What Makes These Things Kiowa?

ISSN 2167-8812

Open Inquiry Archive.  Vol. 1, No. 6 (2012)

What Makes These Things Kiowa?


Bradley A. Finson

Regarding the Kiowa articles in the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH) collections, former Assistant Curator of Ethnology Jason Jackson asked a question: “What makes these things Kiowa?” The same question was posed to an elderly Kiowa bead worker in reference to moccasins. Her answer, quite simply was,  “It’s how they’re made.” [Note 1] Her answer seemed acceptable on a surface level, assuming she meant the physical structure of these items.

Pondering her answer, a reassessment of specifically what sets Kiowa as moccasins apart from those of other Plains peoples seemed in order. Two moccasin types were common in the Plains region, either single or two piece construction. Kiowa moccasins were made of two pieces, but this is not enough to distinguish Kiowa moccasins from those of other groups who also used a two piece construction in their footwear. Unlike their neighbors to the north in the Central Plains, the Kiowa preference was for paint, fringes, and cone tinklers as decoration on clothing items, with beadwork confined to narrow lanes or on fringes.

What makes these moccasins Kiowa is the expression of a personal aesthetic that operates in a wider cultural aesthetic of color and design. Artists selected colors and design motifs that held personal significance for them and those they made the moccasins for. Choices were also determined by cultural associations assigned to colors and designs. A number of factors need to be considered in relation to this, including: aesthetics; color iconography; the different types of moccasins represented in the collections, and; anomalies that occur among the Collections’ moccasins.

Prevalent design motifs in nineteenth-century Kiowa beadwork included linear elements with internal elaborations of contrasting hues, small hexagons and triangles, and abstracted floral motifs. Color choices and the availability of beads also reflected overarching associations that expressed elements of Kiowa worldview. [Note 2] Unfortunately, the majority of the Kiowa moccasins in the SNOMNH ethnographic collections do not include the makers’ names, which is problematic. Without knowing the identity of the maker it is impossible to give specific explanations for the colors and designs that were used. Unless an item is recognized by someone as a particular individual’s work, we can only interpret these things within a broader cultural milieu. Because of this, personal interviews with elders and community members becomes vitally important, as they are able to express the continued importance and relevance of cultural and cosmological implications of color repertoires and design motifs, things that are borne out in the ethnographic record. There is also the added complication of multiple levels of meanings associated with both colors and motifs. For example, while red was often associated with the sun and buffalo, an individual who belonged to a doctoring society might interpret red differently. Regarding design motifs such as triangles, a woman might well have seen these as representing lodges or points in the landscape where something important happened in hers or her family’s life, while her male relative might readily interpret a triangle as a lance or arrow point.

The moccasins in the Collections date from the late nineteenth century through the early decades of the twentieth century, and can be assessed within a nineteenth-century aesthetic. The colors used have cosmological associations, such as red, white and yellow relating to the sun and the tribal palladium, the T’aime. The T’aime were small human-like effigies that held a central place in the K’ado (the major Kiowa tribal ceremony) and were carried into battle as war charms. [Note 3] Other color pairings such as blue and red bore socio-political messages relating to leadership. With the exception of three examples which will be discussed in the context of anomalies and responses to assimilation policies of the federal government, design motifs are consistent.

Thirteen out of twenty-four pairs of moccasins were selected as representative of the Kiowa moccasins in the museum’s ethnographic collections. Three pairs of moccasins date from the 1930s through the 1940s. The use of color and design motifs is consistent from the nineteenth-century examples to those created under the Works Project Administration (W.P.A.) Indian Project of the early twentieth century, designed to foster Native American arts traditions during the Great Depression. Among twenty-four pairs of moccasins catalogued as Kiowa, five pairs display attributes that are more likely Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Comanche. Of the remaining nineteen pairs, six were not available for study at the time the materials were researched. However, from the catalogue descriptions of these six pairs, color and design use remains consistent with nineteenth-century Kiowa beadwork. A pair of women’s boot moccasins (Figure 1, E/1957/10/37)   displays affinities that appear to be Comanche rather than Kiowa. The other three pairs, collected under the W. P. A. Indian Project, reflect designs that were market driven, as they were made for Anglo consumption, and one might well be the result of gift-giving or trade. Each of these anomalies will be discussed in a separate section.


Nineteenth-century Kiowa aesthetics incorporated specific color pairings and design elements in the form of narrow linear bands or lanes with small, geometric elements as internal elaborations worked in contrasting colors. These color pairings and design elements expressed concepts that formed the basis for Kiowa society and culture of the nineteenth century, and do not adhere to Western aesthetic paradigms. The only real universal aesthetic that spans temporal and spatial boundaries is that all humans possess the innate desire to beautify their world. Because of this, Western aesthetic systems cannot be applied cross-culturally with any degree of accuracy, as a basic sense of beauty is culturally determined. Additionally, in a Western context it is quite prevalent to assign objects, concepts, and art to categories of the sacred and secular. While this works in a Western cultural context, it cannot be applied to many non-Western cultures, especially those of Native North America.

