History of Moccasins

Although I currently reside in the North-Peace Region of British Columbia, I was born, raised, and spent 4+ decades — on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada. My family originates from the Wikwemikoong First Nations on Manitoulin Island, which is why my focus is on the Chippewa (Ojibwe, Odawa, Pottawatami) style of footwear.

Anishinaabe outfit collected by Andrew Foster
ca. 1790
Fort Michilimackinac, Michigan
Birchbark, cotton, linen, wool, feathers, silk, silver brooches, porcupine quills, horsehair, hide, sinew

Traditional Native American clothing varied widely from tribe to tribe, but one nearly universal element was the Indian moccasin, a sturdy slipper-shaped type of shoe sewn from tanned leather.

The word “moccasin” comes from an Algonquian Indian word (also spelled mocasin, mocassin, moccassin, or mocussin, depending on the language and transcriber), but that is only because Algonquians were the first Native Americans encountered by Europeans– Indian moccasins were used as footwear from Sonora to Saskatchewan, and though the word moccasin is understood and accepted by all of them at this point, most Indian tribes have their own native word for this traditional footwear.

All American Indian moccasins were originally made of soft leather– usually deerskin– stitched together with sinew. Though the basic construction of Native American moccasins was similar throughout North America, moccasin patterns were subtly different in nearly every tribe, and Indian people could often tell each other’s tribal affiliation simply from the design of their shoes.

Tribal differences included not only the cut of the moccasins, but also the extensive bead-work, quill-work, painted designs, and fringes many Indian people lavished on their moccasins. In some tribes hardened rawhide was used for the sole for added durability, and in others rabbit fur (or, later, sheep skin) was used to line the leather moccasins for added warmth.

Both men and women wore moccasins, although in many tribes the decoration of male and female moccasins used a different pattern.

…..the Ojibwe are one of the most populous and widely distributed Indian groups in North America, with 150 Ojibwe bands throughout the north-central United States and southern Canada.

Ojibwe and Chippewa are renderings of the same Algonquian word, “puckering,” probably referring to their characteristic moccasin style.

“Chippewa” is more commonly used in the United States and “Ojibway” or “Ojibwe” in Canada, but the Ojibwe people themselves use their native word Anishinabe (plural: Anishinabeg), meaning “original people.

Click here to see a map of ‘moccasins’ across North America:

{Source: http://www.native-languages.org/moccasins.htm}
Odawa moccasins
ca. 1825–1835
Hide, wool cloth, silk ribbon, glass beads

Though sometimes worn inside, it is chiefly intended for outdoor use.

Etymologically, the moccasin derives from the Algonquian language Powhatan word makasin (cognate to Massachusett mohkisson / mokussin, Ojibwa makizin, Mi’kmaq mksɨn)

{Source: Wikipedia}

Wendat (Huron) moccasins
ca. 1800
Hide, porcupine quill, metal cones, horse hair, dye

Some styles of moccasins included puckered toes. The name of the Chippewa (Ojibwe) tribe was translated by some to mean ‘people of the puckered moccasin’

{Source: https://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-clothing/moccasins.htm}

Moccasins associated with Peo Peo T´olikt (Bird Alighting, Nimi´ipuu (Nez Perce) b.?–1935)
ca. 1880
Deer hide, glass beads, cotton thread