Photography: Christopher Dorantes

This Museum of Indian Arts & Culture’s exhibit features the art and craftsmanship of Native American footwear throughout history and as contemporary fashion pieces.

For Maxine McBrinn, even bunions can be beautiful. Not bunions, per se, but the evidence of them left in imprints of the wearer’s foot contours in an old, old pair of moccasins. Imagine her enthusiasm when she curated Stepping Out: 10,000 Years of Walking the West, an exhibition of 80 pairs of shoes at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe. Among the footwear are sandals dating back thousands of years that were found in the dry caves of New Mexico and nearby regions; moccasins from the Plains and Southwest from the museum’s significant collection, including many beautifully beaded or quilled examples being exhibited for the first time in decades; and contemporary high fashion footwear made by artists like Teri Greeves, Lisa Telford, and Emil Her Many Horses.

“Getting to spend time discovering, handling, and studying Native footwear, both moccasins and sandals, was a privilege,” McBrinn says. “When you hold one of these shoes, you know that it was created for a specific person and would have fit them perfectly. Both sandals and moccasins show the imprint of the feet they protected. Many times, each toe and the curve of the arch is easily seen. I can often guess whether the wearer was a man, a woman, or a child by the size. These shoes were made using local materials — yucca, hide, sinew, and perhaps ocher or other natural colorants. Many were further decorated using nonlocal materials like glass beads, which were manufactured in Europe and acquired through trade, or tin tinklers, and even dyed feathers.”

Beaded or quilled designs, McBrinn explains, are a message of identity as well as of caring. “A Native consultant suggested that a beautifully beaded pair of an Apache child’s moccasins shown in the exhibition must have been made for a much-loved grandchild. Who else would put the extra time and effort into making them special? Other designs are meant to be read by the wearer as opposed to the viewer, for whom they are upside down, and remind the wearer who they are and what is expected of them.”

Stepping Out: 10,000 Years of Walking the West is on view through September 3 at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe.

From the April 2018 issue.