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What are Moccasins?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 21, 2024
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The word moccasin was first introduced into English in 1612, from a Virginia Algonquian language, most likely Powhatan (makasin 'shoe'), though similar words exist in Narragansett (mokussin), Micmac (m'kusun), and Ojibwa (makasin).

The term is used in a general sense to refer to any piece of footwear made of soft leather (most often deerskin). The shoes are most often incredibly pliable and soft, allowing for hunters to walk virtually silently. Being made of leather, they also soak up liquid easily and lend good traction.

Specifically, the term is used to denote leather footwear worn by many native tribes of North America. Many moccasins are decorated with beads, shells, or other adornments, depending on the tribe and particular use.

In the western plains and desert, moccasins were usually hard soled to protect their wearer's feet from sharp rocks and cacti. The Apache moccasins include a toe that is turned up to prevent thorns or slender rocks from entering the seam and stabbing the foot.

Other regional variations include decorative tongues amongst many tribes of the south-west, bits of leather hanging from the heel to eliminate footprints, and tiny tails that dragged behind the moccasin.

The actual pattern used for the moccasin is so distinctive that often a wearer's tribe can be determined simply by examining the shape of the footprint: the Iroquois moccasins are wide on the bottom, while most eastern forest tribes are very thin; tribes of the Great Lakes often use rabbit-nose shaped toes, while in the plains the toes are much more flat.

Finally, the decoration of moccasins differs greatly depending on purpose and tribe. Many hunting moccasins are completely unadorned, consisting solely of a single piece of leather wrapped around the foot. Marriage moccasins among most tribes, on the other hand, are beaded entirely on the top. Many Plains tribes prepared special moccasins for the journey into the afterlife, and these moccasins are decorated with beads not only on the top and sides, but also on the soles.

Patterns can include floral patterns, geometric shapes, religious and spiritual symbols, and zoomorphic designs. Occasionally other materials, such as velvet, are added to the cuffs of the moccasin to lend particular distinction.

Many modern moccasin producers have sprung up in the past thirty years, boasting styles ranging from traditional tribal designs to Native American inspired 'Celtic' or 'Australian' moccasins.

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