Curatorial Essay

Making an Impression Contemporary Moccasins of the Shuswap

Art not only reflects the heart of its creator, it also reflects the soul of its culture. Art is meaningless unless placed in historical and cultural context. As with any art form, this holds true with Shuswap moccasins. At one time, moccasins were the only footwear Shuswap people used. Because of this, moccasins held great significance for survival and everyday life. Today, moccasins are still produced and worn, but their significance has changed. Moccasins are no longer a necessity, they are a symbol of the strength and legacy of Native people. John Jules, an ethnologist and a member of the Kamloops Indian Band, tells the story of how moccasins were introduced to the Shuswap people:

A long time ago our people were unclothed and they were like animals. Coyote was the one who taught us the rules of society and he was the one who sent in helpers to bring about peace within the world so that human beings could live. As a people we had to live by the river; as a people we had to live in the upper terraces. We had to utilize the whole of the territory. We were taught to clothe ourselves in such a way to protect ourselves from the elements. Coyote included moccasins and how to protect ourselves with footwear. Coyote also taught us that we could not say anything about anyone unless, as the saying goes, you walked a mile in their moccasins.1

This legend shows how important moccasins were in traditional Shuswap society. Not only did they have practical use, they were also a symbol of protection, equality and acceptance.

Moccasins are the traditional footwear of most North American Native peoples. The style and decoration of moccasins differed from region to region due to differences in environment, climate, and available material. Shuswaps made their moccasins from the skin of deer, moose and elk. Some moccasins were even woven from sage. John Jules says that everyday moccasins were usually devoid of surface decoration as they needed to be strong to endure the rigour of daily life. Decorative Shuswap moccasins were made for special occasions and ceremonies. Traditionally, decoration on Shuswap moccasins consisted of materials that were available from the environment. These included porcupine quills, bird quills, natural dyes, shells, animal bones, berries, seeds, horsehair and salmon bones.2

As with most societies, there were clear roles and functions in place for Shuswap men and women. Girls were taught from a very early age how to be women. Making moccasins and other clothing was in the realm of the woman. Girls learned how to make moccasins by watching and participating in the creative activities. The girls would follow, watch and learn from their mothers, aunts, siblings and grandmothers as they dug for roots, picked berries, wove baskets, tanned hides and sewed clothing. Jeanette Jules, a member and moccasin maker of the Kamloops Indian Band, says that traditionally, if the elders saw that a child possessed a gift of exceptional talent at a task, that child would receive more training in that area. If a girl demonstrated exemplary talent in sewing and decorating moccasins, she would be sent to specialists to receive more specified direction and practice in moccasin making.3

According to elder Mary Thomas from the Neskonlith Band, the ability to make good quality moccasins was important to a woman's pride and self-image. Thomas tells an old story of a woman who was lazy and did not live up to her husband's family's expectations. When her husband died, she was forced to wear a worn-out pair of moccasins tied around her shoulders to shame and embarrass her.4

Because the Shuswap people have been living in this area for thousands of years, moccasin makers have been able to specialize and perfect the moccasin design. As well, influences from other tribes have had an impact on Shuswap moccasin design. Early Shuswap moccasin makers took elements from other moccasin designs and adapted them to their own designs. This process still exists today. In an ethnographic report published in 1909, James Teit identified four body styles of moccasins that were traditional to the Shuswap.5 The body style characterized by a high vamp piece and a long middle seam, exemplified in the exhibition by the moccasins from the Canadian Museum of Civilization, is widely accepted as the true 'old Shuswap' style.

Designs on Shuswap moccasins were usually symbolic, stylistic or geometric. They often had personal significance and distinction. Traditional designs on moccasins were often closely linked to Shuswap spirituality and vision quests. Through this ritual, an individual received a spirit helper who gave ideas, visions and inspiration. John Jules describes the link between moccasins and the vision quest: Designs on moccasins reflected these visions because they were taken directly from the visions. You have to walk a certain path in this life, a certain path that was given to you by your helper, by the Creator. The helpers would recognize you through the designs on personal adornment.6

When an individual received a vision, that vision was usually painted on the rocks. The same symbol was incorporated into all other personal possessions. If a warrior was killed in battle, the spirit would know how to return home because the helpers would recognize that individual from the vision quest symbol.

Moccasins have played an important role in death and the spirit journey. At the time of death the spirit travels to every place the living person has been. Traditional burial moccasins often had decoration on the bottom to assure the moccasins would not wear out while the spirit was on its journey. Jeanette Jules relays the tradition that it is 'important to be properly attired in death, wearing the best moccasins and other clothing. In the spirit world you will meet all of those who have died before you. Not only those you have known in your life, but all of your ancestors. If you are wearing a good pair of moccasins, it is a sign of how much your family cares for you.' 7

After contact with the Europeans, floral and animal designs became more prevalent. This was the result of a number of factors. Traditional Shuswap designs were personal and spiritual. When moccasins became an important commodity for trade with the Europeans, Shuswap moccasin makers opted to sell moccasins with no traditional meaning. These new moccasin designs included realistic representations of plant and animal life in the Shuswap region. Another contrib-uting factor was the introduction of Christianity to the Shuswap people in the mid-19th century. Christianity led to a decline in the traditional practices that included spiritual symbols.

