What exactly are moccasins? Is there a place for a pair in my wardrobe? Are they even fashionable?
Note on the author: Ellen Rubin started collecting Native American moccasins when she was 7, and continued adding to her collection until she was in her teens, eventually acquiring over 70 pairs.
Studying Native American history and culture was part of the collecting process. The photos in this article are items from her collection before it was sold. She currently writes about a variety of issues including sustainability and fashion.
Moccasins may be the oldest form of footwear, dating as far back as 30,000 BC, yet they are still practical, comfortable, and fashionable. They have adapted, evolved and transitioned as times and needs change.
They can be highly decorated or plain, for either indoor (slippers) or outdoor use, and are multi-functional. They persevere and periodically become highly fashionable – like today.
The defining characteristics of a moccasin are their materials (leather), their sole (flat), and their construction method or pattern profile. Even though superficial appearances may vary, the fundamentals have stayed the same.
Since WWII moccasins have morphed into several distinct fashion categories: loafers, boating shoes, driving mocs and boots, that can all be traced back to Native American footwear.
Table of Contents
In the Beginning…
The term “moccasin” is an adaptation of the Powhatan Algonquian language of the Virginia area. This term may have become universal because they were the first tribes to interact with European settlers. Many tribes have words similar to moccasin for their footwear.
For instance, the name of the Great Lakes Ojibway tribe means ‘people of the puckered moccasin’.
Initially Europeans were not enthralled with indigenous clothing; however settlers, hunters and traders soon adopted the moccasin when locally made, European-styled shoes proved to be obviously inferior in this new environment.
Moccasins are protective, snug and warm, and mold easily to different feet sizes and shapes. They are comfortable for walking long distances, as opposed to cowboy boots, yet are durable.
So what characteristics distinguish a moccasin from other shoes? Most basically and obviously, they are flat soled foot coverings made from leather. In its very simplest pattern, a single piece of leather is used for the entire shoe. It wraps up around the sole and is completed with a single seam.
Moccasin patterns however, are not all the same. Some use many pieces, including a separate, harder leather sole. Construction methods between tribes varied because their homes and needs varied.
Tribes adapted the moccasin to the environment in which they lived. Woodland and Eastern tribes walked on pine needles and forest litter so they were able to wear soft-soled moccasins.
These had the added advantage of being quiet when stalking prey and allowed the wearer to feel the earth. Plains tribes usually added a separate, stiffer sole made of rawhide.
This protected their feet from rocks, cacti and the hard grasses of the Plains. Although individual tribes favored particular patterns (cuffs, tabs, tongues, hard or soft sole) each territory made use of indigenous animals.
The Secret Is in the Leather
Since it all starts with the leather, a quick overview of ancient tanning methods and different hide practicalities is necessary. This is the one constant between tribes. Native Americans used deer, elk, moose and buffalo hides.
Larger animals, both within and between species, have thicker hides; therefore, deer hide is the thinnest and buffalo the thickest.
Commercial modern leather is measured by ounces per square foot. Very thin leathers are 1-2 ounces, which is impractical for footwear. A thickness of 3-4 ounces is good for soft-soled moccasins. Generally deer and elk hide falls into this category.
Buffalo hide is the thickest and any leather in the 5-6 ounce range is too thick to be easily sewn, especially hand sewn. Deer, elk and moose would have been available to eastern tribes, while those west of the Mississippi also had buffalo.
Native American sewers used bone awls to punch holes in the leather and sinew (shredded, dried tendons) as thread. It’s very difficult to punch holes in buffalo hide because of its thickness. Like all rules, however, this one was sometimes broken.
The picture below is of a pair of Cheyenne buffalo hide moccasins. Buffalo moccasins are also rarer because most herds were eradicated by the late 1880’s. Available buffalo hides were saved for shields (thickness), lodges (size), or robes (warmth).
Today, it is again possible to purchase shoes and slippers in buffalo from domestically raised herds. Still, historically, most moccasin uppers were made of deer or elk skin because it was more plentiful, easier to sew, comfortable, yet sturdy.
Obtaining a hide is just the first step in converting an animal skin into workable leather. If left un-tanned, the hide will become putrid and quickly decompose. Rawhide is cured, but not tanned, hide. This is much stiffer leather and was used for the soles of some moccasins.
