Construction techniques of Indian moccasins fell into a few basic categories, but the designs used to embellish the moccasins differed in nearly every tribe. There were even subtle diffences from family to family, clan to clan within the tribal affiliation. People could tell a great deal about one another simply from the design of their shoes. Besides the Ojibwa/Chippewa, the Blackfoot Nation was identified by the style and decoration on their footwear.
The Eastern Woodland Indian moccasins were often made with a single piece of hide sewn together with a center seam and puckered toe. If the moccasins were to be used on a daily basis they were often left unembellished like the pair on the right, but decorated if they were used on special occasions.
The one piece style was common in the boreal forests of North America from the Carolinas to the lands above the Great Lakes. But the Algonquin and Cree speaking tribes in the northern part of the Woodland territory used a two piece pattern that included an apron or vamp inserted at the top of the foot in place of the puckered seam. For both styles, collars and cuffs were either attached separately or included as part of the cutting pattern. The latter style of Indian moccasin is what has commonly been adapted by contemporary manufacturers who are happy to sell you their supposedly "authentic, handmade Indian moccasins" at a great price.
Here is a fine example of a classic puckered toe moccasin constructed from a single piece of hide with a straight back and a centre seam. You can often recognize whether or not the cuff is cut as part of the moccasin or whether it was cut separately by looking at the back view. If it was a single piece of hide, the cuff is split at the back.
These Indian moccasins were made in the area of the Great Lakes somewhere between 1780 and 1790 by a woman who used one piece of skin to form the shoe, cutting the patterns so that the extensons formed a collar. Although they referred to themselves as Anishnabeg, the contemporary name ,Ojibwa, means puckered toe.
Both the central seam and collar edge have fine porcupine quillwork in an orange, white, and black cross pattern. Dyed moosehair hangs from tin cones around the rim of the collar. The dye used could have been made from the roots of the blood root plant (saguinaria canadensis), but choke cherry or sumac berries, the inner bark of hemlock or tamarack bark can also produce a shade of red.
There are also traces of red ochre on the shoes which indicates that they were used at ceremonial gatherings by a man because women didn't use the ochre.
Although technically there can often be more than two pieces of hide used to make this style of moccasin, the term refers to a style which includes a vamp or apron inserted at the top of the foot where the one piece style has a puckered seam.
This pair of Cree moccasins was made around the Red River area somewhere between 1800 and 1815 and is on display in the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.
The quill work was woven separately on a loom and then applied to each apron and sewn to the collars. The patterns are geometric in the shape of triangles, stars, chevrons and thunderbirds. Although porcupine quills were often used as decorations other bird quills were also harvested because they could produce finer work. For example, three bands of bird quill piping decorate the joint between the apron and bottom pieces on these moose hide moccasins.
The early Plains Tribes made soft soled moccasins from a single piece of hide that was folded over and sewn together at the side. The three divisions of the Blackfoot people - the Kainai, the Peigan and the Siksika- called their soft-soled footwear niit-tsi-tsi-kiin which roughly translates as 'the true shoe'. A representational mountain design was one of the earliest used. Other designs included squares, diamonds, bars, slotted bars and stripes. When beads became available and popular the designs imitated the earlier quillwork patterns. Today the Blackfooot people refer to the old designs as maah-toohn-moowa-ka-na-skisin or first designs.
Two piece moccasins with stiff rawhide soles and soft uppers were a later introduction to the northern Plains and eventually supplanted the soft sole moccasin in popularity. Notice that the sole roles up around edges for protection.
Before the introduction of seed beads, dyed porcupine quills were used for decoration. Seedbeads came to the forefront between 1840 and 1870 but for awhile both products were used for embellishment. Quillwork in combination with glass seed beads were used on the soles of these moccasins which would probably have been worn on ceremonial occasions that required the wearer to sit for long periods of time. Folks sitting across the fire at a pipe or bundle ceremony could admire the soles and reflect on the staure of the wearer. Moccasins with beaded soles were also sometimes known as burial shoes.
One of the earliest quill designs used was "miista-tsoka-tuksiin," or mountain design. Other designs included squares, diamonds, bars, slotted bars and stripes. The early quillwork patterns were adapted and showed up in beadwork when glass seed beads became available. Today such designs are called "maah-toohm-moowa-ka-na-sksin," or first designs.
Seed beads allowed for changes in technique and in the use of colour, which allowed the beadworker to produce more intricate forms. Designs were influenced by European motifs and floral patterns became common. These patterns were done in a bilaterally symmetrcal form and used geometric designs to depict non-realistic flowers.
When heavy melton cloth was made available by the traders native people began incorporating it into their moccasin designs.
The high cuffed moccasins on the right above were collected from Chief Crowfoot (Siksika ) in the late 1880's. The high cuff was common in earlier times and was only replaced by the modern day low cuff when other technologies made it easier to protect feet and ankles from sharp brush and/or the elements.
Two methods of beadwork were the spot stitch or appliqué and lone stitch or lazy stitch.