The word “moccasin” can be traced back to the year 1612 and originated from a Virginia Algonquian language. Moccasins are footwear (low tailored shoes) that are constructed from soft leather (generally deerskin) and were at first the predominant footwear for hunters, traders, settlers and the North American Indian tribes. Moccasins are soft, and very quiet to walk in which made them an excellent choice of footwear for hunters to get around in without being detected by their prey. As well, since they are constructed from leather, they have good traction and easily soak up liquids.
In the beginning different tribes of Indians decorated their moccasin footwear differently depending on its specific use. The most commonly used items were beads and shells. Some tribes’ preferred decorative tongues while others went in for pieces of leather hanging from the heel of the moccasin, and still others, tiny tails that dragged behind as the person walked. A wearer’s tribe could often be determined simply by taking note of the footprint’s shape. For example, the Great Lakes tribes favored rabbit-nose shaped toes, the plains Indians, flat toes, the Iroquois relished the look of moccasins that were wide on the bottom and finally, the Eastern Forest Indians tribes enjoyed very thin ones.
The decorations of moccasins differ from purpose to purpose and tribe to tribe. For example, most tribes had their own version of marriage moccasins and these were beaded all over the top of the moccasin. Hunting moccasins on the other hand were “no-nonsense” as they had no decorations and were constructed with a piece of leather wrapped around the foot. Many tribes had special moccasins for death (what they called the journey into the afterlife) and they were adorned with beads on the top, sides and soles. The patterns of moccasins included everything from religious symbols to spiritual symbols to floral patterns to geometric shapes to zoomorphic designs. Some tribes went for an added elegant touch by including a piece of velvet on the cuffs.
Moccasins shoes fall in separate groups- the hard-sole and soft-sole groups. Hard-sole moccasins began as Native American moccasins and were generally made from two or more pieces of hide with the hard sole of shaped rawhide and the fitted leather upper needing more complex tailoring than other types of moccasins. Hard-soled moccasins were very protective to the feet when an individual walked across rough terrain such as ground covered by prairie grass, sharp rocks and harsh cactus plants. The Apache tribe wore two-piece moccasins that featured a turned up toe. This toe worked as a preventative for sharp objects running into the seams of the moccasin and hurting the foot. Soft-soled moccasins on the other hand were popular in the Eastern Forest tribes and were fashioned from one piece of leather. The moccasin was constructed by bringing up the sole around the foot and then proceeding to patch or pucker the material around the instep. Soft-soled moccasins were made with a soft-soled center seam and a pucker- toe and were excellent for treading through woodlands that were covered with pine needles and leaves.
The soft-soled moccasins that were worn in the Plains and the Northwest Coast were constructed from one piece of tanned leather but were sewn along the side rather than the center of the moccasin. There were variations to the soft-soled moccasin, which included a vamp (or u-shaped piece of leather) being added and another piece at the back, known as a cuff was also added. Many of the Iroquois and Great Lake tribes constructed their moccasins with a wide vamp in such a way that it covered over the majority of the upper front of the shoe. It was other Eastern Forest tribes that fashioned moccasins with a shorter, narrower vamp that connected up with a central puckered seam that ran down the length of the shoe.
The defining characteristic of a moccasin is the unique way the material is sewn together. Moccasins are made inside out and a “last” (or permanent form) is not used. The bottom seams of these shoe face toward the foot when the shoes are turned right side out. The seams are trimmed and there are removable lambswool pads, which are to be found in the bottom part of the moccasin. The moccasin is designed such that the seams never come in contact with the foot.