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Cheyenne Moccasins with thunderbird designs Part 6.

This issue's edition of the MoccasinCorner presents the sixth article of a seven part series on the Cheyenne use of Thunderbird symbols in the beadwork embroidery of fully beaded men's moccasins.

All seven pair of the Cheyenne Moccasins to be showcased in this series will be found today in the permanent Native American Footwear Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada, and with the help of Jack Heriard, the founder and editor of Whispering Wind magazine, we were able to convince Ms. Suzanne McLean, the Collection Manager of the Bata Shoe Museum, to help with this article and grant museum approval to publish Wilbur Cheek's photos in this series. While Wilbur's great photos and Suzanne's collection details, and museum approvals were essential to the publication of this series, the ethnographic story of Cheyenne Thunderbird symbology in moccasin beadwork design could not have been told without the earlier efforts of two other important individuals who I believe have made lasting contributions to our understanding of Cheyenne material culture, Tyrone Stewart and Mike Cowdrey.


In addition to the photo taken by Wilbur Cheeks (Photo 1), we also have the museum collection documentation researched and provided by Ms. Suzanne Mclean to help us understand this pair. The collection documentation can prove to be very helpful in instances where we are attempting to conduct analysis based solely on a photograph without benefit of a hands-on inspection of the actual moccasins themselves.

Unlike the other moccasins in this series, which were purchased directly from Santa Fe dealers, this pair was acquired at Sotheby's New York American Indian Art Auction in 1983. The collection documentation describes this pair of Cheyenne moccasins as:
   Beaded shoes. Round toe; no heel; rawhide sole; sticker on
   sole handwritten: 'Loaned to Indian Museum by MLB
   Baldwi', worn. Attached tag with ' #295 (W800.25) man's
   moccasins, Re: Cheyenne style beadwork. R. Conn
   3-26-66-cm, $30.00'. Upper decorated at edges of vamp
   withblue, yellow, and pink with yellow pigment. Separate
   triangle shaped skin tongue. Skin lace threaded through
   holes in skin below ankle. Skin cuff, split at back. Native
   tanned skin, rawhide sole, glass beads.

This pair of moccasins was displayed by the Bata Shoe Museum in their "Paths across the Plains" exhibition during 2003-2005, and at the Bata Shoe Museum, The Colonnade, Temporary Exhibit, "In the Steps of our Ancestors" during 2003 during 1993 and 1994.


The reference to R. Conn in the collection description obviously refers to Richard Conn, the former curator of the American Indian Art Collection of the Denver Art Museum, and an acknowledged authority on Cheyenne material culture. It is also interesting to note that back in 1966, this pair of moccasins sold for a mere $30.00! I can assure you that if this pair was on the market today, they would sell for a good deal more. The collection description is accurate, describes the moccasins in the photo fairly well, and provides all of the information necessary to clearly identify this pair as being Cheyenne.

Looking at the pair in Photo 1,the design element centered on the toe, the seven design elements evenly spaced around the perimeter lanes of beadwork, the beaded instep lane, and the split heel seam are all correct for a Cheyenne attribution. The Thunderbirds on the vamps are similar to others in this series, and without curvilinear details, missing legs, and the straight line/triangle construction details, the Thunderbirds on this pair are another example of the Class II Symbolic birds. Note also that while all of the other Thunderbirds in this series are either red (white core rose) or blue (dark navy blue), the symbol on this pair has been beaded in dark transparent green. This particular bead is a classic color favored by the Cheyenne bead workers, and was used in the tracks on the vamps of "Buffalo Track" style moccasins with white backgrounds. This same green color was also normally used in the same manner as other dark beads like white core rose and navy blue as outline colors over lighter colored beads for a wide variety of popular Cheyenne design elements. This one example of Cheyenne color preference is important because the use of green on this one example supports a thesis that green, like the more commonly seen blue and red, is another acceptable color for the Thunderbird symbol.


In looking at the four legged quadruped symbols in the perimeter design space of this pair, I am pleased that there was at least one set of moccasins in the Bata Shoe Thunderbird series that used this very important Cheyenne design in concert with the equally important Thunderbird. There are many quadruped animals, most real, and perhaps some mythic that were important to the Cheyenne people for one reason or another. Dogs, antelope, deer, horses, and panthers, including the mythic Algonkian Under Water Panther come readily to mind as important quadrupeds which might have been symbolized in Cheyenne beadwork. Deer, antelope, and other four legged animals were important to the Cheyenne people for the food and utilitarian tool and clothing material they provided to the tribe. The introduction of the horse to tribes living along the Upper Missouri helped transform the Cheyenne from a sedentary woodlands tribe, to a mobile plains tribe following the buffalo, and living off of the large herds that roamed the western plains.

While the contributions of the horse to the nomadic Native American Society of the 19th century is well understood and well appreciated, a more diminutive four legged animal is less often recognized. According to Cheyenne oral history, the dog was a valued member of tribal life long before the people knew anything about the horse. There is no way today to know for sure what the Cheyenne four legged symbols are meant to represent, only the Cheyenne woman who first used this symbol would know for sure. Richard Conn believed that most of the symbols he found on Cheyenne material culture in the Denver Art Museum were meant to symbolize horses (Conn, n.d.). Mike Cowdrey has made a case that some of the symbols were antelope or deer, and I continue to believe that the quadrupeds with the tall vertical tails are Cheyenne symbols for the dog. In looking specifically at the perimeter design elements on this pair, I believe that the four legged symbolic animals with the tall vertical tails are most likely symbolic of the importance of the domestic dog to Cheyenne people.

