(Indigenous Peoples Heritage Month)

The Rich And Multilayered Legacy Of Modern-Day Moccasins

The shoe has evolved and endured over thousands of years.

@ manitobah
history of moccasins manitobah mukluks

As a member of the Métis community, Lor Brand doesn’t remember putting on her first pair of moccasins — like most of her family, she was wearing them before she could walk — but she does remember the first time she stitched a pair for herself. The craft is a vital part of Métis culture in Canada, passed down through generations of women in Treaty 1 territory (including Brand’s hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba). The Métis are of mixed Indigenous and European descent, tracing their roots back to the arrival of fur traders in the region, and the moccasins they make and wear reflect this heritage.

“It’s a really powerful thing to be able to create something that your ancestors have been creating for thousands of years,” says Brand, recalling the sense of pride and kinship she felt learning the craft from a group of elders in her community. “Moccasins for me have been a huge connection to who I am.”

Today, Brand works as a marketing coordinator at Manitobah, one of the most successful Indigenous-owned companies in Canada, where she’s seen firsthand the versatility and enduring popularity of the style. This year, the brand opened new stores in Winnepeg, Calgary, and Edmonton, Alberta, and expanded throughout the U.S. thanks to partnerships with Dillard’s, Nordstrom, and Zappos.

In order to understand the ubiquity of today’s moccasin, it’s important to appreciate the shoe’s significant and diverse background. The word “moccasin” originated from the Powhatan Algonquin makasin, meaning “shoe,” and today, it has come to describe a wide range of footwear — hard-soled and soft, puckered around the toe and sewn down the center, ornately beaded and unadorned.

European settlers used the term as a catchall for the sinew-sewn, animal-hide footwear they saw on Native peoples, but the variety of the style reflects its rich history and role in cultures throughout Turtle Island (as many Indigenous people call North America). In truth, moccasins are as diverse as the cultures they came from, says Emil Her Many Horses, a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, and a member of the Oglala Lakota nation of South Dakota.

Eastern Woodlands peoples like the Ojibwe, Haudenosaunee, and Mi’kmaq traditionally wore soft-soled styles suited to the grasslands they traversed, he says, while Plains tribes such as the Lakota and Arapaho (whose territories spanned from parts of modern-day Texas to the Dakotas and into Canada) often attached a rawhide sole for protection against cacti and rough terrain. The former are renowned for their floral designs, while the latter have historically favored geometric motifs. Tribes such as the Comanche, Kiowa, and Southern Cheyenne (also of the Plains) are associated with high-top moccasins (sometimes called leggings) extending up to the knee and beyond, which functioned both as a modesty layer and a safeguard for the legs while riding on horseback.

These styles have evolved over the decades as new materials were introduced and people traded with one another and intermarried, but aspects of this heritage can be seen even in modern moccasin designs.

Looking at the footwear of one tribe to the next reveals their unique traditions and identities, says Her Many Horses. “If you were to line them all up, you'd be able to see subtle differences in the construction of the moccasin.”

The fashion industry has long been enamored with the moccasin, though it has frequently flattened the concept into a generalized “Native-inspired” style and treated the traditional footwear more as a reference point than a contemporary cultural craft.

Over the years, moccasin-inspired shoes have been sent down runways, co-opted by department stores, and mass-produced by fast fashion retailers. Even a millennia worth of history hasn’t prevented the style from being swept up in (and subsequently discarded by) the celebrity trend cycle. The postwar years saw a surge of interest in Native aesthetics as the “cowboy and Indian” genre swept screens big and small and the public became fascinated with the mythology of the American West. Later, hippies adopted fringe, beading, and buckskin footwear as their own.

A 1980 frenzy for all things “fringed and feathered,” per a New York Times trend report, was kickstarted in part by Minnetonka’s debut in France (after French women started buying white beaded mocs en masse, the brand saw a 30% sales boost). In response, Macy’s launched a department called The Trading Post and Saks stocked up on silver and turquoise jewelry. (Bloomingdale’s, meanwhile, suggested completing the look with a dusting of “Indian Earth” bronzing powder.)

