January 29th, 2009
A Plains Indian delegation to a Washington, D.C. peace conference presented this pair of beaded moccasins to President Ulysses S. Grant in the 1870s. The shoes are most likely made from deer or buffalo hide. Small glass beads, which became popular among the Plains Indians in the mid-nineteenth century, create the intricate red, white, and blue flags and stars. The exact tribal origin of the moccasins appears to be have been lost, but some experts point out that both the Lakota and the Cheyenne frequently incorporated the image of the American flag into their work during this era.
It is interesting that any Indian group would adopt the use of the American flag, considering the government’s history of violence and oppression towards them. And, though some Indians referred to him as the Great Father, Grant’s presidency was an especially great time of upheaval for Native Americans. He signed the Indian Appropriation Act in 1871, essentially declaring all Indians wards of the state. His administration continued the trend of herding tribes on to reservations and erecting schools to assimilate and “civilize” Indian children. Perhaps the makers of these moccasins wished the shoes to be a peace offering, a sign of solidarity with the oppressor that would allow them to keep their lands or acquire special assistance from the government. Flags, indeed, had long been exchanged with peace treaties, while Wild West shows and celebrations surrounding the American centennial made the stars and stripes an even more common image across the country. Then again, Native Americans may have incorporated the flag as an image of ironic defiance and a reminder that the tribes continued to exist despite what seemed the best efforts of the US government to eradicate them. The flag was often depicted upside-down as well, which, knowingly or unknowingly to the Native Americans, is an official signal of distress.
Grant’s grandson Chapman donated the moccasins to the Smithsonian, where they are currently housed in the National Museum of American History, in 1973.