great chain of white bone beads about his neck." A separate pipe bag would be made and decorated to hold a smoking pipe, "for generally all the men throughout the Countrey have a Tobacco-bag, with a pipe in it, hanging at their back"

NativeTech has instructions on making your own leather tobacco pouch.

The Wakan Circle has a good rendition of smoking the pipe. It's a good read and very informative!!!

Info snippet: Did you know... When Christopher Columbus and crew landed in the New World they observed the natives using a nose pipe to smoke a strange new herb. The pipe was called a "tabaka" by the locals, hence our word tobacco.

Tobacco Pouch


The Strike-A-Light Pouch: this held either a mineral stone hanging from the wrist or from the belt.

In 1637, a strike-a-light pouch was fastened to a belt so the ability to start a fire was always at hand: "and with a girdle of their making, bound round about their middles, to which girdle is fastned a bagg, in which his instruments be, with which hee can strike fire upon any occasion". Beaded strike-a-light pouches, rectangular in shape, decorated with tinkling cones or fringe and having short flaps, were used through the 1800's by the Lakota, Apache, and other groups to carry a strike-a-light steel, a flint, matches and often ration coupons.

NativeTech has instructions on making your own strike-a-light pouch.

Strike-A-Light Bag


Shot Bags were used in both hunting and preparing for war. Some of these bags were called Bandolier Bags - suspended from men's sashes warn over the shoulder. With continued European contact, the stiff leather used for a bandolier bag was replaced with broadcloth and were then called "Possibles Bags".

Bandolier Bags: these elaborately decorated shoulder bags traditionally took over a year to make and the tribes making the majority of them were the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi. These Native American pouches held great ceremonial importance to the Cherokee and Woodland Indians. They were originally fashioned after a type of pouch carried by British soldiers. These were made by women exclusively for men, were worn primarily for show, when leading powwows and other ceremonies, and by especially honored elders who achieved high degrees in religion and curing. They were worn several different ways: draped over the neck, across the chest, hung over a sale or horse's neck, or worn several at a time.


Knife Sheath and Awl Case: were used by both men and women. The Awl Case was traditionally worn around a woman's neck or belt.

In 1622, the European, Mourt takes notice of a leather sheath and a suspended leather knife sheath and a "great long knife", which Massasoit (a Wampanoag of the east coast), "had in his bosom, hanging in a string". Native women living in the Great Lakes region, and in other areas of the Northeast, wore knife sheaths suspended from a belt at their waist.


What's On the Bag?

There were many types of beads and ornaments used on these Native American pouches as well as the Native American's clothing and accessories. In the 1600's, Europeans in New England described an appliqué made of beads, pieces of whales' fins, whale bones, and wampum sewn on leather. In the northeast, tufts of red dyed deer hair were attached to metal cones and then attached to bags. Those of the Eastern Forests had Native American pouches traditionally decorated by embroidering dyed porcupine quells and white moose-hair.

A Special Note about Bandolier Bags:
The most beautiful of traditional Native American bags, Bandolier Bags 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). Some Native American artisans 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.



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If Native American pouches and bags are an art form you're interested in for either buying or collecting, become familiar with it. Visit museums to study the various forms, materials, tribal affiliations and designs. Go to art shows that showcase Native American artisans. Antique shows are also a good venue - go through the booths of vendors selling these items. If they are passionate about what they have, they will answer your questions. And, of course, inter-tribal powwows are excellent venues to look and ask.

You can also go the The Indian Arts and Crafts Association for a listing of registered and certified Native American Artisans.

Above all, any art form being marketed as a genuine Native American Indian pouch or bag must legally be just that. The spirit of the law is that any artwork or craft fashioned by a Native American, the artisan must be a member of an Indian Tribe, and their membership has been verified and certified.

These Native American artisans are practicing their art perhaps as a livelihood. And, through their art, they are keeping their culture, history and spirituality alive.

Native American Arts has free e-books covering the subjects of Collecting and Fraudulence that are excellent!

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