Clear-cut distinctions between the sacred and secular simply held no place in nineteenth-century Kiowa thought, and such distinctions are still viewed as foreign concepts by many Kiowa today. These concepts are inextricably linked, part of the interwoven fabric of life, with one constantly informing the other. An individual’s expertise and facility was and is still highly regarded in Kiowa culture. Craftsmanship was a primary criterion for art, and a skilled hide and bead worker held as much esteem in the eyes of the community as any accomplished warrior did for his feats of valor in war. In spite of this, while beauty and craftsmanship was without question prerequisite for what was artistically acceptable, it was not the sole criteria for judging an article’s worth.

An article’s worth was also based on how effectively it communicated and reinforced cultural values and tenets, and this was one of the most important aspects of Kiowa aesthetics. For an item to be visually pleasing and fail in its expression of cultural ideals and values rendered it of less consequence, something simply pleasing to the eye. This ability for visual items to communicate cultural ideals was important for Native peoples in the Plains, and became increasingly more so during the Reservation era.

Decoration of clothing among southern Plains peoples followed a consistent pattern. Beadwork was generally confined to narrow lanes worked in a lazy stitch technique. Lazy stitch involves tacking down the thread or sinew every six beads with a small loop stitch. This creates a slight uplifting of the beads off the surface of the foundation material, providing a subtle tactile quality. Background fields were white, with small geometric elements such as triangles, rectangles, crosses, diamonds, and hexagons inside them. In some cases, design motifs are arranged as narrow contrasting rectangles abutting at their ends, and also have smaller design motifs in them (Fig. 2, E/1953/8/92), or as implied or segmented linear elements (Fig. 3, E/1951/1/24c).

Beaded lanes functioned as border elements, separating different zones or registers on the surface of an object, such as buffalo tracks (Fig. 4, E/1957/10/33 and Fig. 5, E/1953/8/74), to accentuate the flaps on women’s legging moccasins (Fig. 1, E/1957/10/37Fig. 6, E/1944/1/75a-b, Fig. 7, E/1952/4/64,  and Fig. 8, E/1944/1/117), and to cover sole and heel seams. Mineral-based stain was routinely used to create large color-shape areas. Yellow and green predominated as stain colors, but red was also used, though with less frequency (Fig. 1, E957/10/37Fig. 2, E/1953/8/92, Fig. 7, E/1952/4/64,  and Fig. 5, E/1953/8/74). In general, beadwork was used sparingly, and consistently draws attention to stained or natural hide-colored shape areas. Other aesthetic touches include fringes and tin or copper cone tinklers.

Color Iconography

There is little discussion of Kiowa color iconography outside a ceremonial context in the ethnographic literature. Because of this, interpretations forwarded herein are based primarily on interviews with Kiowa elders, traditionalists, and educators, as well as ethnographic sources. While these sources’ interpretations may differ from nineteenth-century perceptions of color, they are the most reliable information on nineteenth-century color, design motifs and their associations available to us today.

Kiowa society was hierarchically structured around a caste system that reflected martial enterprise as an integral aspect of culture.  Color and symbol use reflected cosmological sanctions for the existence of the warrior societies which were ranked in order based on the socio-economic status of their members. [Note 4] As a consequence, Historic Period art (eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) provided a vehicle for the expression of supernatural sanctions through color for the exercise of martial authority and maintaining status. [Note 5]

Historic Era color iconography is consistent in its meanings and associations both in a ceremonial and non-ceremonial context, and expressed elements of Kiowa cosmology. In the K’ado the gathering of the people in a single unified polity was reflected in a red-black color pairing, representing the Southern and Northern people respectively, while a white-yellow color pairing was symbolic of the T’aime.  A red-yellow color pairing represented martial concepts, while a red-blue pairing, commonly associated with leadership and authority, reflected the hierarchical structure of Kiowa society, and was linked to the highest caste, the Onde[Note 6]

In non-ceremonial contexts black represented martial prowess, valor, and service to the people, but could also signify the north and death as well as the sun. Green represented the south, regenerative concepts, water, and water creatures seen as potentially potent sources of power. Red represented the south, longevity, and referenced the sun and buffalo, the latter considered to be an intermediary between the sun and mortals. White was interpreted as representative of snow, cold, ice, the T’aime, purification, and also the buffalo as it rolled in wallows. As the buffalo did this it was perceived that an implicit transfer of power occurred from the sun to the buffalo. [Note 7] Yellow symbolized life force, growth, and seasonal change. Yellow, orange, and white could also represent the sun. Blue and red represented not only the Onde’, but power, medicine, and healing, while blue by itself was frequently associated with the Kiowa culture heroes, the  Pai-Tsalyi, or “Half Boys”, who gave the Kiowa their ten sacred bundles. [Note 8] For the reader’s convenience these color associations can be expressed in bulleted form as follows:

Ceremonial contexts

  • Red-black = the K’ado and the unity of all bands of the Kiowa people
  • White-yellow = the T’aime
  • Red-yellow = martial concepts
  • Red-blue = leadership and authority

Non-ceremonial contexts

  • Black = martial prowess, valor and service to the people, the north, death, and the sun
  • Green = the south, regenerative concepts, water, and creatures that live in water
  • Red = the sun and buffalo, the south and longevity
  • White = the T’aime, sun, snow, ice and cold
  • Yellow = life force, growth, seasonal change, and the sun
  • Orange = the sun
  • Blue = Pai-Tsalyi, culture heroes
  • Blue-red = the Onde’, power, medicine, healing

Expressions of Worldview

The red-black color pairing referencing the Kiowa people as a whole is seen in a small pair of moccasins (Fig. 4, E/1957/10/33) identified as Kiowa by Alice Marriott and Minnie Bearbow, a Cheyenne elder from Clinton, Oklahoma, as boys’ moccasins. [Note 9] They sport two narrow lanes of lazy stitch bead work in a black field bisected with a red zig-zag. Stained yellow, the moccasins have serrated cuffs, possibly from the use of crimping shears. The tongues are triangular with the wide portion at their ends. This is a feature that may have been designed to keep the moccasins more securely in place on young feet.

