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Beads for the Sole

by James Nottage | Jun 14, 2012
Are you aware that there are Plains moccasins that have fully beaded soles? It was more than a few decades ago when during my childhood I was told that these were "burial moccasins."  The truth is that this is a myth. One historian tells us that these were first observed in the 1870s on the bodies of Sioux found in burials after battles.  As a result the myth grew.  There is truth that it was common to dress the deceased in the finest way possible.  For a long time, we have known that these moccasins were not identified by the cultures themselves as having been made for burial purposes. The cost of materials, the effort to create and the status that came from such fine belongings was a matter more of stature and material wealth.  Within a burial they were also a sign of respect.

It has been demonstrated that these moccasins had no special religious or spiritual meaning. Certainly, the fact that there are so many extant examples strongly suggests that the decoration of the soles was for the living, and not the special accompaniment for souls. Let us take a look at a couple of examples from the collection that help to counter the idea that these were for burial.  

Cheyenne moccasins worn by a young girl, 1930s-40sThe child's moccasins illustrated here were worn by a Cheyenne girl, perhaps eight to ten years of age.  We do not know much about her, but they date from the 1930s or 1940s and the brooch with the portrait of a young woman has been interpreted as the owner a little later in life.  It could be that this person was the mother and she lovingly made the moccasins for the child. There is no reason to doubt that the original wearer lived much longer and clearly they show few signs of wear, a sign that they were outgrown quickly. 

One of the primary reasons why some people accept the idea of fully beaded moccasins as "burial" items is that in European cultures is difficult to contemplate the idea that someone would actually wear or walk on the beaded surface.  Someone has contended, as recorded by historian James Hansen, that "the beads were an offering of beauty to the ground, the bosom of Mother Earth."  I agree with Hansen.  This is romantic nonsense.  Note also that similar moccasins were decorated not just with beads, but also with dyed porcupine quills as well.  

Lakota moccasins, about 1910 Note heavy wear evident in the loss of beads and the worn texture of the leatherThe second pair of moccasins featured here give eloquent testimony that they were worn.  Dating from about 1910, these Lakota moccasins are handsomely adorned with white, blue, yellow, and two tones of green glass beads.  Missing beads and wear to the leather at the balls of the feet and around the toes is evidence that the wearer was accustomed to walking not with the heel first, but with the ball of the foot first.  These belonged to a Lakota man who walked with pride, wearing beautifully decorated moccasins that are an expression of a thoughtful maker and of the owner's sense of self and his stature.


Perhaps the point is that the best examples of fully beaded Plains moccasins were generally created with great care and attention to the details of design, pattern, and color.  They are not as uncommon as you might expect, but they are worthy of our attention.  If they show wear, we can contemplate how they were used. We can consider them as expressions of pride and stature. We can appreciate them as representations of fine Plains bead work that flourished at a time when the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho and others were undergoing extreme cultural stress.  At the same time they testify to cultural survival, not internment.

So, when you see a pair of these moccasins, imagine a Lakota man dressed in his finest shirt with accompanying feathered headdress, leggings and other accessories.  Picture him seated on a spirited horse and on his feet are colorful, beaded moccasins.  As horse and rider move there is a symphony of color and shape and attitude that is all expressive of who the rider is and of his station in life.  And yes, you can see flashes of color from the soles of his beaded footwear. Oh, and by the way, there are examples of beaded moccasins made for and worn by horses that also have beaded bottoms.

3 Comments

  1. 3 James Nottage VP and Chief Curator 16 Aug
    Dear Allen Blume:  Thanks much for your thoughtful comment.  I just now found it and want to respond. Your thoughts are interesting. The height of the examples relates to tribal style, not issues of greater warmth.  For casual wear at home, finer and more embellished items would not be commonly worn.  These are clearly more for dress up purposes and there are period photographs of them being worn at social gatherings. It would be during periods of inactivity that such work would be done, not out of boredom, but out of opportunity to create special things for family, for sale, and for trade.
  2. 2 Sandro 25 Jul
    Hi Kristin-I got your package today. Thank you so much! I love the yarn for the shawl it's going to be so nice to knit! and the chleaootcs . and I LOVE the hand cream and soaps they smell wonderful. And the calendar will come in handy too. I'm so sorry to hear about your kitty. My kitty has been my best buddy for 16 years now. Thanks again.
  3. 1 Allen D. Blume 14 Jun
    Given that Native American peoples are pragmatic but also adaptive to other cultures, what's the possibility that these are only 'slippers' for wear 'at home?'  Both examples look to rise up on the wearer's ankles to be tied off and secured, perhaps providing additional warmth in cold weather.  The man's version shows only the localized wear, but if they'd been used as part of his formal regalia, especially if he were mounted, shouldn't they show some further wear on the heels or sides?   Couldn't these as easily be items carefully crafted, on the reservation, during extended periods of inactivity (i.e., Winter, or to stave off boredom because the maker was no longer engaged in other hunting or gathering activity)?

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