Gift Shop Artist | Shawn Espinosa

One of the most ancient and enduring customary mediums used by the Lakota people is rawhide, attained through the practice of drying and minimally processing leather. The resulting functional and decorative pieces were utilized in everyday life by the Lakota for the storing and transportation of personal items. When French fur traders encountered the pieces, they dubbed them “parfleche” combining the words “par”, to parry or defend, and “fleche”—arrow—because the containers were sturdy enough to deflect arrows. 

Shawn Espinosa ’97 works primarily with parfleche as means of “keeping the tradition alive.”

Growing up in the Lakeside community near Oglala, SD, Shawn found himself drawn to the traditional practices of creating Lakota art. Through his work with the historic medium, he strengthened a connection to his heritage. “I make my own rawhide and I try to be authentic as possible with my colors and materials,” he said. “I’ve been making art since I was about 15. I am primarily self-taught, learning through experience and from family. Art has always been a big part of my life.”

Shawn’s lifelong connection to Red Cloud Indian School began years ago. He was at first a student at the school, and, after graduating in 1997, began work as a tour guide of the campus. He now makes authentic Lakota parfleche items as a primary means of providing for his family. The work he sells through the Heritage Center is a particular source of pride for Shawn:

“I have always loved selling to The Heritage Center. I have had my work there for many years and I know that there are a lot of people who come there to purchase quality art. I would like people to know that they are purchasing handmade, high quality and traditional items. Every parfleche piece I create is one of a kind and special, with a lot of time and love spent on creating them.”

When considering the historic impact that art had on the Lakota tribes, parfleche work is an excellent example of how every day objects were given special meaning.  The skillful creation of classic geometric designs utilized by Shawn in his parfleche is in keeping with a pre-European tradition of abstract expressionist designs to convey complex ideas.  Furthermore, they are representative of the time and care that went into the traditional decorative items possessed by Lakota people, as well as the idea of functioning art. In order to remember and honor our past, it is imperative to keep these beautiful objects in our present.

You can find more of Shawn’s work in The Heritage Center Gift Shop, both in-store and online:


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Photos © 2016 Red Cloud Indian School, Inc.
last updated: May 16, 2016