Interpretations based on associated concepts for the use of black and red can be read as a wish by the maker for the child to be blessed by the sun, represented by the black beads, with a long and fruitful life expressed in the red zig-zag. This would also have reminded the young wearer of the source of life, the sun, and that his path would not necessarily be a straight one, but would take him in different directions throughout life. The yellow-stained hide can be interpreted as representing youth, life force, and seasonal changes the young person would undergo in his life. However, the overriding message would be the source of that life.

Red and blue color pairings associated with concepts of leadership and authority were reserved for members of the Onde’, as exemplified in Fig. 9, E/1957/10/30. The field is the natural hide color with two narrow lanes of lazy stitch along the length of the instep creating what is commonly referred to as a buffalo track. These beaded lanes are composed of red, white, and dark blue beads forming a series of interlocking stepped triangles. This is repeated in a narrow lane of beading on the heel seams, the design motifs of these being a series of four alternating crosses of dark and light blue, and red and black against a white field. The colors can be interpreted as representative of status, leadership, healing, and the T’aime. Such moccasins would have served as a visual reminder of the wearer’s position in society, and the source of that status, the T’aime.

One pair of  moccasins (Fig. 2, E/1953/8/92) were identified by Minnie Bearbow as “old women’s moccasins because…the old women used to wear moccasins beaded in this way, with a single narrow lane down the vamp [or upper part of the foot]. They were everyday moccasins.” [Note 10] They are stained yellow and the beaded lane begins at the top of the vamp with a solid white rectangle. In the middle of this white rectangle is a dark blue cross with a moss green square in its center. The rectangle at the top is composed of cobalt blue, turquoise blue, moss green, and white beads, and the uppers are painted orange. Green, blue and white together would have been a reassuring statement of renewal, the sun, the south, water, healing, and the sun, as well as proclaiming the expectation of a long and full life, and women’s connection to the deep earth from which all life issues.

Another set of older women’s moccasins (Fig. 3, E/1951/1/24c) sport green-stained uppers and tongues in the form of a truncated triangle. [Note 11]  The bead work forms a “T” with two small pendant forms descending from the cross arm of this. The upper portion of the T’s vertical element is cobalt blue with a descending sequence of alternating light blue and mustard yellow. The arms of the T and pendant elements are light blue with red accent beads. Yellow evokes an iconographic reading representing seasonal change as well as the sun, while blue may have indicated that the moccasins’ owner belonged to the family of one of the keepers of the ten Grandmother Bundles associated with the Pai-Tsalyi[Note 12]

A pair of girls’ moccasin boots in the museum’s collection is a good example of minimal bead work as a trim accent (Fig. 6, E/1944/1/75a-b). The uppers are trimmed with light brown cloth stitched in place with thread and the uppers close with three brass buttons. Lanes of beading run around the front and bottom edges of the uppers, with the inclusion of a second vertical lane that sets the brass buttons off in their own register. At the outer and bottom edges of the flaps there is the delicate feature of moss green beads worked in a netted stitch that creates a serrated trim. This may have been a later addition connected with Peyotism. Peyotism is the ritual use of peyote as practiced in the Native American Church. The practice of using peyote as a sacrament in ceremonies was diffused to Southern Plains peoples from northern Mexico during the late nineteenth century. The religion is a fusion of Mexican, traditional Native American, and Christian belief systems that is widely practiced throughout the United States and Canada today.

The beaded lanes on the flaps are set against a white field with two pairs of red triangles bordered with concentric lines of white and light blue. The blue border element turns at a right angle to the beaded lane itself, creating a break in the field between the pairs of triangles. The secondary vertical lane is composed of three diamond elements in red outlined in white, all joined by a green line running the length of the entire white field. The colors express youth and vigor, new growth, south directional associations, water and light: all the elements necessary for the continuance of life. This would have been a fitting message to adorn girls’ footwear with, as it is through a continuation of lineage that the future is ensured.

Leg moccasins, such as those in Fig. 1, E /1957/10/37Fig. 7, E/1952/4/64, and Fig. 8, E/1944/1/117, are a type of footwear designed to protect the wearer’s legs from brush and grass. The latter are beaded around the seam between the vamps and uppers with white lanes containing a series of triangles and rectangles. The triangles are arranged as large red equilaterals flanked by two smaller isosceles triangles, all set end to end and outlined in dark blue. There are two sets of these on a side, separated with green rectangular elements outlined in dark blue, and a short, light blue line above these. The material for the ankle trim was cut as rectangles in the front, and serrated the remainder of their length, providing a pleasing aesthetic touch.