Miu Miu Spring/Summer 2004 WWD/Penske Media/Getty Images
Miu Miu Spring/Summer 2004WWD/Penske Media/Getty Images

After Miu Miu opened its spring 2004 show with stitched-leather flats, moccasin mania hit Hollywood. "They feed my Pocahontas fantasy," an Elle editor gushed to the Globe and Mail, though she joked that, a season in, the style was as good as over.

More recently, Converse and Vans have released “Moccasin” high-tops replete with fringe and beads, Free People has carried a bejeweled moc called the “Cherokee,” and Tory Burch has added her signature logo hardware to the top of a fringed suede flat.

No brand, though, has ridden the waves of “Native fashion” trends to such international acclaim as Minnetonka. Over its more than 75-year history, its beaded Thunderbird moccasins and fringed suede boots have been embraced by celebrities, stocked by the biggest retailers, and featured in nearly every fashion magazine. Yet, despite its aesthetics, the brand is neither Indigenous-owned nor -made.

The company was founded in Minnesota in 1946 to supply Native-inspired accessories to the growing network of roadside gift shops around the country, and today it manufactures its shoes in China and the Dominican Republic.

In 2021, CEO David Miller apologized on behalf of the company “for having benefited from selling Native-inspired designs without directly honoring Native culture or communities” and outlined a series of commitments to repair relations and work with more Indigenous artists and businesses. Among these efforts is a beaded moccasin launched last month in collaboration with Red Lake Nation Anishinaabe designer Lucie Skjefte — the company’s first featuring an Indigenous design.

Mainstream interest in moccasins has the potential to be very empowering for the people whose ancestors created the style, Brand says, but not if it’s only non-Indigenous businesses and designers who are profiting. This is especially true considering the recent legacy of discrimination and forced assimilation in both Canada and the U.S., which criminalized many of the aspects of Indigenous culture that have since “inspired” brands with little regard to their history.

“Wearing traditional art and clothing and practicing traditional ceremonies and speaking our language was illegal at one point,” says Brand. “And so it's incredibly powerful for Indigenous people to be making a living and thriving from traditional craft.”

Today, a select few are doing so: Jamie Gentry, Shauna White Bear of White Bear Moccasins, Maria Running Fisher Jones of TPMOCS, and Sam Fleshman-Carlick of Simply Significants all hand-make custom and ready-to-order moccasins with original details like coyote-fur cuffs, iridescent abalone charms, and panels made from recycled wool blankets.

Manitobah, which was founded in 1997 by Métis entrepreneur Sean McCormick, also works with a wide range of Indigenous artists for each of its collections, and the influence of their individual traditions can be seen in everything from the subtle design on a rubber outsole to floral beaded vamps (or uppers).

The brand also supports the Storyboot School, which works to preserve and pass on traditional crafts with free moccasin- and mukluk-making workshops that pair Indigenous youth and student groups with expert artisans.

The intricate, tactile nature of these techniques means they tend to be best taught in person — and when elders instruct younger generations, they also have the chance to pass on precious cultural knowledge. For instance, when Brand sewed her first pair of moccasins, she was also honing her beadwork practice. Among her ancestors, she learned, the beadwork adorning their moccasins vamps sometimes functioned as a kind of plant identification system, with realistic designs depicting which flora and fauna to seek out and which to avoid.

Glass beads were introduced by European fur traders in the 19th century, prior to which many tribes used porcupine quills as ornamentation, says Her Many Horses. The Lakota, for example, soaked and flattened the quills (which could be as long as 2.5 inches) and then sewed them onto moccasins in simple lane designs. With the arrival of beads, this tradition evolved into blocky step patterns that echoed the earlier quillwork, and then, as artisans grew familiar with the materials, more complicated and colorful designs.

Some of the most showstopping moccasins are covered entirely with beads — soles and all. While some accounts refer to these as “burial moccasins,” Her Many Horses says the elaborate style would more often be made as a special-occasion shoe for someone who was very highly regarded in their community. His grandmother, for one, had a pair, but “she said they were hard to walk in. They were slippery,” he recalls.

For the most part, though, moccasins have likely stood the test of time in part because — unlike, say, a pair of stilettos — their beauty doesn’t come at the expense of their comfort.

“I like to think of them as the perfect blend of function and form,” says Brand. More than a shoe, moccasins are a living art and a manifestation of Indigenous values.

“It always starts with your relationship to the land,” she says. “And moccasins are what connect us to the land.”