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Putting Your Best Foot Forward

Jordan Wright
February 20, 2012
Special to Indian Country Today Magazine

Women's Moccasins - Michael and Pam Knapp from KQ Designs photos  - All photo credit to Pam Knapp

Women’s Moccasins – Michael and Pam Knapp from KQ Designs photos – All photo credit to Pam Knapp

Originally crafted from the tanned skins of elk, deer, moose or buffalo, stitched with sinew, and in colder climates often lined with rabbit fur or sheepskin, moccasins have evolved into the preferred footwear for pow wows.  Since the late 15th Century when Italians arrived on our shores and traded Venetian glass beads with American Indians, the art of beading on moccasins has become a tradition that has evolved into high art.  Once simply adorned with shell, quill, wood and bone, the moccasins of today are intricately beaded canvasses that tell the story of the wearer.  Fanciful designs with botanical, geometric and animal themes stitch complex motifs to reflect tribal, clan or familial influences.  Styles can be short with a tongue and hole-threaded ties, or fashioned more like a ‘desert’ boot with high sides or turndown cuffs.  Others might be unadorned mid-calf boots with thong ties or heavily beaded moccasins with add-on leggings, although there are countless variations of these basic shapes.

For Michael Knapp, a bead artisan for the past 40 years, beadwork is like snowflakes, “No two designs are the same,” he explains.  Knapp, who comes from a Winnebago background, recalls his first pow wow experience as an impressionable seven year-old who joined a dance circle.  “I loved it and wanted to stay, but my father who was ready to leave had to pull me out of the arena kicking and screaming.”

Yet out of adversity can come raw determination, and for Knapp it turned into a passion for the art of Native beadwork.  His enthusiasm and knowledge is palpable as he travels to pow wows around the country selling his designs, meeting up with friends and, yes, still dancing.  “The pow wow community is like one big family.   Everyone is your aunt and uncle and everyone looks out for everyone else,” says Knapp.  It’s where he met his wife Pam and taught her the intricate skill.  Together they create exquisite custom pieces from their two-person studio, KQ Designs, in Lexington, Kentucky.

Knapp describes moccasin regalia this way, “There are two types of footwear, the Southern Plains boots or high top moccasins.  They’re not usually fully beaded though they might have a beaded medallion on the ‘vamp’, the top part of the shoe.  Southern tribes like Kiowa, Comanche, and Oklahoma Indians typically wear those.  Historically the Seminoles did very little beadwork, mostly patchwork applique with different colored materials and some accent edge beading.  In California they rarely used beadwork.  But in the Plains area, the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, they did a lot of beading and the women’s dresses have fully beaded yokes, moccasins and leggings.  The Plateau region of Oregon, Montana and Northern Utah use a different style called ‘flat stitch’ to refer to the way beads are tacked down onto deer hide or cloth.  And the Central Plains people, like the Southern people or Cheyenne, used lazy stitch, eight to ten beads wide, creating the look of texture.”

Knapp uses only Czechoslovakian glass beads and keeps an extensive collection of antique beads for restoration.  “Every dancer wears moccasins.  There are several different styles for women depending on what is typical for their tribe or the part of the country they are from and what dance style they dance.  For men it’s a basic pair of fully beaded moccasins using the lazy stitch style of beadwork.  Men who dance ‘traditional’ or ‘straight dance’ wear men’s leggings, though for traditional dance it’s optional.  In the old days all men wore leggings.  With women there are more choices.”

The Knapps bead their moccasins on brain tanned deer hide, a method of soaking the skins with emulsified deer brain oils to condition and soften the stretched hide.

Men Moccasins - Michael and Pam Knapp from KQ Designs photos  - All photo credit to Pam Knapp

Men Moccasins – Michael and Pam Knapp from KQ Designs photos – All photo credit to Pam Knapp

“The amber tone moccasins come from smoking the hides over a fire.  If it’s smoked a lot, it turns brownish or a light tan.  For pow wows the primary choice is white, the hide’s original color.”  As for the thread, Knapp swears by waxed dental floss that he feels is twenty times stronger than nylon thread.

Although much of the regalia today can be very contemporary, many beaders feel that some of the changes are good.  “Though rhinestones and mirrors on beadwork are only from the last fifteen years and don’t reflect traditional styles, it comes down to artistry and we are very open to it,” says Knapp.  “It has more to do with the dancer as a beautiful piece of art.”

Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty (Sioux and Assiniboine) is another bespoke beader whose work has won numerous awards and been featured at the National Museum for the American Indian in Washington, DC and the Denver Art Museum.  While living on Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation, she learned the art from her mother, Joyce Growing Thunder, one of the most prominent beaders in North America.

Mother and daughter now reside in California in the same place where Juanita’s father’s people came for the Gold Rush in the 19th Century.  They still refer to moccasins by the Sioux word ‘hampas’.   Through the year the women prepare their crafts for the annual Indian Market in Santa Fe where Juanita has participated for the past 27 years.  Joyce and Juanita incorporate a wealth of stitches in their extraordinary designs.  “Some of the stitches we use are applique, lazy stitch, edging, whipstitch, Southern, peyote, brick or loom beadwork.  We try to be traditional and stay within our own tribal style but we know how to do others too,” says Fogarty who teaches summer classes in beading and doll making at the Idyllwild Arts center.

Fogarty has a strong sense of responsibility to pass along the craft.  “I was raised to appreciate the ability and gift of creating such works of art and to further my knowledge.  I carry great respect for my heritage.  It is my hope that in being able to hold true to the traditions within my work, I can be reassured these creations carry on the traditions of the people in a good way.”

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