The flaps on these are trimmed in light green. Inside this border is a white lane containing a series of red and blue triangles whose bases are connected with a blue line. Above and between these triangles are dark blue lines. On the inside of each flap is a white field with a series of hexagons with red triangles abutting their tops and bottoms. Vertical appendages extend from the triangles’ bases and each of these motif sets are separated by a series of three light blue horizontal lines. At one time rows of buttons were sewn onto the flaps, although these are now missing.

The colors chosen for these moccasins can be seen as representing the Onde’ through the red-blue pairing, white expressing purification, and green indicating south directional associations water, water creatures, and regeneration. A possible underlying message is that the maker was pronouncing a blessing on the wearer in the form of a visual prayer soliciting life forces to strengthen and help her to lead a pure life, behavior that was befitting of a member of the Onde’.

Gift Giving and Trade

According to the remarks accompanying one set of leg moccasins (http://mypages.valdosta.edu/bafinson/WhatMakesTheseThingsKiowa_Images/), there is some disagreement as to these being Kiowa. One source thought they might be Comanche on the basis of the small red triangles that interrupt the narrow lane of bead work on the flaps. [Note 13] The flaps are stained red, while the remainder of the surface is yellow. Two rows of German silver buttons have been embroidered onto the flaps. The soles are rawhide, the moccasins are stitched together with sinew, and ankle ties were added as well. An additional embellishment is in the form of fringing at the moccasins’ tops.

The beaded lanes bordering the flaps incorporate internal blue linear elements and small right triangles and squares in red that interrupt the outer edge of the white field in one lane. This is reversed in the outer lane, which continues around the ankles. Overall, the presentation lends elegance to the footwear. They feature distinctly narrower beaded lanes and the triangles and squares are smaller than what would commonly be found in nineteenth-century Kiowa beadwork.

Color choices used in Historic period Comanche art expressed concepts similar to those held by the Kiowa. Dark blue was commonly associated with the Thunderbird, the south, spring, warmth, rain, and the regeneration of game animals, particularly buffalo. [Note 14] When paired with red, dark blue also served as a symbol of authority pertaining to the ascendency of certain bands over others. [Note 15] These two colors, along with yellow, constitute a color triad that represents the Comanche people as a whole, and is used in the Comanche tribal seal today.

Yellow is possibly the most singularly distinguishing color in Comanche arts traditions, and was often directly associated with them as a people. The Arapahos often referred to yellow-stained robes specifically as “Comanche robes”. [Note 16] Yellow held spiritual connotations, and represented the sun, the east, reviving life, renewed strength, youthful vigor, freshness, and spiritual growth and power. [Note 17] Yellow also symbolized the onset of winter and the yellow warbler, a bird which was most active late in the fall. [Note 18] Like their Kiowa neighbors, the Comanche linked red with life and life force, vitality, but also the earth. Red commonly expressed in and of itself a visual prayer to the earth for her care throughout life. [Note 19] In a ceremonial context red was used by shamans and associated with wolves, which were viewed as ancestor figures by the Comanche. [Note 20] Yellow-red color pairings expressed a desire for health and well-being, and also referenced the supreme deity believed by the Comanche to live behind the sun. [Note 21]

Comanche color associations

  • Dark blue = The Thunderbird, south, spring, warmth, rain, and the regeneration of game animals
  • Red and dark blue = authority
  • Yellow = the sun, east, reviving life, renewed strength, vigor, freshness, spiritual growth and power
  • Red, dark blue and yellow = the Comanche people as a whole

In light of these color associations, the designs on these leg moccasins could be interpreted as evoking messages of leadership and a desire for an active, vigorous life, a celebration of the earth as the source of that life, and the creator figure through the yellow stain used on the moccasins’ surfaces.

Another anomaly is presented by a pair of men’s moccasins (Fig. 5, E/1953/8/74). These were originally catalogued as “plains – unknown”, but later listed as Kiowa. While they do share a number of features that are similar to other moccasins identified as Kiowa in the Museum’s collections (Fig. 11, E/1950/8/8a-b), it is the difference in motifs and colors in the beadwork that leads to the strong possibility that they are Cheyenne, and the result of gift-giving. The cuffs and tongues are trimmed with iridescent black beads, have tin tinkler cones on the outsides of the buffalo tracks on the insteps, and sport heel fringes.

The beadwork motifs appear to have more affinity with Cheyenne styles of the late nineteenth century in their use of solid white fields and the treatment of the triangle and square motifs. Late style Cheyenne beadwork of the pre-reservation years exhibits a marked tendency toward the use of simple geometric forms such as squares, rectangles, triangles, and small linear elements, with larger forms receiving a dark edge treatment and little in the way of internal elaborations aside from windows set within these forms. Rose, dark blue and white was a predominant palette among Cheyenne bead workers of the period.

