Light, flexible and strong, moccasins are practical all-weather footwear. They are also beautiful, and the design of each pair is unique. 

Child's Moccasins, Western Sioux (Teton). Indigenous to North America, moccasins are made from tanned deer, elk, moose or buffalo leather and sewn with sinew. They are traditionally decorated with dyed, flattened porcupine quills- a technique hundreds of years old. Newer moccasins are often elaborately decorated with glass beads brought from Venice in the mid-1800's. Moccasins were so ideally suited to the landscape of Western America that the mountain men, trappers and explorers of the 1800's wore them. The moccasins in the collection of the Wyoming State Museum reflect the trade between these European descendants and the Native Americans, and the mixing of regional patterns by individual artists. Moccasins are still made today, and are an essential component of modern powwow regalia. In this exhibit, we will look at how moccasins are made, how they are decorated, and how they have changed over time.

Front-seam moccasins have soft soles and the leather is folded so the seam runs up the center of the foot.

Possibly Ojibwa
Center-seam construction is typical of the Eastern Plains and in the Ohio River Valley.

Side-seam moccasins are made of a one piece vamp folded and sewn to the sole.

Side seam moccasins are often worn on the Northern Plains.

During the reservation period, painted parfleche (rawhide) bags were used to make hard soles for moccasins.

The stationary life of the reservation did not require the travel bags that nomadic life did, so this tough material was recycled.

Here we see the parfletche paint inside the shoe. Hard soles were designed for the rocky ground of the Western plains, as opposed to the soft soles used on the leaf-covered ground in the East.

Cuffs were often added to moccasins.They could be turned up and tied around the ankle with a leather thong in bad weather.

These moccasins are decorated with quillwork.

Quillwork uses porkupine quills to create designs on leather. The dyed quills are usually wrapped around rows of thread stitched to the leather.

These lines were often used to represent trails or paths.

In the early 1880's, women of the Teton, Assiniboin, and Cheyenne tribes began to produce moccasins with fully beaded soles.

Possibly Blackfoot
While some people were buried in them, they were not specifically "burial moccasins." and were considered status symbols worn on special occasions.

Beads were often applied with a "lazy stitch" where a string of beads is threaded, then attached to the leather by a stitch every 8-10 beads.

Beadwork was usually done before the moccasin was assembled. Bead designs are known by numerous names and vary by tribe and individual.

Some designs are named after animals or plants, but are not actually representations of those things.

Two-color diamond shapes are also called "whirlwind" or "Breath of Life" designs.

Diagonal checkerboard patterns, usually in three or more colors, are called a "twisted" design.

Although floral patterns are often associated with tribes from the Eastern United States, the Shoshone tribe of Wyoming is famous for their "Shoshone Rose" design.

This pattern of squares and rectangles has been called the "tripe" design.

Moccasins with "step triangle" design. This pattern is also known as the "mountain," "hill," or "cut-out design.

Oglalla Sioux
Triangles can represent numerous things such as arrow points or vertebrae.

Triangles with a rectangle inside them represent a tipi and its door.

The blue design at the top of the feet is called a "space" or "part-between" design, referred to as "buffalo tracks" by non-Indians for its resemblance to the print left by bison hooves.

"One could tell the tribe of the wearer by his footprints."
Man's moccasins, possibly Shoshone. Native Americans could often tell which tribe a person belonged to simply by looking at their moccasins because of variations that existed from region to region and tribe to tribe. In time, inter-tribal marriage led to a blending of styles and outside influences changed designs over the years. A pair of moccasins made today might reference traditional patterns, or not.  As functioning artwork, each pair is a reflection of history but ultimately and expression of the individual maker. Nowhere is this fact more evident that in the Wyoming State Museum's collection of over 100 pairs of moccasins, no two of which are alike. 
Credits: Story

Organized by the Wyoming State Museum


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Evans, C. Scott & Reddick, J. Rex. The Modern Fancy Dancer. Pottsboro: Crazy Crow Trading Post, 1998.

Horse Capture, Joseph D. & Horse Capture, George P. Beauty, Honor, and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Orchard, William C. Native American Beadwork New York: Museum of the American Indian, 1975.

Orchard, William C. The Technique of Porcupine-Quill Decoration Among The North American Indians. New York: The Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation, 1916.

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