What is it?
Originally worn on the feet, these moccasins were made by a Sioux artist utilizing animal skin and beadwork. This pair came to Denver Art Museum in 1998.
What inspired it?
Moccasin History & Use: Originally crafted out of practical necessity to protect the feet from harsh terrains and climates, this early footwear was created from the materials readily available, mainly animal hide and natural decoration. Although "moccasin" has come to be a widely used term for the form, regardless of tribe or creator, the term originated from the Algonquian Tribe’s language and each tribe has their own word, in their own language, for them. Today, moccasins are a big part of a dancer’s regalia for Powwow.
Design: Different styles and designs of everyday moccasins are inspired by, and created in relation to, the environment(s) that a particular tribe experiences. For example, tribes from the Woodland areas, including the North Eastern part of the US and into Canada (like the Ojibwa tribe), can be identified by their soft-soled moccasins and their use of floral elements located on the top, or vamp, and/or cuffs of the moccasin. In contrast, Plains tribes' (like Crow and Sioux) moccasins are known to have the top, or vamp (usually excluding cuffs), entirely covered in glass beads or porcupine quills, and made with hard soles that withstand rough terrain. This hard-sole style, however, only dates back to the mid-nineteenth century.
How is it made?
Moccasin Assembly: Moccasins are commonly made using hides of different animals; the larger the animal, the thicker and more sturdy the hide. In order to create a polished look, the moccasin is sewn inside out, historically using sinew (pronounced sin-yoo; tendon or ligament) as thread. The sinew is threaded through holes punched by an awl (pronounced all, a pointed tool meant to create holes in leather). The pattern for the moccasin varies according to tribe, region, and stylistic preference. Sometimes, the creator uses recycled hide from other items in the construction of the moccasins. For example, some soles are cut from old painted parfleches made from strong and durable hide.
In order to cover a large area with beads, the lane stitch is used; this process has an initial stitch into the surface, then about 8-10 beads are strung onto the string to create a row, and then is completed by a second stitch into the surface. This approach is best for geometric designs.
Leather can vary greatly in terms of softness and firmness depending on the thickness of the hide or type of animal. Geography and climate influence what thickness of leather is appropriate to use and also informs what type of animal hide would be most useful to achieve a certain thickness. In colder climates, the fur of the animal may be included in the construction of the moccasins with the intention of keeping the feet warm for travel.
Glass beads became available to American Indian tribes through European production and trade. Different techniques of beadwork help to achieve different visual effects. Depending on the tribe and the geography, different shapes and patterns can help to reveal the type of person the moccasins are made for. Each tribe, or groups within a tribe, has their own set of symbols that either hold a deeper meaning or are simply for aesthetic purposes. From one pair of moccasins to another, there is evidence of patterning throughout, whether it’s through beading technique, imagery, or color. Look for the geometrical patterns found on the Sioux and Crow moccasins and the nature-inspired designs on the Ojibwa moccasins.
Through the use of brightly-colored beads, moccasins are able to communicate particular identities. Each tribe often has their own meanings and identity associated with each color.