While the colors used are similar to the Kiowa color repertoire, there is the added element of pink. Despite the similarities exhibited in color use, the Cheyenne assigned different associations to many of the same hues used by their Kiowa friends. Among the Cheyenne red was associated with the east, the sun, thunder, warmth, life force, and Eyophst’ah, the Yellow-Haired Woman, Thunder’s daughter. [Note 22] Red also represents the southwest, the constellation Aldebaran, cyclones and tornadoes, and the Bowstring warrior society. Red is also indicative of the Red Wolf who was a prominent figure in the Massaum ceremony. The Massaum was a ceremony that reenacted the giving of the grasslands to the Cheyenne people and their proper relationship with the animal and spirit world of the Plains. [Note 23]

Blue is routinely used in reference to the west, Thunder, the creator figure Maheo, the Blue-Sky space where he lives, the constellation Rigel, and Voh’kis, the Kit Fox, also featured in the Massaum. White references the north, snow, cold, ice, winter, and in the context of the Life Generator Lodge ceremony (the Cheyenne version of the Sun dance), the south. The dual directional association given to white relates to concepts of fertilization and transitions, something that is also symbolized by the color green. Green represents the south, spring, new vegetation, rain, hail, thunderstorms, and vovetos, dragonflies and/or whirlwinds.

The concepts of fertilization and transition represented by white and green are directly linked to both hail and vovetos. A green-white color pairing signifies a shift from the moribund to new life. In a ceremonial context, hail is interpreted as semen which fertilizes the earth, making the growth of new plant life possible. Vovetos also symbolically represent this shift to newness of life, as certain species turn from white to green as they molt. [Note 24] As regards the color pink, this is often referred to as a Cheyenne color frequently associated with women. [Note 25]

Cheyenne color associations 

  • Red = the sun, east, thunder, warmth, life force, Eyophst’ah, the Red Wolf, southwest, Aldebaran, cyclones and tornadoes, and the Bowstring warrior society
  • Blue = Maheo, Thunder, Blue-Sky space, Rigel, and Voh’kis
  • White = the north, snow, ice, cold winter, and the south
  • Green = the south, spring, new vegetation, rain, hail, thunderstorms, and vovetos
  • White and green = fertilization and newness of life
  • Pink = Cheyenne

The interiors of the moccasins’ insteps are stained red, with the remainder of the exposed hide stained yellow. The sole seam is beaded in a double lane with a white field and a green outline. This outline is broken by a series of pink-blue and blue-pink equilateral triangles, each one with a black linear element rising from its apex to a small square, each of these alternating from blue-pink to pink-blue. The stained instep is bordered with a lane of white beading with a repetition of the same triangular motifs as the sole seam beading. A beaded lane runs from the tongue back to the heel seam, and is white with black vertical elements and blue squares, and a long orange section at the back. The tongues and cuffs are trimmed with black beads.

Historically, the Kiowa had a long association with the Comanche and the Cheyenne as allies. Because of this the incidence of trade, gift giving and intermarriage resulted in the transfer of items made by one group and given to members of another group. Two pairs of moccasins (Fig. 1, E/1957/10/37 and Fig. 10, E/1948/8/1a-b) present anomalies in how their beaded designs differ from conventional Kiowa designs and, in the case of the men’s moccasins, the colors used. However, the fact that they are catalogued as Kiowa in the museum’s collections is not surprising. Misidentification of this sort is common in ethnographic collections, primarily due to poor provenance. In many cases items were listed as belonging to the people they were collected from, regardless of differences that they displayed. Collectors frequently failed to ask who made the items, and if they were collected from the Kiowa they were simply listed as Kiowa. Other moccasins catalogued as Kiowa have been identified by the Kiowa bead worker Georgia Dupont as Cheyenne.[26] It is possible, even probable, that what is evidenced in the moccasins is cross-cultural influence in the form of gift giving.

Anomalies, Cross-Cultural Influences, and Assimilation

An element of cross-cultural influence is evidenced in the abstracted leaf motif on the instep of one pair of moccasins (Fig. 7,  E/1952/4/64). The colors used in the leaf motifs on the insteps follow the same color repertoire, and are evidence of cross-cultural influences. Leaves such as these are commonly interpreted as relating to the Burr or Post Oak of eastern Oklahoma. Leaf motifs began to appear in Kiowa beadwork shortly after eastern Woodlands peoples were forcibly relocated to Indian Territory early in the nineteenth century. This type of cultural diffusion is common in Native American arts traditions, as the cultures tend to be eclectic. If something were found to fit within a particular group’s worldview, it was routinely adopted and adapted. These leaf motifs occur in great variation, and have been described by a Kiowa bead worker in her eighties as “something like a leaf,” and have become a Kiowa trademark. The bead worker stated that “the leaf was never copied exactly; that is, the leaf was never placed on the material and traced; instead, the idea was in the mind of each maker and each artist interpreted it differently.” [Note 27]

The flaps do not extend the full length of the leg portion of the moccasins, but are shorter to allow ease in putting them on. They are stained yellow, and have bead work around the sole seam, edges and inside fold of the flaps and around the ankles. The beaded lanes on the ankles and flaps are made up of a series of horizontally elongated triangles alternating in red and blue edged triangles with small red windows, and blue edged triangles of rose beads with dark blue windows, all set against a white field. The beaded lanes follow the bottom edge of the flaps, and have a white field with small cross elements in red and light blue and small hexagons with extended linear elements. The flaps are fastened with German silver buttons and further enhanced by the addition of solid vertical lines of German silver buttons, some of which are missing. The red-blue pairing would also suggest that the woman who owned these legging moccasins belonged to a family of the Onde’ caste.