The uppers, made of tanned hides, were soft, supple, durable and water-resistant. This is the leather we are familiar with. Tanning requires thoroughly cleaning the hide, removing excess moisture and replacing it with fats to keep it pliable and prevent cracking.
Native Americans used brain tanning. Yes, it is as unpleasant as it sounds, but very effective. Brain matter contains lecithin oil (a tannin) that serves as a natural agent to lubricate the hide. Europeans showed Native Americans that certain plant sources like sumac leaves or bark also contain useful tannins.
Traditional tanning is a many stepped, labor-intensive and lengthy process. After soaking the hide in water for days to weeks to loosen the hair, the grain is scraped using dull blades made of bones (shoulder or thigh) or chipped rocks.
Once all remnants of hair are removed from the outer (grain) side, it is stretched, pegged out, and allowed to dry. Removing the grain makes the leather sueded on both sides, and more supple. The entire process is repeated on the inside membrane of the hide.
The result is a stiff hide that now needs to be softened and preserved. This is where the brain tanning comes into play.
The brains of most animals contain enough oil to tan their entire hide. The brain is emulsified with water and spread over the hide to lubricate it. It is left rolled up for a week or more, cleaned again, and finally smoked over a fire to seal it.
Although today 90% of all tanning is done with chromium sulfate (a salt) because it cures faster than other methods, it is still possible to purchase classic, hand-made moccasins tanned in this traditional way.
As a practical matter, it was much easier to make a moccasin from a single piece of leather that wrapped around the foot and had a seam over the instep. Cutting and sewing was difficult with a sharpened rock (pre-European steel), awl and sinew.
Therefore, the less sewing, the better. Fewer seams also meant that the shoe was sturdier and there were fewer opportunities for water to seep in.
Many tribes adopted a two piece construction. Either a “U” shaped vamp (placket) was inserted in the upper portion and the lower piece was gathered around it, or in the case of a harder sole, the upper and lower pieces were sewn together.
Additional scraps of leather were sometimes added: a tongue, cuffs, fringe or a tab in the back. If cuffs were made of one piece, there was a slit in the back, otherwise two piece cuffs were used. All of these added bits had functional, as well as ornamental, purposes.
The tongue and cuffs could be raised and tied with a leather thong to increase protection from the elements, the tab in the back reinforced that area, and fringe at the heel would erase footprints as the wearer walked. The Kiowa tribe used fringe extensively. (See picture below)
Moccasins were sewn inside out so the stitching was hidden, although knots were kept on the outside for comfort. Often, a welt was added along the stitched seam of vamped moccasins to protect the seam, making it stronger and more aesthetically pleasing.
This exact construction is seen in many modern shoes other than moccasins.
Above all, Native Americans were practical about moccasin construction. Apache tribes turned up the toe of the hard sole so sharp objects like cacti thorns wouldn’t run into the seams injuring the foot, and toes wouldn’t be stubbed on rocks.
The practicalities dictated the shape of the sole to the point that it was possible to identify tribal affiliation just by tracks left on the ground. Many tribes made boots by attaching leggings to the moccasin.
If you are interested in making your own moccasins, or want to see how they can be constructed, Nativetech offers step-by-step directions. This site also has a helpful map that uses line drawings to show the different construction patterns of various tribes.
Aside from differences in patterns and construction, tribes could be distinguished by how they decorated their moccasins. Prior to the settlers, tribes used dried, flattened and dyed porcupine quills, or painted leather.
Europeans brought melton cloth (heavy wool cloth, usually in red), velvet (usually black), satin ribbon, glass seed beads and metal decorations that started to make their way onto moccasins.
Seed beads are the most common decoration associated with moccasins. By 1840, they were being traded to Plains tribes. Originally hand-made, older beads were somewhat uneven in appearance.
Because they were eventually machine-made, beads can be dated by their uniformity, size (small are usually older), and their color (very vibrant or glaring colors are often more modern). Woodland and Eastern tribes relied heavily on stylized floral images.
They were also the most likely to use fabric. Plains tribes used representational mountains, stripes, and geometric shapes.
Different tribes would choose different areas to bead. For instance, woodland tribes usually didn’t bead the sides of the moccasin, where it could be ripped off by twigs, just cuffs and the vamp. Some plains tribes preferred to extensively bead the sides but not the cuff.
