What do you carry?

Jeffrey Gibson (Mississippi Band Choctaw, Cherokee, American)

This lesson connects to Jeffrey Gibson's Freedom with the idea that we make choices about what we carry and why. Young learners will explore their own identity and learn about others through a guessing game, sorting game, and close observation of art.

Intended Age Group
Early childhood (ages 3-5)
Standards Area
Ask questions, share information and discuss ideas about the past and present
Lesson Length
One to three 30–60 minute lessons

Students will be able to:

  • explore aspects of their own identity;
  • make connections between the experiences of others and their own.


  1. Invite children to take a close look at Freedom by Jeffrey Gibson. Share some details about Gibson’s nomadic life experiences. Explain how the parfleche (a container made from animal hides) was historically used across the plains in many American Indian cultures to transport important items. Invite the children to share any observations they make about the artwork and record them. You may want to prompt their close looking discussion with questions like “What do you see? What do you think it is made out of? What makes you think that? What do you think about it? What do you wonder?”
  2. After the art discussion invite children to retrieve their personal backpacks. Encourage students to share something about their backpack, or an item within it, that is of importance to them. You may want to ask prompting questions such as “How did you choose your backpack? Where do you take your backpack? What do you keep inside your backpack? Why is your item important to you?”

Important Note: We would like to acknowledge that not all students have access to a backpack, and some may not have chosen their own backpack. To provide equitable experiences for all students, please consider the following suggestions.

a. Prepare a few extra backpacks for students, or provide students in need with backpacks they can take home and fill with personal items before this lesson.

b. Encourage students who do not have a backpack, or who do not personally identify with the backpack they have at school, to share about their ideal backpack and what they would choose to keep in it. You may even encourage children to draw their ideas.

c. Alternatively, provide all children with some sort of container (shoebox, grocery bag, etc.). Plan a community walk where students can collect items to fill their containers with prior to the discussions above and games listed below.

3. After each child has had an opportunity to share about their backpacks and/or items within it, play one or both of the following games.

a. Guessing game: Direct children to choose an item from inside their backpacks that they have not yet shown to the class. They are then to take turns giving the class descriptive clues about their secret objects while other students try to guess the items. After an item has been guessed (or a time limit you set has run out), ask each student to share about his or her item. Students could tell a story about their items, explain how they obtained them, or tell others why the objects are valuable to them.

b. Sorting game: Direct students to choose one item each from inside their backpacks. Encourage them to make comparisons between each other’s items until they have agreed upon some categories. You may want to manage this by first arranging students in a circle and providing each student a turn to share about their item. You could then suggest that they each find one partner whose item is like theirs. Physically grouping students and their items might be a concrete way for students to visualize their comparisons. You should encourage children to determine their own categories, but some suggestions may be necessary at the beginning of the game. Try asking questions like “What do you see that is the same? How are the items used? Where are the items from?” Some categories they may choose could be based on the items’ colors, their use, or their common shapes.

Extension idea:

Make a home connection! Provide interview questions for children to use with family or friends about their typical carrying items (purses, suitcases, gym bags, etc.). Potential interview questions could include the following: “What do you use to carry your valuables? What makes this special to you? What do you keep inside it?” After a few days, you may want to invite students to share about their interviews during morning meeting or small group times.

Literature Connections

Bear Takes a Trip, Stella Blackstone (available in English, Spanish, and French)

Carry Me (Babies Everywhere), Star Bright Books

I Like Myself, Karen Beaumont

It’s Okay to be Different, Todd Parr

Marisol Doesn’t Match, Monica Brown

My Backpack, Eve Bunting

Not a Box, Antoinette Portis (available in English and Spanish)


  • A printed image of Freedom by Jeffrey Gibson
  • Materials for recording student discussion (whiteboard and markers, poster paper, etc.)
  • Student backpacks (see #2 in the lesson plan for alternative suggestions)
  • Time and space for children to sort and categorize items


CO Standards
  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
  • Social Studies
  • Become familiar with United States family and cultural traditions in the past and present
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
21st Century Skills
  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Self-Direction


Jeffrey Gibson, Mississippi Band Choctaw, Cherokee, American, b. 1972
Born: Colorado
Work Locations: Brooklyn, NY, Hudson, NY
About the Artist

Jeffrey Gibson is a contemporary artist who was born in Colorado Springs, CO in 1972. He is a citizen of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, like his father, and his mother is Cherokee. His father worked for the government, and Gibson spent time in Korea and Germany as well as the United States while he was growing up. After getting his B.F.A. from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1995, he also spent time in London to earn his M.A. at the Royal College of Art. He now lives and works in Hudson, New York, and produces paintings, sculptures, and performances that draw on his Native heritage, abstract art, music, club culture, fashion, literature, and politics. He says, “I make my work with respect for tradition, but in no way do I claim that what I’m doing is traditional…I’ve tried to remain true to and honor the circumstances I was born to, and I’ve made the best work I can.”