While there is only one pair out of the seven Thunderbird moccasins in this series based on Bata Shoe examples with quadruped figures, the combination of Thunderbirds and quadrupeds of various types is relatively common in Cheyenne moccasin decoration. During the summer of1991 I was studying Cheyenne moccasins in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa Oklahoma with the museum curator Dan McPike. The museum has a superb collection of Southern Plains material, and during that visit I had the opportunity to inspect two other pairs of Cheyenne moccasins which incorporated Thunderbird and quadruped design elements. Photo 2 is another pair that Ty Stewart studied for his two American Indian Crafts and Cultures articles on Cheyenne Moccasins published in 1971 (Stewart 1971). On this pair there is a Class II Symbolic Thunderbird used as the central design feature of the vamp, in much the same fashion as the Thunderbird depiction used on the pair in this article, except that the bird is predominantly red, rather than green. In the perimeter lane decoration, we see the same quadruped (dog) with the tall vertical tail, but on this pair the quadruped figures alternate around the perimeter with the classic Cheyenne "1890s Triangle" designs. In the Gilcrease pair, the quadruped figures are beaded solidly using white core rose beads, and like the Thunderbird design on the vamp, the quadruped figures include a triangular "heart" symbol beaded in green. The quadruped figures in the Bata example (Photo 1) are outlined in dark navy blue and the body colors alternate between greasy yellow and pink. These two pair of moccasins with their slightly different decorative approaches to the quadruped symbol, provides the reader some insight into the range of colors and designs that the Cheyenne used in beading these animal symbols on moccasins.

Photo 3 is a pair of moccasins I studied in the Gilcrease and although we can see the rather typical navy blue symbolic Thunderbird on the moccasin vamp, the use and look of the quadruped designs on this pair are a little different. The blue background is a little rarer for Cheyenne, who typically prefer white backgrounds, but this use is not uncommon, and the moccasins do have all of the other tell-tale Cheyenne attributes. The use of a split heel seem, seven design elements around the perimeter, and beaded instep lane are all correct for Cheyenne moccasin preferences, but the treatment on the vamp is decidedly different. The placement of the Thunderbird is typical of most of the other moccasins discussed in this series, but the unusual placement of the two small red quadruped figures in the vamp is unique. While the quadruped designs on the Bata example (Photo 1) and the Gilcrease moccasins shown in Photo 2 appear to represent dogs in my opinion, the look of the designs on this pair with much shorter tails, makes me think more of a deer representation. Notice that these figures, while beaded in solid red beads like the designs on the moccasins in Photo 2, they do not have the "heart" symbology present. There are a great many variations of both the Thunderbird and quadruped design elements to be found in all manner of Cheyenne beaded articles.

The three examples presented here, showing Cheyenne use of Thunderbird and Quadruped designs on moccasins should provide Whispering Wind readers a beginning basis to better understand Cheyenne use of these important symbols as applied to beadwork embroidery.


This series has been made possible by several individuals and organizations I would like to thank. Jim Beuoy first brought the photos of the moccasins I plan to present in this series to my attention several years ago when he sent copies to me as a gift. Without Jim's thoughtfulness this series would not be possible. Later I was to learn that the artist who created these photos was actually Wilbur Cheeks, a friend of both Jim's and mine, who personally selected these moccasins to study and chose to photograph them, during one of his research visits to Toronto's famous Bata Shoe Museum. Wilbur's knowledge of Native American material culture, sharp eye, and photographic skill has presented Whispering Wind readers with a unique opportunity to better understand the Cheyenne use of Thunderbird symbols in moccasin beadwork embroidery.

Thanks also to Suzanne McLean of the Bata Shoe Museum in

Toronto, Tyrone Stewart, Mike Cowdrey, Jack Heriard, and Whispering Wind magazine for making this opportunity to learn more about Cheyenne culture possible.


Conn, Richard. (n.d.). "Cheyenne Style Beadwork". American Indian Hobbyist, #43, 7:2.

Cooley, Jim. (1986). Southern Plains Women's Moccasins and the Mohonk Lodge. Moccasin Tracks. 11:6.

Cowdrey, Mike. Arrow Elk Society Ledger, A Southern Cheyenne Record of the 1870s (Santa Fe: Morning Star Gallery, 1999)

Cowdrey, Mike. American Indian Horse Masks (Nicasio, CA: Hawk Hill Press, 2006)

Cowdrey, Mike. "The Turtle Hangs Before: Celestial Templates in Cheyenne Cosmology, "European Review of Native American Studies, 17(2): 1-10, 2003

Cowdrey, Mike, personal correspondence, 1992-2009.

Kincaide, Reese. (1930). Genuine Indian Bead Work and Art Goods. Catalogue of the Mohonk Lodge, Colony, OK.

Kroeber, Alfred L. (1983). The Arapaho. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Marriott, Alice. (1956). The Trade Guild of the Southern Cheyenne Women. Bulletin of the Oklahoma Anthropological Society, Volume II.

Phillips, Ruth Bliss. (1986). Dreams and Designs: Iconographic Problems in Great Lakes Twined Bags. Bulletin ofthe Detroit Institute of Arts. 62:1.

Seger, John H. (1905). Tradition of the Cheyenne Indians: Oral history of the Cheyenne People as told by one who was appointed to keep the tradition.

Stewart, Tyrone. (1971). Cheyenne Moccasins, Part 1 & 2. American Indian Crafts and Culture. 5:8,9.
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Title Annotation:Moccasin Corner
Author:Kostelnik, Michael
Publication:Whispering Wind
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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