My Old Moccasins   (12.01.03)

From whence they came  -  my old moccasins

They sit in the closet most of the time, these old moccasins of mine.  They have grown old with me and still give me a sense of being a little closer to nature whenever I put them on.  The soles have more holes than sole, but I wear them around the house when I want to ‘dress up’.  They have some simple, but attractive bead work on the top and rabbit fur around the edges.  They used to have a delightful wood smoke smell from the old fashioned smoke tanning, but they’ve long since settled down to be very tame, only giving a hint of their origin if they get wet.

I have owned a pair of Canadian, aboriginal moccasins for most of my life.  These present old friends I bought at the Luxton Trading Post in Banff back in the late 60s.  There, the moccasins used to be stacked in varying sizes along a wall in the store.  A hand written tag on each pair give the name of the First Nations craftswoman who made them.  At the Trading Post almost all had Morley on the tag as the home of their maker.  You couldn’t get much more local than that, and that is where my old moccasins were made.

My Dad first persuaded me to wear moccasins when I was five years old and living in Regina.  He told me that, with those on my feet, I would be the fastest runner around in the winter.  I believed him completely.  After all, I was five and he was my Dad - trusted knower-of-all-things-important.  Whenever we had a fresh dump of snow I lashed on the moccasins and romped about in the drifts.  Whenever I came across a neighbourhood kid I would challenge him to a race and usually beat him.  Of course, I put that down to my moccasins.  I didn’t notice that my opponent had to spend as much effort keeping on his rubber boots as he did running.

Every year, usually in September, we would have the moccasin-fitting ritual.  That is where Mom and Dad would have me put my feet on a piece of paper on which they would draw the outline of my foot.  I don’t know where Dad took these templates, but at Christmas time, in my stocking, I would find the latest set of moccasins that perfectly fit my rapidly growing feet.  I would be extra happy if we had some fresh snow on the ground so I could go outside and try them out.  Those Christmas moccasins were traditional and plain - real working footwear.  They didn’t have any bead work and were high enough to come up well over my ankle and then be lashed in place with long, leather ties.

I always got a lot of attention whenever I wore my moccasins and some of my friends convinced their folks to buy them.  We hung around together, thinking ourselves very much outdoor people and certainly unique.  That uniqueness wore a little thin by the time I got to grade five.  That winter the kids in my school room finally decided to tell me that they couldn’t stand the smell of my wet moccasins when I wore them to class.  I almost stopped wearing them altogether, but I used to love putting them on when I took my dog for a walk. 

There was a time, back in the 1950s, when deer skin moccasins, jackets and vests, complete with beautiful beadwork, were readily available in Morley.  I was a camper and then a counsellor at the original YMCA Camp Chief Hector from about 1955 to 1962.  During that time, many of the senior leaders and especially the camp director who we called ‘Chief’, bought moccasins, jackets and vests from the craftspeople of Morley.  There were several women making these articles of clothing, but if you wanted the best beadwork everyone sought out Mrs. Mary Simeon’s work.  Her clothes were unique and attractive.

One of the leaders that went to Mrs. Simeon for a jacket was particularly fastidious.   She showed him a rack of jackets and he went through each one, looking at the beadwork, checking the sewing in the seams, and the quality of the leather itself.  On the first jacket he looked at he found a small hole in the leather.  It was hidden under a sleeve, but it was there nonetheless so he moved on to the next.  Again he found a small hole, this time hidden under a collar.  Mrs. Simeon looked on, but said nothing.  After looking at the last jacket and discovering another well concealed hole he turned to Mrs. Simeon and asked, “Do you have any jackets without holes?”

Mrs Simeon, in her stoic way calmly answered him,  “You know, we don’t scare the deer to death.”*

I recently decided to replace my old, beaded moccasins with something equivalent.  After searching in Cochrane, Banff, and Calgary for a new pair of locally made moccasins, I’ve come away empty-handed.  I did find some Canadian moccasins made by an aboriginal company in Manitoba, but I want something that comes from where I live.  I also found some products from across the Pacific made to look like Canadian aboriginal products.  Those were definitely of no interest to me.

I hope that the younger people in Morley are learning the skills from their elders for making moccasins and doing beadwork art.  I am sure there are some people who still have the skills, because you can see a result of their craft worn by dancers whenever there are aboriginal dances performed.  However, I am worried that there is not enough volume produced to make these products marketable.  What happens when we once again look inward to our own communities only to find that the skills needed no longer exist?

There are probably some financial and marketing reasons involved.  Can enough volume be created and sustained to meet demand?  Is there a willingness to market such products?  Are the businesses who provide the store front for selling the moccasins looking to market moccasins so inexpensively that they can’t be produced with enough profit for all the parties involved?

I may be a bit unique because of my exposure to aboriginal clothing during my formative years, but I do consider it part of my western culture.

I guess I’ll just keep putting on my old moccasins from time to time and revel in the fact that at least I have them.  They seem to have come from a time that is passed and I think that is sad.

*As told by Bill Halliday, one of the camp Chiefs during the 50s.

Feb. 2012:   After writing this I was in Banff for a visit and went into the old Luxton Trading Post to look around.  To my surprise, I found many bins of handmade moccasins.  The attendant said they were done by crafts-people in Morley.  Sadly, I couldn't find any to fit my humongous feet.