University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Blackfeet Moccasins: A Gift to Charles Stephens


By: and Lilianna Gurry

December 17, 2018

This object study focuses on two pairs of moccasins, similar in structure and style, collected in 1891 from Blackfeet (also called Blackfoot) artisans.[1] The moccasins have a closed-toe design, cloth ankle flaps, leather ties, and beaded floral motifs. They were constructed using a one-piece pattern stitched together with a vertical seam at the heel before adding a rawhide sole. An extended ankle flap, fitted with drawstrings, is sewn on separately.[2] As shoes, these are both practical and beautiful.

(left) Blackfeet moccasins, object #45-15-435, photo by Lili Gurry. (right) Rawhide sole of moccasins showing traces of hair, photo by Margaret Bruchac.

One pair, catalogued as object 45-15-435, has a tan buckskin leather upper with a rawhide sole. The upper is hand-beaded in a colorful, symmetrical, slightly abstracted floral design with glass seed beads in light blue, green, yellow, pink, copper, and dark blue colors. A red flannel ankle piece includes a sewn-on canvas flap with ties. Upon first glance, the moccasins look seemingly new, with little to no signs of wear; the rawhide soles retain small bits of hair (likely mule deer or elk) that were never fully scraped away. The object card indicates that these shoes were a “Gift of Crow Eyes,” but did the recipient of the gift ever actually wear them?

Another pair of moccasins, object 45-15-436, also has a rawhide sole, with an upper of buffalo hide. This beaded floral design is also symmetrical and slightly abstracted, utilizing glass seed beads in light blue, dark blue, green, yellow, pink, dark pink, copper, white, and black colors. A black cotton corduroy strip is sewn onto the edge of the wide canvas ankle flaps. Similar to the first pair, these moccasins also show little to no signs of wear, and the soles still retain some traces of hair. The size of these moccasins implies that they were made to be worn by adults rather than children.

Blackfeet moccasins, object # 45-15-436. Photo by Lili Gurry.
Big Beaver and John Gun Up on the Blackfeet Reservation in 1891. Note the moccasins with floral motifs on their feet. Photo by Charles H. Stephens. Image #24462, courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives.

Sketching Stephens’ Moccasins

These moccasins were collected by Charles Hallowell Stephens (1855-1931), a Philadelphia illustrator, art teacher, and amateur collector who spent several decades acquiring roughly 2000 objects from the Apache, Lakota (Sioux), and Blackfeet cultures. He collected these moccasins during the summer of 1891, when he spent several months living with Native Americans of the Piegan band on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana. Stephens routinely sketched objects, made notes, and photographed the people he met with, making his records relatively reliable.[3] He recorded where and when he received these shoes, and also identified a number of Blackfeet people by name. Notes on the back of his sketch card state:

“Moccasins, ornamented with conventional flowered design, made to my measure by ‘Crow Eyes’ wife [and] presented by Crow Eyes, Piegan, Montana. . . Moccasins, shank pattern, conventional flowered design, black flap around ankle, made [by] “Skunk Cap’s’ mother.”[4]

Stephens’ notes tell us a little about his Blackfeet friends. He records that Native women were making these moccasins: one pair (45-15-435) was crafted by Crow Eyes’ wife, and the other pair (45-15-436), made by Skunk Cap’s’ mother, was acquired from a man named “Big Beaver.” One pair was specifically “made to my measure,” likely meaning custom-made to fit Stephens’ feet. On closer examination, both pairs are the same size and neither show signs of having been worn. Did Stephens request specific Blackfeet designs, or did his friends offer these as gifts? Did he ever intend to wear them?

Stephens did not identify the female artisans by name, but they are listed in an 1898 Census Report that identifies Crow Eyes’ wife as Running Rattler, and Abel Skunk Cap’s mother as Last Strike.[5] Although Stephens’ files include photographs of many of the Blackfeet people he met with, there are no images of these women. There are, however, pictures of men wearing the same style of moccasin with similar floral motifs. This photograph, for example, shows two men, Big Beaver (Chatterbox) and (Jappy) John Gun Up, both wearing the same style of moccasins. Stephens’ caption also notes that “Jappy carries a rattle which he presented to me.”[6]

Stephens recorded these and other details on scraps of paper while he was traveling and collecting. Later in life, as he began cataloguing his collection, he gathered up his receipts and notes and documented these moccasins and other objects on individual sketch cards with detailed drawings. Between 1945-1947, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology acquired these moccasins and the accompanying sketch cards, along with roughly 1,700 other objects and photographs from the Stephens collection.[7]

Charles Stephens’ moccasin sketch card in the Stephens Papers. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives.