These moccasins were generally made with a separate sole. Some tribes used very little beading overall.
Beading was often done on separate pieces of fabric or leather so that when soles became worn, it could be easily detached and transferred to a new pair of moccasins.
Different tribes favored different color schemes. With all these variables, it’s possible to date and identify which tribe created a pair of moccasins based on the leather, pattern, motif, and decoration.
There are two basic methods of beading. Eastern tribes often used one bead per stitch, while many of the plains tribes would string a number of beads on the sinew before stitching into the leather.
The former method allows for more intricate, curved, and free-form designs such as flowers. The latter is very useful for larger areas of stripes and mountains motifs, especially on thicker leather.
Finally, some moccasins were completely beaded, including the bottom. The popular theory is that these were used as burial shoes or for ceremonial purposes. I don’t agree with that.
Richard Pohrt (1912-2005), the foremost expert on Native American culture and a consultant to numerous tribes, taught me that these are actually trade goods.
Tribe members, primarily Cheyanne and Sioux, living on reservations in the late 1800’s, would be paid to produce moccasins based on the square inch of beading.
More beading meant more pay. If you look at the quality of the beading, it is not very good; many beads were strung on the sinew, or thread, between stitches. This wouldn’t hold up to even a few steps.
The Future of Moccasins: Loafers, Driving Mocs & Boat Shoes
Most modern moccasins incorporate the U shape vamp with bold seam lines of eastern tribes. Outdoor moccasins usually have some sort of separate sole made of sturdy leather or a rubber type substance.
They shouldn’t have a separate defined heel piece. Moccasins also feature a looser fit than other styles of shoes.
Minnetonka Moccasins re-popularized the classic Native American design shortly after World War II. The relaxed and casual design was a perfect reflection of the country’s mood. Moccasins were no longer consigned to souvenir shops and resorts.
As driving trips across the country became more common, the driving moc gained in popularity. They were a contemporary version of traditional moccasins with the addition of rubber tabs or knobs which peek through holes in the sole.
These rubber dots provide extra grip while driving, are comfortable when walking on pavement, and increase the longevity of the shoe without sacrificing flexibility. There are a couple of drawbacks. The knobs can’t really be repaired once they wear down, so the shoe must be discarded.
Even if a cobbler can attach a new, more durable sole to the outside of the shoe, the character is affected. Also, the knobs allow water to seep into the shoe, so they are not practical for anything but dry, sunny days or indoor wear.
As always, the moccasin evolves to meet needs. Manufacturers have started adding rubber elements to the outside of the sole to avoid these pitfalls. These soles also make them more practical for extended street walking.
Boat shoes are a synthesis of driving mocs and loafers. The one piece rubber or grippy sole may have a slightly more pronounced heel portion and no nubs. It is designed to grip wet decks and the uppers are water repellant.
They still have the classic welted U vamp and moccasin construction. They are meant to be worn without socks, be comfortable, and while street-worthy and fashionable, they still have classic styling.
Loafers vs. Moccasins
To be honest, I can’t really differentiate modern loafers from moccasins. There are a couple theories about where loafers came from. One is that loafers originating in Norway in the 1930’s were made from leather, and may or may not have had a distinct heel.
This sounds like modern day moccasins to me. The differentiation that moccasins have ties or tassels and loafers don’t really doesn’t hold true, as was seen in the assortment of photos above. Some Native American tribes didn’t have any sort of lacing or tassels on their moccasins.
Another theory is that Norwegian fishermen based their shoes on classic Iroquois designs in the early 1800’s. They fastened two pieces of leather together with a strip across the middle to create a comfortable, supportive shoe which included a heel.
Another point of differentiation between loafers and moccasins is that moccasins are soft-soled – again, this is not always the case. I conclude that loafers evolved from moccasins, and because moccasins had so many iterations, they are the ancestors of many different styles of shoes.
We have seen that hunting boots, loafers, driving mocs and boat shoes are all patterned after the moccasins of one tribe or another. Because we have clumped all Native American footwear under the term ‘moccasin’, we are able to see the antecedents of many different styles of men’s shoes in their essentials.
Mostly what is missing is the ornamentation. While various colors and color combinations, as well as tassels and buckles, are now acceptable, imagine how much more fun it would be with the addition of beading and fringe.