Sunday December 13, 2015

Exhibit of moccasins and traditional footwear offers glimpses of history, cultural identity

These heavily decorated Huron moccasins are on display at the Bata Shoe Museum. They feature a variety of European trade goods such as wool, silk, beads and sequins. c. 1880

These heavily decorated Huron moccasins are on display at the Bata Shoe Museum. They feature a variety of European trade goods such as wool, silk, beads and sequins. c. 1880 (Bata Shoe Museum)

Listen 8:51

Most Canadians know what a moccasin is. The traditional footwear of indigenous nations is as well known as the maple leaf.

But did you know that moccasins were not just made for walking? They also share history, by telling us where people came from, their status in the community and even the personal experiences of their wearers. 

"Construction details really do depend on region of manufacturer," said Elizabeth Semmelhack. She is the curator of Beauty, Identity and Pride: Native North American Footwear, an exhibit currently running at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. 

"You end up with a mixture of beadwork, ribbon work, embroidery, moose hair tufting, moose hair applique, and quill work. All of this wide variety of decorative techniques also has regionality," she explained. 

Semmelhack said the 13,000 shoe collection is a walk through indigenous culture and geography.

I think you can see when you walk through the exhibition, just how diverse in fact footwear manufacturing was, footwear choice was depending on where you were around the continent. - Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator at the Bata Shoe Museum

For example, she said in the sub-Arctic, footwear was made with a semi-circular insert that the rest of the foot covering is gathered and sewn around.

The Woodland nations had a centre seam in their construction, while in the Great Plains they were much like modern day shoes, using a separate leather sole.

Semmelhack was quick to point out that they were not all called moccasins either. Moccasin is an Algonquin term that means "to gather" and applies to a specific type of footwear. She added different nations had different names for their footwear. 

"One of the goals of this exhibition is to disabuse people of thinking that across North America the exact same type of footwear was worn," she said. 

Semmelhack added the exhibition clearly illustrates how these shoes had a greater function than just keeping toes warm. 

BataShoe1

Northern Cheyenne, 1890-1920 (Bata Shoe Museum)

"They often exhibited evidence of trade and were in part about expressing status and also expressed issues related to gender, and of course regional and cultural identity."

She said indigenous people have always used shoes to express who they were. 

"Shoes are intricately involved in our expressions of self, status, gender, cultural identity."


 Beauty, Identity and Pride: Native North American Footwear runs at the Bata Shoe Museum until January 3.