Blackfeet Beadwork

Both pairs of moccasins use similar colors in the glass beadwork and symmetrical patterns of floral designs. In general, Blackfeet artisans, whether working in paints or in beads, preferred a color palette of red, yellow, blue, green, black, and white, along with light blue and pink. [8] Beads were typically pre-strung before being spot-stitched or appliqued to a leather garment.

Detail shows beads top-stitched to the upper. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Like other Native nations on the Great Plains during the 1800s, the Blackfeet utilized trade materials (glass beads, cloth, ribbon, etc.) to replicate or add to their traditional artistic styles in dress and ornamentation. After the 1850s, small glass seed beads were regularly acquired through trade with white settlers, and they became highly desirable and widely used, especially in moccasins, garments, and pouches. Although geometric patterns predominate in older beadwork of the region (as is seen in the other moccasins in Stephens’ collection) floral motifs were common in the late 1800s, so these moccasins are consistent with the region’s adaptable artistic taste. Since patterns in beadwork designs changed over time, one can sometimes determine the era from which an object derives based on the size and pattern of beads.[9]

The beads came from European sources, but the color selections and designs came from Indigenous artisans and traditions. Some designs were decorative, others evoked traditional stories or historical events, and still others reflected symbols that carried protective power.[10] The art of crafting Indigenous beadwork on clothing, as an artistic form, reached through time and across generations, incorporating meaningful and beautiful styles of adornment.[11] One could also say, in the case of these moccasins, that it reached across cultures, since Running Rattler and Last Strike gifted Charles Stephens with fine examples of handsome moccasins that any Blackfeet person would have been proud to wear on their own feet.

Footnotes:

[1] The Blackfoot Confederacy includes four bands or tribal nations in the Great Plains region, including: Siksika or Blackfoot; Kanai or Blood;  Apa’tosee or Northern Pikuni; and Blackfeet or Amskapi Pikuni. The name, said to derive from either the black hooves of the buffalo or the blackened soles on well-worn moccasins, is also reflected in the name Siksika, which literally translates to “black foot.” Jack McNeel, “10 Things You Should Know About the Blackfeet Nation,” Indian Country Today, April 6, 2017. Also see Hugh A. Dempsey, “Blackfoot Confederacy,” Canadian Encyclopedia, 2010.
[2] The “one-piece” design indicates that the upper is cut from a single piece of leather that is wrapped to fit the foot. Clark Wissler, “Material Culture of the Blackfoot Indians,” in Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Clark Wissler, ed., Vol. V (New York, NY: Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History, 1910), 129.
[3] Charles H. Stephens Papers 1081, Series IV: Collection Material, University of Pennsylvania, Penn Museum Archives.
[4] Notes from card archived in Charles H. Stephens Papers 1081, Series IV: Collection Material.
[5] See “Census of the Piegan Indians of Blackfeet Agency, Montana, taken by Thomas P. Fuller, United States Indian Agent 1898,” in National Archives Microfilm Roll M595-4, Indian Census Rolls 1885-1940, Blackfeet Agency, 1897-1906.
[6] Stephens’ caption reads: “Big Beaver (Chatterbox) and (Jappy) John Gun Up. Jappy carries a rattle which he presented to me (Stephens). Blackfoot reservation, Montana, 1891.” Archived in Charles H. Stephens Papers 1081, Series VIII Photographs: Box PA 68.
[7] Biography/History for Charles H. Stephens Papers 1081, Finding Aid.
[8] Elizabeth Mae McCoy, A Descriptive Analysis of Blackfeet Indian Beadwork, Masters’ Thesis (Montana State University, 1972), 22, 50. For discussion of other regional styles in Blackfoot beadwork, see Laura Peers and Alison K. Brown, Visiting With the Ancestors: Blackfoot Shirts in Museum Spaces (Edmonton, Alberta: Athabaska University Press, 2015).
[9] Ibid, 48-49. For comparative examples of specific regional and tribal beadwork motifs, see Lois S. Dubin, Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork (Los Angeles: Autry National Center of the American West, 2014).
[10] Janet Catherine Berlo, “Creativity and Cosmopolitanism: Women’s Enduring Traditions,” in Identity by Design: Tradition, Change, and Celebration in Native Women’s Dresses, Emil Her Many Horses, ed. (New York, NY: Harper Collins in association with Smithsonian Institution, 2007), 107, 120.
[11] Michelle Lanteri, “Beads: A Universe of Meaning: Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian,” First American Art Magazine. September 18, 2017. For a stunning example of art by a contemporary Blackfeet beadworker, see Dominique Godreche, “The Intricate Beadwork of Jackie Larson Bread,” Indian Country Today, January 30, 2014.

