Sunday, September 24, 2017

Stepping Out

Who would have thought that a woman from Northern Ireland who came to the U.S. as a child would develop a passion for 2,000 to 3,000 year old sandals from the Southwest but so it was that Maxine McBrinn curator at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture who produced an exhibition on the history of western Indian footwear.

McBrinn starts the show with plaster impressions of sandaled footprints from the birth of pueblo culture between 500 BC and 500AD (Basket Maker II) . She goes on to cover the Western tribes including the Apache, Cheyenne and Comanche with loans from all over the Southwest like the Edge of Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, Utah.

McBrinn writes the shoes “are very personal and feel like a direct link to an individual in the past.  You can see the size of their foot, the imprint of each toe, and how the sandal was repaired.”  They can also tell us much about the wearer.  How large they were, were they male or female sometimes even about their health, if they had bunions or limped with an uneven gait.

Anglos seem to think that when they arrived in 1492 the Indians also suddenly appeared to torment them.  There is a reason that to be politically correct we call them Native Americans -  they were here first!   However, since I have never heard an Indian call himself a Native American I will stick to the name Whitey first gave them, Indians.  Driving home this point of their  length of time here the new exhibition at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) is called “Stepping Out: 10,000 Years of Walking the West.” 

As a child back East we were introduced to moccasins as a stiff leather slipper with some beads on top but when one gets out West you learn that that is just a tourist version of the real thing.  We know someone who commissioned a pair of mocasins from a friend, as bedroom slippers which he called, “comfy”.  They were not unlike the quilled and beaded Sioux moccasins, circa 1910, from the museum’s collection.

What I did not know was that early on they were just a flat piece of material to go under the foot.  It makes sense when you think what a shoe is for, to protect the bottom of your feet not the top!  They had to be tied on and so came about the sandals we know so well.  Some sandals were made extra large to leave room to put in mud and grass to keep the wearer’s foot warm.  Here are three different examples: the first is an adult scuffer toe sandal  of about 1300, the second even earlier 750-13 00 is a plain weave sandal of an Ancestral Pueblo, and the third a winder sandal from the Canadian River area made of Yucca grass, also before 1300. 

It was not until about 1300 that moccasins came into fashion.  At first they were decorated with traditional quill work, but when beads came to this country as payment, trade bead-work began to be used.  Though the myth is that the island of Manhattan was acquired from the Indians for $24 worth of beads it wasn’t until about 1800 that that beaded pocasins came into common use. This pair of beautiful Sioux beaded sole moccasins from the museum’s large collection, dating prior to 1890 is made of hide, cloth, glass beads, tin, horse hair also from the museum’s large collection.

Photo Credit: Christopher Durantes

Change is inevitable and everything has to be brought up to date so today we find “High Fashion” shoes such as this pair of heels designed by the noted designer Steve Madden and beaded by Kiowa artist Teri Greeves.  These were commissioned for the show and paid for by The Friends of Indian Art, a support group for the museum.

Photo Credit: Stephen Lang

I found this exhibition to be an eye opener in a field that I thought I understood something about. Learning the history and having it illustrated will have me looking at sandals and moccasins quite differently and with more appreciation from now on.

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