A set of men’s moccasins (Fig. 11, E1950/8/8a-b), a type known as “dusters” for the long fringing attached at the heels, reflect evidence of Christianization in their design. The moccasins are stained yellow around the buffalo tracks, and have a row of copper tinklers attached to the borders of these. The cuffs are trimmed with bead work and a rosette worked in overlay stitch is attached just below the tongue. The cuffs and interior of the buffalo track are stained green. The bead work on the outer cuffs is a narrow lane of white, separated from a second border element of green stained hide. This second border element consists of a white field with concentric blue, red, and yellow zig-zags running to the heel seam. The inner cuffs are trimmed with a field of blue beads with a white zig-zag through its middle.

From the base of the tongue along the outside of the instep is a white beaded lane. This contains a series of small linear elements of red-blue-black-light blue, a blue cross, green-red-black horizontal elements with uplifts in their middle, and two red and blue churches with steeple crosses. The inner border is made up of a white field with a red dragonfly motif at the bottom, two striped flag elements separated by two mustard yellow triangles with small red windows and abutting at their apexes. Perpendicular to and intersecting these triangles are two black triangles, and together the four elements create a square. Above these are two dark blue churches joined at the steeple crosses, followed by a similar motif in red. At the base of each tongue is a rosette with a white field from the center of which a series of radiating arms of blue and red terminate in triangles at the rosette’s perimeter. The center of each rosette is green with a pink center. The edges of the buffalo tracks and tongues are trimmed out with blue beads.

The juxtaposition of Native and Christian motifs suggests that there is a mixture of differing ideological concepts expressed. The church motifs can be read as evidence of missionary influences, while the dragonfly motifs evoke concepts representing water iconography. Dragonflies have an early association with water in the Plains and are featured in a number of ceremonial contexts. They also represent attributes that would have been desirable to warriors, such as evasive flight, predation, and with some species, hunting in swarms. Among the Kiowa they were also associated with the K’ado. [Note 28]

The last three examples to be discussed date from the 1930s to the 1940s, and were commissioned through the W.P.A. Indian Project (Fig. 10, E/1948/8/1a-b, Fig. 12, E/1948/8/5a-b, and Fig. 13, /1948/8/2a-b). The first of these are women’s moccasins, whose tongues are cut with a V-notch at their tops, and trimmed with light blue beads in a netted stitch. The netted stitch is commonly seen in items associated with Peyotism and the Native American Church. A light blue trim lane angles downward to meet the beaded lane running around the moccasins to the heel seam. Below this is a second beaded lane along the sole seam. Each of these beaded lanes is composed of a white field bordered on one side by a light blue outline interspersed with small triangular elements, and a red border with triangles on the other. On the instep of each moccasin is a white triangular field whose apex terminates at the base of the tongue. The linear motifs in this white field are three series of repeated diamond motifs linked at their corners. The center linear element is red with a turquoise blue interior, while those flanking it are dark blue with red interiors. This overall motif is again repeated on the moccasins’ sides, its base abutting the light blue trim on the tongues. These moccasins were made as part of a costume that includes a dress.

A set of moccasins (Fig. 12, E/1948/8/5a-b) created as part of a man’s costume, incorporate a number of nineteenth-century conventions such as heel fringes and tin cone tinklers. The tongues are trimmed in dark blue beads that angle down and back toward the heel seam beading. Added to this is a continuation of the blue beads forming the lower border of a rosette at the base of each tongue. The sole seam is beaded with a lane of light blue beads interspersed with opposing triangular elements at intervals along the lane’s length. Each of these triangles is beaded in red, with a white line running from the base to the apex. These are echoed by the addition of white linear elements outlined in darker blue beads. This entire lane is repeated under each cuff, progressing back toward the heel seam.

The buffalo track is demarcated with a half-width beaded lane that echoes the sole seam decoration, as though it were split in half along its entire length. The rosette at the base of the tongue is composed of a white field with a red star burst, and the field’s perimeter is broken up by a series of small blue triangles. The tongues and buffalo tracks appear to have been treated with gypsum to create a stark and eye catching contrast between its surface and the beaded lanes. In both cases, the moccasins utilize a predominant red, white, and blue color scheme that would have been appealing to Anglo tastes as patriotic. This is not surprising, given the accession dates on these moccasins.

The last example, from the W.P.A. Indian Project, is a pair of men’s two-piece moccasins that are part of a costume that includes a shirt and leggings (Fig. 13, E/1948/8/2a-b). The remarks accompanying this costume state that “These are part of costume WPA-44A-X-65 changed to Kiowa on basis of style and designs in beadwork on all these articles” and originally believed to be a Wichita man’s costume. [Note 29] However, it is noted in the collections notes that the style of the shirt, leggings, and moccasins do not look Wichita. The entire ensemble might be a Wichita imitation of Kiowa buckskin clothing, and these certainly are interesting examples, as the moccasins are unusual in the amount of beadwork they display.

The moccasins are tanned white with beadwork along the sole seams, upper portion of the heel seams, and a large triangular motif adorning the instep, all of which are beaded in a light blue field. The cuff motifs are a central horizontal of yellow elongated diamonds flanked by two elongated red chevrons. Through the middle of these runs a band of abutted white diamonds. The large center motif in these lanes is flanked by a half motif at both of its ends, and the cuffs are trimmed in a narrow lane of blue beads worked in netted stitch. This pattern is repeated along the sole seam as well. The tongues are inverted triangles with a V-notch, and are also trimmed in light blue beads. The large triangle motif on the instep is composed of a light blue field with two ascending equilateral triangle motifs consisting of concentric triangles in yellow, red, and white outlined in dark blue. The net result is a free play of color that creates a striking presentation.