With the arrival of European settlers came new materials for moccasin makers to utilize. Across North America, Native women began experimenting with new mediums, such as glass beads, silk embroidery thread, and felt, velvet and cotton fabric. These materials quickly became incorporated into traditional designs and styles. New types of designs were also introduced, such as floral patterns and animal representations. Native women began to produce the new designs because they were popular with the European traders and because a larger range of colours were available to better represent an image. Some floral patterns, such as the wild rose design, have been used long enough to be generally accepted as a traditional Shuswap design. This pattern is seen in many moccasins today, such as the Lizzie Archie moccasins.

Shuswap women used the new materials, but in a traditional way. For example, the embroidery technique used to decorate the top seam of a moccasin is known as the 'old granny' style and is evident in several old and contemporary moccasins. Good examples of this are the Nellie Taylor moccasins.

This embroidery technique may have originated with similar porcupine quill embroidery treatment. Glass beads also became a very popular material to add to buckskin clothing. Native women quickly became proficient in beading intricate patterns on clothing. The beads were somewhat similar in shape to some indigenous materials, such as berries or seeds. But the new glass beads became coveted for their large variety of bright colours. Mary Thomas talks about the introduction of the beads:

Our people did not hesitate to trade a handful of beads for a pelt. Today, we say they were cheated. Elders say they did not feel as though they were cheated. Everything our people had was not very colourful. If there was colour, it was very dull. When they saw these bright shiny beads, they were very precious. They thought it was well worth giving up a fur pelt for some of the colourful beads. It was like a gift. So you can imagine how much they valued the beads.8

Jeanette Jules says that, according to tradition, the designs on each moccasin were usually made identical to create a matching pair. Although this was the intention, there was always one alteration on one moccasin that made it slightly different from the other, such as a bead or two added or missing, or the colour scheme slightly altered. This practice was to show the appreciation for the Creator. Within human beings, and all nature, there is nothing perfect. Imperfection is the way of nature. Moccasin makers believed that if they made perfect moccasins, they would be implying that they were better than the Creator.9

Equally as important as the design of a moccasin is the quality of the tanned hide. Today, as in the past, the Native tanning process is laborious and lengthy, taking as long as three weeks to cure and tan a hide. The process includes soaking, stretching, drying and smoking. Sometimes this process has to be repeated many times until the hide achieves the desired softness and colour. Ida Matthew, an elder and moccasin maker from the North Thompson Band, explains the tanning process:

You don't just put it on a frame and start working on it. There is a certain way to do it. I've always thought of it like making pie. If you roll it the same way all the time, you are not going to have a very good pie. We learned from an early age how to tan a hide. You can't just pound it for two hours and think it's going to be done. You have to make yourself ready. You have to make sure your heart wants to do it. Otherwise, it's not going to come out because you are going to do it any old way. It takes time. It is going to take all day. Sometimes it's going to go soft the first time you put it on, sometimes it's going to take three times. It's going to take a long time. You can make it as hard as you want to. If you want to do it, it's going to be fun.10

There are many Shuswap legends that centre around moccasins. Matthew says that during the tribal wars, moccasins played an integral part in the defense of the Shuswap people. Warriors identified the tracks of their enemies by the style of their moccasins. After an enemy was killed, the Shuswap warrior would sometimes wear his enemy's moccasins to hide his true identity.11

With the European settlers came forces that prevented the Shuswap people from continuing their traditions. They were compelled to attend residential schools and to conform to European ways and religion. In the past twenty years there has been a rebirth of Native spirituality. Moccasin makers are investigating their spiritual roots and incorporating those ideas and symbols back into moccasin design. The Pow Wow has also helped Shuswaps to explore and display their traditions and culture. The Pow Wow has become an event that allows Natives to rediscover their heritage. Today, young people are very involved with the Pow Wow. They make their own regalia, including moccasins. The Pow Wow is a shared experience of First Peoples across North America, so many different clothing and moccasin styles and designs are exchanged. This is a process that has been going on for thousands of years, but is accelerated with the Pow Wow.

With a renewed interest in traditional ways, young Natives today are learning how to tan hides and use porcupine quills and other indigenous materials. These traditional materials are incorporated with contemporary ones, such as denim, canvas, paint, and commercial dyes. Experimentation with different combinations of traditional and new ideas is the hallmark of contemporary Shuswap moccasins.

Today, the use of moccasins has necessarily changed since traditional times. They are no longer used as everyday footwear, but they still retain strong significance. For many Shuswaps, moccasins are a connection to their heritage. They are given as gifts as a sign of love or respect. They are usually the first thing given to a newborn baby. Many Shuswap people are still buried in moccasins.

The moccasin makers create moccasins out of a deep connection to their tradition and culture.

Sarah Jules
Guest Curator


1. John Jules, personal interview, February 27, 1997.

2. John Jules.

3. Jeanette Jules, personal interview, April 29, 1997.

4. Mary Thomas, personal interview, April 24, 1997.

5. James Alexander Teit, The Shuswap, Vol. 2 of The Jesup North Pacific Expedition, ed. Franz Boas (1909; New York: AMS Press, 1975) 505506.

6. John Jules.

7. Jeanette Jules.

8. Mary Thomas.

9. Jeanette Jules.

10. Ida Matthew, personal interview, March 21, 1997.

11. Ida Matthew.

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