Most of us are acquainted with moccasins: think of kids’ Halloween costumes or old movies; “driving mocs” for the car; high-tech mocs for rock climbing. The eye-opening exhibit “Stepping Out: 10,000 Years of Walking the West,” at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe through December 31, 2018, tells a much bigger story, that dramatically shifts how to see and appreciate traditional handmade Native American footwear. Gorgeous examples, helped by the museum’s especially strong American Southwest and Plains holdings, look as bright and as prepossessing as the day they were made. Excellent wall texts, three full outfits and three videos that demonstrate construction and beading techniques and discuss heritage and innovation, combine to explain the depths of meanings and identity associated with moccasins. Displayed in four regional groups corresponding to historic tribal homelands, they represent millennia of artistry, design and complex cultural significance. “Stepping Out” offers a rich and satisfying understanding of their role in the lives of indigenous people, past and present.
A chronological arrangement begins with prehistoric sandals made of yucca leaves and fibers, and sweeps around the gallery to today. The dry climate of the American Southwest preserved the three-thousand-year-old sandals found in rock shelters far and wide. In a video, archaeologist Mary Weahkee (Comanche/Santa Clara) makes a Mogollon-style pair of yucca sandals, which are surprisingly tough and sturdy. Although simple at first glance, sandals served as exposés. Just like moccasins, they were intended to announce as much about the wearer as about their world. Made by myriad different finger-weave techniques of plaiting, twining or wrapping, some had tiny painted decorative details; in one unworn example, an impossibly intricate raised pattern covers the soles. They all testify to identity and belonging. If you saw a sandal’s imprint in the dust, you not only knew someone had passed by, but you also knew their culture. Whether friend or foe, they also told you whose territory you were in—virtually a GPS system for navigating.
Sandals disappeared in the Southwest around seven hundred years ago, and moccasins appeared. Then as now, moccasins are built of brain-tanned deer, buffalo, elk or moose hides, with thicker rawhide soles, depending on the tribe. Men’s moccasins are usually around ankle height, while women’s rise to the knee. Tall women’s moccasins from Taos Pueblo look almost demure: plain leather falls in soft folds, covered in matte white kaolin clay and fastened with a single concha-style button. In the old days moccasins were sewn by a relative or close friend, and given as a gift; everything anyone wore was acquired one piece at a time. A more recent trend toward designing and making everything as a set at once is seen in a magnificent full outfit made by Jerry Ingram (Blackfeet) around 1991-92, using brain-tanned, smoked elk and deerskin lavishly decorated with porcupine quills, glass beads, feathers, ermine skins, and sinew.
Once European traders arrived with glass beads, the distinctiveness of many tribes’ moccasins grew even more pronounced. Moccasins can be dated by their beads, because the cut, size and colors available changed over time. A mounted board shows the range of bead sizes, starting with miniscule #15 seed beads seen in Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho moccasins. Northwest tribes fell for extravagant beaded florals, like the famous “Shoshone rose,” of which there are several different ones on view. Big, exuberant blossoms could not be sewn using the common lane or hump stitch, in which short lengths of beads are laid down side-by-side to create a solid surface. Instead, as renowned beadwork artist Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) shows in a nearby video, the two-needle stitch technique was invented to tack down beads in curves. One of the stellar accomplishments of the exhibit is how it helps distinguish between, say, Sioux and Blackfeet—in the designs, the materials and in how they were built. Others are more recognizable: White Mountain Apache moccasins feature a stubby, fuzzy “cactus-kicker” toe; the Shawnee, Kiowa and Comanche favored embellishments of rows of tin cones, or lush heel and side fringes, which happen to cascade gracefully riding on horseback (and made a nice status symbol, too, letting everyone know you owned horses).
A properly made moccasin had the patterns and colors signifying the tribe. Bead workers carried over much older geometric, abstract designs that symbolized sacred landscape elements, or important animals, or reminded the wearer of the shared stories and beliefs of the tribe. Among the Plains tribes, beadwork was mixed with quillwork, made from flattened, dyed and sewn porcupine quills, which continued in use for a long time. In a pair of circa 1910 Sioux moccasins, branching, narrow-leaf shapes in quillwork meander across a red field on the vamps (tops). But the wearer, looking down, sees the ears and antlers of a deer’s head: the connotations were personal and spiritual. In the later nineteenth century, when tribes were forced together onto reservations, there was much swapping of designs and techniques, like in the circa 1870-1880s moccasins joining Hidatsa and Cree elements. At dance competitions today at inter-tribal pow-wows, hand-beaded regalia often looks like a mashup of designs from several tribes, prized for its showy elaborateness as much as for the fine quality of the work.
Modesty was not an issue out on the Plains. Possibly the moccasins of the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho are the most flamboyant in the exhibit. Certainly showstoppers, they are absolutely blazing with bold colors and exquisitely beaded designs. A side text happily blows up a popular myth about fully beaded soles, shown in a handsome pair of Sioux moccasins with two neat rows of yellow hoof prints crossing the bottoms. They were never intended only for burials, as is commonly thought: beaded-sole moccasins were conduits of honor and respect. Old photographs display them worn on horseback for ceremonials, and now they are essential for a celebration or special event.
Moccasins are vital to Native American life. In 2012, Jessica “Jaylyn” Atsye of Laguna Pueblo launched “Rock Your Mocs” day as a way of affirming Native identity. Held the week of November 15, it has grown into a movement across the country (see facebook.com/RockYourMocs). Following in the steps of all Native footwear, where you use whatever materials you have available, some contemporary Native artists have brilliantly integrated mainstream cultural artifacts with beadwork traditions. A pair of Steve Madden high-heel sneakers stands in mid-stride near a child’s high-tops, both fully beaded by Teri Greeves. She explains in an accompanying video that sneakers are “familiar across the planet,” and perfect for telling the story of the Kiowa. Christian Louboutin stiletto heels beaded by Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Sioux) look ravishing and recognizably Native. Native Americans are finding more ways to say who they are. “Stepping Out” jubilantly declares, in the words of the Navajo prayer: “In beauty all day I walk.”
Leslie Clark, a writer and editor with a mad affinity for textiles, is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was captivated by the exhibition of Native American moccasins at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, not least because of its presentation. “Curator Maxine McBrinn draws you in with stories and commentary that bring alive the personal meanings of moccasins. Tribal cultures and traditions are not trapped in the past; instead the lore and legacy of moccasins seem to make them walk beside us now. Showing through December 2018, it’s a do-not-miss exhibit.”