Part of the reason for the unusual character of this pair of moccasins is the profusion of beading on them. During the Reservation period Native peoples had few avenues of cultural expression left to them, and beadwork was one of these. Beadwork became a rallying point of tribal identity during the early Reservation era, when much of men’s representational art was on the wane. With warrior societies no longer serving an active function in culture and Native peoples confined to the bleak conditions of the reservation, there was no longer an impetus for creating biographic war records and vision related art. The men of these cultures were suddenly caught up in a vortex of forced cultural change that denied them the very pursuits which had previously defined their roles in culture. Into this void beadwork emerged as the preeminent art form of Plains peoples, and it proliferated under the W.P.A. Indian Project. Native artists quickly realized the market potential for what they created and were all too happy to satisfy Anglo tastes for what the wider culture perceived to be Indian.


What is evidenced in the moccasins examined for this article is a consistent application of color and design elements that predominated during the latter nineteenth century. Barbara Hail states:

“An early style [of beadwork] found in Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico, among the Kiowa, Comanche, southern Cheyenne, southern Arapaho, Pawnee, and Kiowa Apache was confined to narrow edgings and light trims using a small seed bead, often cut on two or more sides. Delicate, continuous-line motifs, slanted bars, triangles, and oblongs were beaded in lazy-stitch borders and in overlay stitch rosettes. White backgrounds with dark blue, wine red, and yellow geometric designs were common.”

She continues in stating that:

“A later style developed under the influence of the Central Plains, Eastern Plains, and Western Woodland tribes who moved into Oklahoma in the early reservation period after the Civil War.” [Note 30]

While the Kiowa moccasins in the SNOMNH Ethnology Collection reflect such influences, as well as items received through gift or trade, these were adapted to a distinctly Kiowa sensibility and aesthetic. As with other items of clothing and regalia, beaded moccasins were created with the individual wearer in mind, to remind and celebrate who they were, their origins, place and purpose in the universe, and to foster a sense of identity during a period when life was changing rapidly for Plains peoples. Color and design iconography pointed directly to cosmological foundations of culture, directional associations, and oral traditions during a chaotic period. Art provided a psychological anchor and helped reinforce a sense of Kiowa identity in a world that was steadily unraveling.

Made with expertise and loving care, the moccasins in the Ethnographic collection served to exert a sense of being Kiowa in the face of overwhelming forces that threatened to destroy not only a way of life, but a people. In spite of appalling poverty and the dismal conditions they were forced to live under after 1874, Kiowa artists continued to celebrate life through their art as their forebears had done, leaving a vibrant legacy for those who came after. That is what makes these things Kiowa.


About the author

Bradley A. Finson, Ph. D., is Assistant Professor of Art History at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Georgia, where he currently teaches African-American, Native American, and Western Survey Art History courses. His education includes the degrees of MFA in Painting (1995, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas), MA in Art History (1999, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma), and Interdisciplinary Ph.D. (2003, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma). Contact him here.

A note on images in this article 

Image use of the examples discussed in this article is courtesy of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. The images are referenced by their accession numbers and can be viewed externally by clicking the Figure number appearing in the text. The images are housed at: mypages.valdosta.edu/bafinson/ in the folder marked “What Makes These Things Kiowa_Images.


List of Images

Kiowa.  Moccasins. ND. Buckskin, rawhide, sinew, paint, beads. 10” L, 31/2” W. Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Ethnographic Collection NAM 09-13-005ab. Collector: Miss Beth West, Mrs. T. G. Laws, & Mrs. Annie “Anna” W. Brown.  Collection date: 1900 -1935. Oklahoma.

Kiowa. Moccasins, Child’s. Circa 1890 – 1900. Buckskin, pigment, beads. 6 ½” L, 3” W. Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Ethnographic Collection NAM 09-13-006ab. Collector: Miss Beth West, Mrs. T. G. Laws, & Mrs. Annie “Anna” W. Brown. Collection date: 1900 – 1925.  Oklahoma.

Kiowa. Moccasins, beaded. Circa 1900. Hide, rawhide, sinew pigments, beads. 9 ½” L, 3” W. Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Ethnographic Collection NAM 09-13-019ab. Collector: Edgar S. Bronson. Collection date: before 1925. Oklahoma.

Moccasins, beaded.  Kiowa. Circa 1890. Buckskin, rawhide, sinew, pigment, beads. 9 5/8” L. Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Ethnographic Collections NAM 09-13-080ab. Collector: W. B. Wilson. Accession date: 13 Sept., 1951. Oklahoma.

Kiowa. Moccasins – leggings, girl’s. Late 19th – early 20th Century.  Buckskin, rawhide, sinew, beads, brass buttons. 8 ¾” L, 5 ½” W. Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Ethnographic Collections NAM 09-13-020ab. Accession date: 1944-45. Oklahoma.

Kiowa. Moccasins, leggings, beaded. Circa 1900. Buckskin, pigment, beads, German silver buttons. 11” H. Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Ethnographic Collections NAM 09-13-081ab. Collector Dr. Clifford K. Logan, Sr. Collection date: before 1941.

