Monday, November 22, 2010

Focus on Folkways: Walk a Mile...

The footwear of Native Americans is called by many names: alasulo, mo'keha, sta tiku'ukye- but it's a variation of an Algonquin word that has become the iconic catch-all term: makasin- or moccasin.

Seminole moccasins, courtesy of the Penn Museum

Of course, in the modern mindset moccasins have become another piece of fashion altogether- more of a house slipper or loafer or a bohemian alternative similar to what ballet flats were a few years ago. But these shoes are more than just hipsterwear made of bad-fringed suede- they're works of art. Follow me as I take you on a tour of moccasins from a variety of tribes, because you never quite understand someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. Or at the very least admire the workmanship of them.

Versatile variations
The design of moccasins has a major geographic split that makes it easy to classify (and identify) them. In the more humid eastern side of the United States (using the Mississippi as a rough border), the terrain was more graded to forests, marshes, and meadow, so moccasins had soft soles.

Soft-soled Cree moccasins, note the floral motif.

However, in the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains the ground is much more arid and treacherous. In addition, soft-soles don't offer any support during long days of hard riding the nomadic tribes of the Plains required- so the design shifted to double soled construction made of tougher hide.

Lakota-Sioux hard-soled mocassins.

The "sole" form of identification
Aside from the distinction of sole, the construction and shape of the moccasin varied by region and even tribe. Tribes of the Great Lakes had a seam running down the center of the top, while the Great Plains had separate sole and vamp pieces. In the hardier territory of the Plateau and Rocky Mountains, moccasins sometimes reached the mid-shin whereas along the Atlantic coast they predominately ended at the ankle bone. Southwestern moccasins tended to be taller and be composed of separate back, vamp, and tongue pieces in contrast to some Iroquois tribes who would make theirs out of a single piece of leather, producing a shoe with a somewhat puckered toe.

The pair of makizan I'm making for my Nativepunk are distinctly Potawatomie- with a cuff that flops over the top which provides an ideal place for decoration.

Potawatomi(e)/Bodewadmi moccasins- see what I mean about the flap?

Base materials for moccasins depended on their design. Soft-soles were made of deer, elk, or moose brain-tanned hide typically. Hard-soles required the hard-tanned rawhide of buffalo or moose in order to provide a stout, tough enough leather.

The Art of Detail
Decoration also varied from region and tribe- in addition to occasion. Ceremonial moccasins, such as ones worn by children in the Dakota Sioux hunka ritual, were completely encased in beads (the child would be carried by relatives while in this special attire, as not to disturb the beads on the soles. For an interesting perspective on the hunka, I would recommend the novel Waterlily by Ella Deloria, a Yankton Sioux). This was also done in the case of funerary moccasins... since the dead really had no need to walk in this world.

Ogalala Sioux moccasins- either used in a hunka or funerary ceremony. Look at Idaho Beauty's blog to see more pictures of these gorgeous family heirlooms.

Beading was a universal factor of moccasins, each tribe using what materials were available (before the advent of glass trade beads) to decorate both everyday and ceremonial pairs alike. Coastal peoples used beads made from shells (abalone in the west, wampum in the east). Woodlands and plains people cut the hollow shafts of porcupine quills into beads, in addition to weaving the quills into the hide using a form of embroidery. Stone-drilled beads were more prevalent in the southwest and basin. Bone beads made from a variety of animals (particularly birds) were in widespread usage, as well as elk, deer, and other animal teeth as decorative elements.

While all of this ornate decoration may seem a waste with the active lifestyle of many of these peoples, the vamps and decorative portions of moccasins were often re-used over and over while the worn out soles were replaced.

Moccasins for everyone!
Moccasins proved to be so adaptable and convenient that many Europeans and frontiersmen exploring the United States adopted the footwear- leading to a popularity that exists to this day (albeit dubious, I'll explain below). So where can you get your own moccasins? There are many options:

- Yeah... Minnetonka moccasins. I'm not really going to endorse the folks, for obvious reasons- but if you want a pair of moccasins to wear for day-to-day, who am I to judge? (Just avoid the bad generic eagle beadwork.... it's just baaaaaad.)
- Sutlers. That's right! The same folks who vend at reenactor events (Civil War, Revolutionary, French and Indian) also make fairly nice moccasins. Many have websites or mail-order catalogs, but nothing beats going to an event and buying them first-hand. Sometimes if you build up a rapport or are nice they might even cut you a deal. Typically these mocs will be plain, which can let you extend your creative wings (metallic elements or European motifs for an interesting cultural mix. Sewed down wires, maybe?).
-JAS Townsend and Sons, a Revolutionary War sutler with an AWESOME online store, sells a kit for Eastern Woodlands mocs for $50.
- Better yet, buy a pair straight from a native artist, such as Cherokee moc-maker Martha Berry. Not only will you get a piece of art to treasure and sport, but you'll also be supporting a craftsman. Sometimes you'll find moccasin vendors at powwows as well- which I highly recommend. Go and soak up the culture!

-Or... if you're a weirdo like me (who's also strapped for cash), you can make your own moccasins. NativeTech has a plethora of free patterns that you could use to make your own, in addition to resources on materials and construction methods.

-For those interested in the different regional styles of moccasins, there's also this helpful map which shows the various construction types:

Before we depart, dear travelers- here's a bit of inspiration:

Blackfoot "high-top" mocs- c. 1900

Penobscot moccasins
Quill-worked mocs from the Great Basin
Tall Apache moccasins
 Sioux moccasins- 1880s, Morning Star Gallery  


  1. Can't wait to see your Nativepunk outfit! Thanks for the pointer to the JAS Townsend and Sons store; I found a really awesome toy set for my nephew!

  2. Hea nice blog site. Keep up the great work.

  3. Your would more aptly be titled cultural appropriation for steampunk. If you are unsure what I mean by this you can see the site