Moccasins – Walk a Mile in Native Shoes
Updated: May 11
There’s an old Native American proverb, said to be Cheyenne: “Do not judge others until you walk in their moccasins.” It’s a wise saying. And it says something about Native American culture and the importance of moccasins, which enabled Indians to tread on all sorts of rough terrain—mountains, deserts, swamps, woodlands, rocks, across rivers, through snows, across Plains and high country to hunt, fish, live, and, sometimes, make war.
Moccasins were the traditional footwear of indigenous peoples of North America and were adopted as the footwear of early fur traders, mountain men, hunters, traders, and European settlers. They are practical, made from the hides of animals hunted in the wilderness, tanned, dyed, decorated with beads, sinew, porcupine quills, or other animal parts, and sewn with sinew and bone needles.
Within tribes and villages, various moccasin designs were made and worn. Trade and interaction between tribes heavily influenced construction and design and the makers of moccasins—usually women—were extremely innovative in experimenting with different construction and design. Moccasins were designed with specific use and the seasons in mind. Summer moccasins were often soft-soled with the leather tanned on both sides and fit snugly on the foot, whereas those for winter were looser, made of hide from deer, antelope or buffalo, with the hair left on in the inside for warmth. (Socks were sometimes knitted or crocheted of plant or animal fiber for extra warmth.)
Footwear came in various types from sandals for hot weather, to basic hide moccasins, to boots that were cuffed or extended to the ankle, calf, knee or thigh. Not all footwear was made of hide. Some tribes made moccasins or boots from hemp or grasses knitted or braided together to from a bootie. (Figure #10 shows the many types of construction of moccasins and boots of various tribes across the continent.) Deer and moose buckskin were often used for pliability, with buffalo hide used for the soles, because it was especially thick and tough. Hides were often tanned with animal brains and smoked to cure the leather and make it soft enough to form for a moccasin.
Then patterns were cut out of the hide. There were many basic pattern designs for moccasins, from very simple squarish “swamp” moccasins of Southeast tribes, to simple one-piece moccasins sewn along the bottom soles. There were also quite complicated patterns with multiple pieces to create cuffs, tongues, and “vamps” (the top part of the moccasin covering the foot).
Hides were often dyed using vegetable or mineral colorants. Sinew and bone needles were used to sew the leather together. Previous to trade with whites, moccasins were decorated with materials from nature: porcupine quills, horsehair, seeds, nuts, pebbles, or carved horn or bone beads, often painted or dyed bright colors. Shells, claws, fangs, dew claws, and feathers were also used as adornment. Embroidered patterns using dyed horsehair was common. When trade with whites became more and more prominent, new materials were introduced to moccasin making, especially beads and glass, wool, silk, tin cones, ribbons, and trade cloth with magnificent effect.
Symbols and patterns were very important in moccasin decoration. Triangles often represented teepees and home. Lines represented trails or paths. A series of marks across a solid field indicated buffalo tracks. The cross design was the sign of the Morning Star, that called upon ancestors and past spirits and sometimes guidance. The Thunderbird, an eagle-like bird with zig-zag lines represented power and protection. Stacked triangles meant good crops or abundance. Windmill designs represented blossoms and new growth. A cross emanating from a circle was indicative of happiness.
Zoomorphic designs of horses, wolves, elk, bear, or other admired animals graced some footwear. Symbols might represent the wearer’s name or spirit animal. Symbols were often used on moccasins for specific use or situations. Moccasins worn in battle might have a horse representing swiftness, a shield for protection, a mighty animal for bravery, lightning, wind, or snakes to draw power from nature and life. Moccasins worn by shamans sometimes bore symbols of spiritual power such as the sun, stars, moon, spirit animals, circles of life.
Wedding moccasins might bear flowers, delicate and elaborate ornamentation, representation of the woman’s name. Some tribes, like the Nez Perce and Crow, were known for their exquisite floral designs. But trade and interaction between the tribes heavily influenced clothing and moccasin design and by the late 1800s, there was a healthy cross-pollination of design motifs in tribal design.
Moccasins are still made today and all the attendant skills of dyeing hide, beading, quilling, needlecraft, and patternmaking for moccasin construction are still practiced by indigenous people, especially for powwow regalia. In fact, the resurging modern appreciation of Native cultures and their ingenious use of natural materials in arts and crafts is fostering a huge market for nor only vintage moccasins, but new moccasin designs as well.
The great Suquamish leader, Chief Seattle famously said, “Take only memories, leave only footprints.” The beautiful art of making moccasins completely from the raw fruits of the earth has left footprints and memories of Native Americans across the continent. And that legacy is still making tracks.
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER