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Flowers where we step

Last weekend I saw a pair of sparkly sequined moccasins on a clearance rack at the mall. They were lined in faux fur and the size that one of my granddaughters wears. She loves moccasins, sparkles and cozy warm feet, and they were less than half-price. I wondered: Should I buy them? The young woman working at the store told me that they could be had for an additional 10 percent off. Sold!

The style of moccasin that we often see in shoe stores are gathered/puckered at the vamp, over the toes. This is a distinctly Ojibwe design that has been around for a very long time. Many believe that the word "Ojibwe," which implies the verb "to pucker," refers to that distinctive moccasin design.

Classic Ojibwe moccasins are made from three pieces: the vamp (top of the foot), the wrap-around footbed itself, which is gathered onto the vamp, and a cuff that goes around the ankle. (The cuffs are tied in front to secure the moccasin onto the foot.) The footbed is always made of hide, but the vamp and cuff might be made of wool or velveteen.

There is another distinctive feature to traditional Ojibwe moccasins: the beaded floral design on the vamp and sometimes on the cuff. Here in Onigamiising we live near the western edge of the Woodland Indian cultures, which extend from the East Coast to western Minnesota. The wooded environments of our tribes are reflected in our traditional ways of life, including artwork and clothing.

Moccasins are not only clothing but works of art, both in their basic construction/design and in how they are decorated. Ojibwe moccasins are often beaded with floral designs on the vamps and cuffs. These vines and blossoms, leaves and tendrils, curve in the graceful arcs and shapes of living plants. These lovely beaded flowers grace the feet of both men and women, both boys and girls.

There is a story about the reason for the flowers on the toes of Ojibwe moccasins. The explanation, which comes near the end of the story, is that we wear the images of flowers in honor all of the living plants in our pathway as we travel through our journey here on Earth. We are reminded of this every time we put on moccasins, every time we glance down as we walk or dance. This awareness of the plants that grow where we walk and what they provide — food, clean air, beauty — becomes part of our everyday existence as we aspire to Mino-Bimaadiziiwin, the living of the good life.

My own moccasins spend much of their time in a desk drawer in my office, next to a stack of CDs and used envelopes. Each time I open the drawer I see them: their construction, the beaded vamp, the flowers that represent the plant lives that grow in the woods. Every so often, when I want to feel comfortable and physically closer to all that they represent, I put them on.

Will I tell these things to my granddaughter when I give her the shoebox with the sparkly moccasins? I will say, "Do they fit?" (The young woman in the store assured me that they could be exchanged or returned.) I will ask, "Are they comfortable?" I will watch her try them out, walking around the room on carpet or kitchen tile, and I will think that she is growing so fast that now her feet are a size larger than mine. I will feel happy watching her wiggle her toes and walk up and down to check out the fit and feel of those fashionably silvery moccasins that are of the design that was invented by the Ojibwe long ago. And although there is no traditional Ojibwe beadwork on the vamp, as I watch my granddaughter's steps I will see vines and blossoms, leaves and tendrils, and feel the goodness of our existence. Mino-Bimaadiziiwin.

Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, an award-winning writer and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Email her at lgrover@d.umn.edu.

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