Gibson says, “I try to begin each new body of work with a month of just experimentation, with no end product in mind. This is crucial and allows for the processing of previous bodies of work, but also opens up new directions for current and upcoming projects.”

For this work, Gibson bound together tipi poles with rawhide strips that were put on wet and dried, tight, in place (also called lashing together). As for the trunk, he cut, folded, and sewed buffalo hide into the shape he wanted. He then drew the geometric designs onto the surface of the box, and added in the colors with a brush. Gibson started out with larger blocks of color painted in triangle, square, and parallelogram shapes, then broke these up by adding more shapes in different colors on top of the initial forms.

What Inspired It

The structure of this sculpture was inspired by the parfleche (pronounced “par-flesh”) containers and travois (pronounced “tra-voy” or “trav-wa”) that were used by Native American tribes from the Plains. A travois was typically made from tipi poles, and would have been pulled by a horse or dog. Nomadic tribes used them to transport their belongings, which were often stored in parfleches. This word is thought to have come from the French words for “to parry (defend),” parer, and “arrow,” fleche, and originally referred to rawhide shields or body armor. “Parfleche” eventually came to be associated with rawhide in general, and envelope-shaped rawhide containers in particular (to learn about one of these traditional forms and how it was made, click here). For this sculpture, Gibson constructed an oversized travois out of repurposed tipi poles, and an oversized, trunk-like, buffalo hide parfleche container that he painted with acrylic.

Gibson drew on the structures of Native American rawhide containers and travois when he created this sculpture. This work also reflects other inspirations he often references in his art: geometry used by twentieth-century abstract painters such as Sol LeWitt and Frank Stella, and the painted geometric designs found on historic Native American parfleches. Gibson first discovered parfleche bags as an undergraduate student, when he interned at The Field Museum in Chicago helping various Native tribes conduct research into the North American collections. Originally, he was more interested in the form and function of parfleches. After starting to seriously research them a few years before he made Freedom, he came to appreciate the painted aspects of them, and made connections between their designs and Western abstract art. “Only after researching more about the geometric abstractions found on parfleches did I find out that, traditionally, these were painted by women only. I came to appreciate parfleche painting as an artist, comparing the designs to modernist geometric abstract painting.”

The parfleche also had a very personal meaning. He said, “Having grown up moving around my whole life provided personal experiences that have caused me to identify as somewhat nomadic . . . always questioning what ‘home’ is defined by. I have become comfortable moving and have found great freedom in that ability.”


Detail of oversized rawhide box with painted geometric shapes in bright colors, on repurposed tipi poles


Gibson intentionally made the travois and parfleche elements of this sculpture bigger than they normally would have been in their traditional forms – especially the parfleche. He describes it as “extraordinarily huge,” and says, “I wanted it to be outsized…”

As an empty vessel, the parfleche stands as a metaphor for the things both physical and psychological that we carry with us and contribute to our sense of self. What do you think the large scale of this parfleche says about those things for most people? What would you include in yours?

Detail of oversized rawhide box with painted geometric shapes in bright colors, on repurposed tipi poles

Geometric designs

Gibson created the geometric designs seen here by first drawing large triangle, square, and parallelogram shapes onto the hide, then filling them in with acrylic paint. He then layered smaller, different colored shapes on top of the original forms.

Detail of oversized rawhide box with painted geometric shapes in bright colors, on repurposed tipi poles


Gibson began painting on rawhide instead of canvas when he collaborated with other Native American artists for an exhibition in 2012. Artists would send him rawhide objects they had made, such as drums, and he would paint designs on them. He says, “I like the idea of having to care for something and that each hide is unique unto itself. There are marks in the hide from the life of the animal but also from the processing of the hide. And then when I painted on it, I was hooked.” Gibson likes the smoothness of hides, as well as the fact that they can be bent and folded into different shapes, and they retain the shapes when they harden.

Detail of oversized rawhide box with painted geometric shapes in bright colors, on repurposed tipi poles


Gibson uses materials that are not traditionally seen in fine art, like beads and fringe. These materials come from the world of craft, which has historically been looked down upon as “lesser” than fine art. Gibson busts apart that distinction once and for all in a way that also honors the long tradition of handmade objects in Native cultures.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.