Deep within the Culver Art Collection, past the many portraits and landscapes, among a group of boxes of cultural artifacts, are several pairs of footwear. They are not by any haute culture designer, nor do we know, in fact, who made them. We do believe we have an idea of who might have worn two of the pairs, as each entered the collection with a name attached. The others only carry the name of the tribe most associated with their design. “Tribe?” you ask. Ah, yes, these are the preferred footwear of members of a tribe, American Indians, to be general, members of the Sioux Nation from the mid to late 1800’s, to be exact, and, yes, these items are moccasins.
Donated as part of a broader American Indian collection by Ralph W. Smith in the early 1960’s, the group represents several ages of wearers. The smallest, a pair of infant doeskin booties, attributed to the Blackfoot Sioux, with a green, white and red beaded mountain design is still soft and supple. The white edging contains accents of yellow within several dark blue W forms spaced evenly around the foot. The loving touch of their creator is still evident. The second pair are made for a child several months older.
They are also doeskin, but thought to be Lakota Sioux. Their design is much simpler, a radiating sun or flower of dyed porcupine quills. Triangles of orange, inverting to blue and tipped in yellow, encircle a sky-blue center. Each of these pairs date to 1860.
A third pair of child’s moccasins, also Lakota Sioux, are predominantly adorned with red dyed porcupine quills. Each foot has two yellow crosses and an encircling band of turquoise blue beads. Their use of color is similar to an older pair of adult Lakota Sioux moccasins, but the later are much more intricate and may have been created specifically for dance, as the brass bells and feathers, on the tip of their long forked tongues, would surely bounce and sing if provided appropriate movements. These moccasins are simply spectacular with the sky-blue double boarder broken by a mirrored horse track design and the drawstring hide wrapped in red-dyed quill.
The last two pairs are more utilitarian than the quill and beaded moccasins. Their wear provides indication of use but little else. Each, though, came with an attached tag listing the prior owner. One pair attributes Henry Oscar One Bull (1853-1947) as its former occupant, the other, the most famous leader of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, holy man and chief, Sitting Bull (c.1831-1890).
Both pairs of moccasins are smaller than one would expect. Over the last century, the leather soles, having shrunk, are rock hard. The tops, though stiff, still have some play in them, but retain the gnarled shape of discarded slippers when displayed. Henry Oscar One Bull’s pair have a traditional Sioux white beaded background. Two green triangles, one longer than the other, descend from the top of the tongue toward the toes. On each, within the white area between the green, is a diamond shape in blue with a red bead trim and a yellow rectangular center. This shape repeats itself in the foot band with the addition of a number of mirror image triangular patterns in the same colors. These moccasins, being later than the others, also include the introduction of a red broadcloth edging around the opening.
The design on Sitting Bull’s moccasins consists of a triangular field of light blue beads with a red diamond or lozenge form in the center. The diamond has a yellow rectangle center with red radiating triangles, each mirroring one-half of the diamond. If each triangle could fold inward, over their connecting points, the lozenge would be intact. Higher in the tongue, to the left and right of the diamond, are two dark blue crosses with yellow centers. Around the whole of the foot are three bands, red – yellow – red, broken every few inches by an hourglass shape of light and dark blue, split at the center with a single bead line of yellow.
How, you may ask, are we sure these moccasins once belonged to Sitting Bull? We can never be 100% certain. Sitting Bull was a celebrity at the end of the 19th century, romanticized in the eyes of the American public as he traveled for 4 months with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show in 1885. He was notorious for charging unknown admirers for his autograph, though gave away much of what he owned to the poor and homeless. He also favored those he came to respect. One memorable figure was the young woman from Ohio, who could shoot a gun better than most, Annie Oakley. The documents in our records do not record the provenance of the collection prior to Ralph W. Smith’s ownership. Our benefactor provided a partial inventory, but not a source list. We do have a letter from Frank M. Seltzer, an Honorary Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution, concerning the rarity and value of the collection in 1965, but no mention of how Mr. Smith assembled his collection.
One indication our attribution of former ownership may have a shred of validity, however, can be provided in the form of a story. In 2005, Culver Academies hosted a visiting group of Lakota Sioux spiritual leaders. This included Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Melvin Minor, Assistant Curator for the Sioux Indian Museum, and Merle Whistler, a traditional Medicine Man. While dining together, I casually mentioned the moccasins in our collection to Melvin Minor. “Oh, everybody has Sitting Bull’s moccasins,” he replied. Knowing this to be true, I laughed and said, “Yes, but would you like to examine them?” “I would never pass up such an opportunity,” he said. Chief Arvol Looking Horse, who overheard our conversation, quickly responded, “I’d like to come too.”
After dinner, the three of us walked over to the building housing the Art Collection’s Archive. Unlocking the door, we entered a room lined with racks of shelving holding everything from Japanese dolls to a small Greek marble torso. Pulling a box down from the shelf, I opened it and, realizing that I had inadvertently grabbed the wrong box, apologized, “Oh, sorry, these are Henry Oscar One Bull’s moccasins.” Chief Looking Horse opened his eyes wide and said, “Oh, we know Henry! Henry is Sitting Bull’s nephew and most important biographer of Sitting Bull for the Sioux People.” As the Chief and Melvin Minor examined the moccasins, I reached up, retrieved the correct box from the shelf, and handed it to the curator. Gingerly taking the moccasins out of their tissue wrapping and holding them one hand, Mr. Minor looked deep inside the moccasins, turned them over and traced his index finger over the soles. Turning them once again, he reached inside and drew out an old paper tag tied with some string to the drawstring loop.
I had seen this before but had never fully examined it. Melvin Minor drew in a breath and then looked directly at me. “Can I burn some sage here?” he asked. “You want to burn sage in the archive?” I exclaimed. “Well,” he said, while holding up the moccasins, “these look good, but the partial name on this tag is very similar to the agent at Sitting Bull’s reservation, and I feel like I need to say a prayer.” Turning toward the Chief but speaking to me, he said, “They might actually be Sitting Bull’s moccasins and I don’t want to pass on an opportunity to honor our ancestors.” Retrieving a small piece of broken marble from a discarded pedestal, I placed it on a table with the two pairs of moccasins. Melvin Minor opened his shoulder bag and produced a medicine pouch from which he drew a dried piece of sage. Quickly lighting the end with a small lighter, he turned it as the flame consumed the leaves and buds at its tip. Allowing it to burn Melvin Minor dropped the smoking sage on the marble, he moved the rising aromatic smoke with his hands and chanted a prayer.
This may not be a full and legal attribution, but it is a story I will carry and hand on to each student who spends a moment looking through the gallery when these are on display. I will also remind them of this: together, these six pairs of 19th century quill and beaded moccasins provide a snapshot of Sioux culture, but they also further our understanding of the human desire to live with beauty, especially as a component of our most functional objects. It is a sense of beauty akin to Modernism’s creed: art for art’s sake, allowing color, line, shape and texture to move beyond utilitarian design and societal concerns, to enrich the spirit through pure visual pleasure. It pops up in all cultures and religions. It is noticeable even in societies eschewing representational art. Our Muslim relations, for example, who adorn the space surrounding the sacred written words of the Quran, though adding nothing to the importance of its meaning, deepen the reader’s love for the Divine and his Prophet, may he be praised.
What can this do for us? Just be observant. Look for opportunities to both appreciate and inject a sense of visual pleasure into your world. We may not need to share a universal aesthetic, but we do have a universal need to feed the human spirit by nurturing beauty.