Sources Cited:

Berlo, Janet Catherine. 2007. “Creativity and Cosmopolitanism: Women’s Enduring Traditions.” In Identity by Design: Tradition, Change, and Celebration in Native Women’s Dresses, Emil Her Many Horses, ed. New York, NY: Harper Collins in association with Smithsonian Institution.

Dempsey, Hugh A. 2010. “Blackfoot Confederacy.” Canadian Encyclopedia.

Dubin, Lois S. 2014. Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork. Los Angeles, CA: Autry National Center of the American West, 2014.

Fuller, Thomas P. 1898. “Census of the Piegan Indians of Blackfeet Agency, Montana, taken by Thomas P. Fuller, United States Indian Agent 1898.” In National Archives Microfilm Roll M595-4, Indian Census Rolls 1885-1940, Blackfeet Agency, 1897-1906.

Godreche, Dominique. 2014. “The Intricate Beadwork of Jackie Larson Bread.” Indian Country Today, January 30, 2014.

Lanteri, Michelle. 2017. “Beads: A Universe of Meaning: Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.” First American Art Magazine. September 18, 2017.

McCoy, Elizabeth Mae. 1972. A Descriptive Analysis of Blackfeet Indian Beadwork. Masters’ Thesis. Montana State University.

McNeel, Jack. 2017. “10 Things You Should Know About the Blackfeet Nation.” Indian Country Today. April 6, 2017.

Peers, Laura, and Alison K. Brown. 2015. Visiting With the Ancestors: Blackfoot Shirts in Museum Spaces. Edmonton, Alberta: Athabaska University Press.

Charles H. Stephens Papers 1081. University of Pennsylvania, Penn Museum Archives.

Wissler, Clark. 1910. “Material Culture of the Blackfoot Indians.” In Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Clark Wissler, ed., 1-176. Vol. V. New York, NY: Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History.


This object analysis was conducted for the Fall 2018 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students are examining Native American objects in the American Section of the Penn Museum by combining material analysis (elements, construction, design, condition, etc.) with documentation (texts, photographs, ethnographic data, etc.). Since some objects have minimal provenance data, we seek out and consider similar materials, research articles and archives, Indigenous knowledges and histories, and non-material evidence (oral traditions, ecosystems, museum memories, etc.) that might illuminate these objects. This research is designed to expand our understandings of object lives, using insights and information gathered from inside and outside of the Museum.

For more blogs from the 2018 Anthropology of Museums class, see the following articles, edited by Margaret Bruchac:
• With Erica Dienes. “The Salmon Basket and Cannery Label.”
• With Erica Dienes. “Choctaw Beaded Sash: Crossing Histories.”
• With  Liliana Gurry. “Moose Hair Embroidered Birchbark Trays: French, Native, or Both.”
• With Kayla A. Holmes. “Investigating a Pipe Tomahawk.”
• With Kayla A. Holmes. “Tlingit Raven Rattle: Transformative Representations.”
• With Ben Kelser. “The Kaskaskian Beaver Bowl.”
• With Ben Kelser. “Children Among the Caribou: Clothes for a Young Innu.”
• With Leana Reich. “Lady Franklyn’s Quilled Mi’kmaq Box.”
• With Leana Reich. “The Mysterious Beaded Collar.”

For links to blogs from past Museum Anthropology classes, see:
2017: “Object Matters: Considering Materiality, Meaning, and Memory”
2015: “Deep Description and Reflexivity: Methods for Recovering Object Histories”
2015: “The Speck Connection: Recovering Histories of Indigenous Objects”



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