“Hiding in a copse, the lad held his breath as a half-dozen warriors dashed past. He dare not move, seeing only their feet. Uh-oh! Not moccasins like the friendly Wyandottes wore! Enemies!”
Two weeks later, in another book, “Hanta Yo, ”I read about an adept tracker from a Great Plains tribe who could study a footprint and identify the tribe based on stitching or heel fringes that left a distinctive mark.
These episodes from separate books jolted me to look DOWN to appreciate what was on people’s feet. I’d been trained to look UP — at people’s hair, their faces, their clothing. You too?
Wow! I never realized that tribes could be identified by their moccasins. It opened up a wealth of information that hadn’t occurred to me. (Nor did it occur to my character Andre in Books 1 and 2. In Book 3 he’ll have to pay attention. Hmmm. Recalculating … recalculating…)
Check this out!!
I discovered this map, available on Native Tech (and several other websites) showing how moccasins varied across American tribes. (To see actual photos of moccasins from those areas, click on this Native Tech link and then on a red dot. The website even has patterns for cutting and sewing moccasins!)
A history of moccasins (thanks to Native Tech)
The word “moccasin” — or mocussinass or mockussinchass — originated with eastern North American tribes, meaning “a shoe with a puckered toe” (that U-shaped vamp over the instep). In fact, the word for the Ojibwe tribe might mean “people of the puckered moccasin” (there are other options).
- Moccasins might be made from deerskin, moosehide or buffalo. While deerskin was not as long-lasting, tribes might not have lived near moose or buffalo to be able to use them or trade for them. With beads from the fur traders, moccasins became elaborate.
- Moccasins include soft- and hard-soled footwear, with or without puckered toes. Designs were specific to an environment. Soft-soled moccasins were worn in eastern forests, and leaf- and pine-needle-covered ground.
- Higher sides could protect ankles from sharp grasses, insects and deep snow.
- Hard-soled moccasins were more common in western plains and deserts areas where they helped protect feet from harsh cactus, prairie-grass covered ground and sharp rocks that weren’t worn down by water.
- The Apache style of turned-up toes o prevented sharp objects from getting into the seams and injuring the foot.
- Beadwork reflected the tribe and its environs. Woodland tribes often adorned their moccasins with flower and plant designs while plains tribes preferred geometric patterns.
Over the years, I’ve acquired a few pairs of hand-made moccasins.
The fancy ones, made of moosehide, came from the Hudson’s Bay Company Store in Winnipeg. Besides the rabbit fur cuffs, I love the beautiful woodland beading on a blue wool background. The upper piece has a line of extra moosehide piping. Inside, they’re lined with sheepskin. On the sole, an “8” is written in pen (size 8?). Ojibwe-made, perhaps. What a luxurious pair for winter!
Another pair is definitely Ojibwe-made of smoke-tanned deerskin, with green and orange beading in a woodland design and decorative red stitching around the toe. The sole is thicker than the collar. Tiny hand stitches attach ties to the collar — (Oops! I tugged too hard and lost a tie). Inside, the upper is lined with a sturdy fabric, anchoring the beadwork. On the sole, it says “8 1/2” but they barely measure 8 inches. The price tag lists them as $15.00, two days’ wages for me when I bought them! I have another pair — somewhere.
Mom’s Minnetonka Moccasins — now mine — are machine-made, with a red and black beaded thunderbird and a cute fringe and tie on the vamp. That thick composite sole is sturdy enough to wear on sidewalks and paved surfaces without fear of destroying them — I could easily walk a mile in these moccasins. Even the cord stitching hasn’t needed replacing. This modern style is just fun to wear. And Minnetonka mocs are widely available.
And do you know about Manitobah Mukluks? It’s a Canadian company of Native artisans who also craft moccasins, mittens, gloves and bags. Take a look at their stylish designs. I am lusting after a pair.
Back to Andre
Instead of boots or shoes, French-Canadian voyageurs usually wore moccasins. Why?
- Safer for birch bark canoes than hard-soled shoes,
- easier to repair or replace,
- lighter, faster drying,
- beadwork added a colorful style instead of more boring footwear—and these guys liked style.
- The only negative is that on a portage they didn’t protect toes against rocks, roots and mud holes (Pretty Mouse’s got sucked off on a muddy portage!)
- Various tribes brought moccasins to the annual rendezvous to supply the winterers — in Book 1, Andre wanted to purchase an ornately beaded pair for his foster-mother, Berthe.
It’s fun to learn about the different styles and why they were used. I’ve decided that in Book 3. the moccasins of a tribesman will create some anxiety. No, I won’t tell you — you’ll have to wait.
- Read novels about the fur trade in “Waters Like the Sky” and “Treacherous Waters.” Or buy an ebook.
- Request to be on the waiting list for Book 3.
- Ask a question—I’ll research the answers for a future post.
- Subscribe to this blog and read posts as soon as they go online!
- For current—and quirky—insights, visit me on Facebook. Share them as well.
- Book me as a speaker.
- Ask your library, local school, gift shop to buy copies of “Waters Like the Sky” or “Treacherous Waters.”
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