Virkinee Eloisa Hanessian, a senior at the University of Arizona majoring is Art History, shares her thoughts on Native American shoes that are included in the Through the Eyes of the Eagle exhibit as an illustration of physical activity. This semester she interned in ASM’s education department and helped with installation prep work for the Through the Eyes of the Eagle and in presenting school and public programs related to the exhibit. Originally from Nogales, AZ, she hopes to work in a museum one day.
On entering the Through the Eyes of the Eagle exhibit, the shoes are one of the first things you notice. Showcased are 18 shoes, spanning 1,400 years. When I spoke to Andrew Higgins, who is the curatorial specialist at the museum who curated this case, he stated, “Native American shoes inspired many of the shoe styles of today.” One style that has stood the test of time is the moccasin.
Moccasin decorations have changed somewhat over time. Up until the late 1800s, porcupine quills were a popular way for Lakota Sioux artists to put designs on their moccasins. They softened the quills, flattened and dyed them before sewing with them. The pair of Lakota shoes on display incorporate a mixture of porcupine quills and beads. The quills were dyed red by using plants or minerals, and starting in the 1860s they may have used commercial dyes.
By the 1800s, European glass beads became more readily available via Anglo traders. The beads were much easier then quills to work with and became a popular way for Plains Indian craftswomen to decorate moccasins. Pony beads in limited colors were the first to become available, followed by seed beads, which were much smaller and came in an assortment of colors. On display are a pair of moccasins that are completely covered by beads forming Cheyenne designs. While beautiful, these moccasins were meant for wearing. You can tell this because the bottoms are made from rawhide that makes them stiff and will protect your feet on rocky terrain.
The beaded designs on historical moccasins might have served as inspiration for the contemporary Kiowa/Comanche artist Terri Greeves. She uses Converse high top sneakers as her canvas for beading. Like the older shoes, the Greeves pair on display is completely covered in sparkling red beads and sport 19th-century-Plains-Indian-pictorial imagery. But in contrast to the historic shoes, the Greeves sneakers are not for wearing, but rather for display as an art object. This pair is on loan from the Heard Museum collection.
Shoes can tell you much about the culture that they are from. While designed to be functional, they can be quite beautiful as well. Styles from the past have evolved into the shoes of today, and many contemporary designers and artists find inspiration in cultural designs of the past. The diverse shoes on exhibit are well worth viewing. They span from 600 A.D. to the present, and include woven sandals, mukluks, moccasins and sneakers. If you learn to examine them, the shoes will give you clues into Native life and culture.
You may even become so inspired you want to try your own hand at decorating the types of shoes you use. Skateboard artist Doug Miles (San Carlos Apache) created the design on the iPath skate shoes on display. If you’re inspired, stop at the activity table and try drawing your own design for a high top sneaker or low ride skateboarding shoe. Who knows, perhaps one day your shoe may be on exhibit too!
Photographs: Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne beaded moccasins copyright Arizona State Museum; Terri Greeves shoes copyright Heard Museum