To walk a mile in these moccasins would be to carry the designs and vibrant colors of more than a dozen tribes.
“The Path to Beauty: The Art of Plains Indian Moccasins” opening on Tuesday, Aug. 16, showcases about 40 moccasins embellished with the historic beadwork of female artists during the late 19th century. The exhibition/sale is part of the Objects of Art Santa Fe and Antique American Indian Art Show at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe. The show runs through Aug. 19.
“No two pairs of moccasins are alike,” said Tom Cleary, director of H. Malcolm Grimmer, collectors and appraisers of antique American Indian art.
Some tribes preferred palettes of blues and greens, while others favored white backgrounds with red and blue imagery. Beading served as a kind of tribal and familial signature, as well as a practical way to hide seams. The beads ranged from the early, larger “pony beads” to the fine seed beads of Venetian masters.
Some artists embellished more than the tops and sides of their footwear. A pair of Assiniboine (Montana) moccasins, circa 1880, features extensive beadwork across the sole, including a cross.
“They were for formal occasions,” Cleary said. “Obviously, that’s not practical.
“In a way, it was a status thing,” he continued. Flamboyant colors and designs “became a sort of keeping-up-with-the Joneses kind of thing.
“Principally, the artists were women. If they made a very beautiful pair, odds are they were well-looked after.”
Kiowa (Oklahoma/Texas) bead artists patented certain colors and extravagant designs to indicate family relationships, particularly crimsons and blues, he said.
“They were really into fringe,” he added.
The Cheyenne drew up strict rules for potential bead artists.
“They had societies,” Cleary said. “To be accepted, you had to know your stuff.”
The oldest pair, from Colorado’s Southern Arapaho, dates to 1850. Its sparse decoration signals its creation before the reservation period, Cleary said. The beadworker also used the larger-sized pony beads, producing a nubbier texture.
The southern Plains tribes preferred solid-bottom moccasins using rawhide as the base. Artists used hide from whatever animal was available, usually buffalo.
A pair of Iowa (Nebraska/Kansas) prairie-style moccasins swirls with floral designs, most likely borrowed from Anglo Christian vestments, Cleary said.
Before beadwork, these artists painted or inlaid porcupine quills as embellishment.
“These beads are colorful and they’re robust,” Cleary said. “They’ll survive being tossed on horseback.”
Beadwork thrived during the reservation period from the 1880s through the 1920s.
“They’re no longer hunting buffalo; they’re sequestered,” Cleary explained. “You have a lot of female artists with time on their hands. You demonstrate your family’s social prowess with beadwork.”