Kiowa. Moccasin leggings, girl’s. 20th Century.  Buckskin, rawhide, pigment, beads, brass tacks.  8 ½” L of sole, 3 ½” W, 24” H. Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Ethnographic Collection NAM 09-13-079. Collector: Miss Beth West, Mrs. T. G. Laws, & Mrs. Annie “Anna” W. Brown. Collection date: 1900 – 1925. Oklahoma.

Kiowa. Pair of moccasin style boots. Buckskin, beads. 23” H, 3” W, 8” L. Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Ethnographic Collection NAM 09-13-116ab. Accession date: 1944-45. Oklahoma.

Kiowa. Moccasins, man’s. ND. Hide, rawhide, pigments, beads, tin. 10 ¾” L, 3 ½” W. Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Ethnographic Collections NAM 09-13-094ab. Collector: Edgar S. Bronson. Accession date: 20 January, 1954. Oklahoma.

Kiowa. Moccasins, woman’s. 1930’s-1940’s. Hide, rawhide, sinew, beads. 9 ½” L. Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Ethnographic Collections NAM 09-13-044ab. Collector: W.P.A. Indian Project. Collection date: 1930’s-1940’s.

Kiowa. Moccasins, man’s. Circa 1900. Hide, rawhide, pigments, beads, copper. 10 1/2” L, 3 ½” W. Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Ethnographic Collections NAM 09-13-009ab. Collector: Mr. Gould Bryan. Collection date: 1950.

Kiowa. Moccasins, man’s. 1930s-1940s. Hide, rawhide, beads, tin. 10 ¾” L, 4” W. Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Ethnographic Collections NAM 09-13-016ab. Collector: W.P.A. Indian Project. Collection date: 1948.

Kiowa. Moccasins, man’s. 1930s-1940s. Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Ethnographic Collections NAM 09-13-075ab. Collector: W.P.A. Indian Project. Collection date: 1948.


[1] Mrs. Georgia Dupont, Kiowa elder. Personal communication, April 2, 2002.

[2] Gus Palmer, Jr., Kiowa linguist. Personal communication, April 3, 2003. Mr. Palmer stated that there was a predominance of five colors among the historic Kiowa: blue, yellow, red, green, and white. He stated that these were probably a matter of convenience and availability.

[3] The K’ado was the Kiowa version of the Sun Dance, and focused exclusively on martial concerns, such as renewing shields’ powers.

[4] Jane Richardson. (1940). Law and Status Among the Kiowa Indians. Monographs of the American Ethnological Society 1. New York: J. J. Augustin Publisher. 11.

[5] Bradley A. Finson. (2003). Embodiments of Power: Nineteenth-Century Warrior Art Among the Cheyennes and Kiowas. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 2003). 121.

[6] Jim Anquoe, Sr., cultural advisor. Personal communication, April 25, 2002.

[7] Benjamin R. Kracht. (1989). Kiowa Religion: an Ethnohistorical Analysis of Ritual Symbolism, 1832-1987. Vols. 1 and 2. (Doctoral dissertation. Dallas: Southern Methodist University, 1989). 258.

[8] John C. Ewers. (1978). Murals in the Round: Painted Tipis of the Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache Indians. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. 27; Benjamin R. Kracht. Kiowa Religion: an Ethnohistorical Analysis of Ritual Symbolism, 1832-1987. 79, 87, 94, 104; Jim Anquoe. Sr. Personal communication, April 26, 2002; Forest Solomon, Kiowa. Personal communication, October 26, 1998; Gus Palmer, Jr., Kiowa Linguist. Personal communication, April 3, 2003; Dr. Jerry Bread, educator. Persoanl communication, January 22, 2002; Karl and Iva Schmidt Collection. Box 4 FF 29. Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma.

[9] Julia Jordan. Collections catalogue, SNOMNH Department of Ethnology, 1965.

[10] Minnie Bearbow. (1965). Collections catalogue, SNOMNH Department of Ethnology.

[11] Julia Jordan. (1965). Collections catalogue, SNOMNH Department of Ethnology.

[12] The “Grandmother” Bundles are ten sacred bundles given to the Kiowa people by the Half Boys.

[13] Louise Saddleblanket. (1965). Collections catalogue. SNOMNH Department of Ethnology.

[14] Herwanna Becker Barnard. (1941). The Comanche and His Literature, With an Anthology of His Myths, Legends, Folktales, Oratory, Poetry, and Songs. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 1941). 110-114.

[15] Karel Ann Coffey, Comanche. Personal communication, October 1, 1998.

[16] Robert H. Lowie. (1983). Indians of the Plains. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 15.

[17] Herwanna Becker Barnard. (1941). The Comanche and His Literature. 64, 80.

[18] Daniel J. Gelo. (1986). Comanche Belief and Ritual. (Doctoral dissertation, Rutgers State University, 1986). 108.

[19] David E. Jones. (1972). Sanapia, Comanche Medicine Woman. New York: Garland Publishing Company. 52.

[20] Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel. (1952). The Comanches. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 203.

[21] Stanley Noyes. (1993). Los Comanches: The Horse People, 1751-1845. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 185.

[22] George Bird Grinnell. (1910). “Great Mysteries of the Cheyenne.” In American Anthropologist n.s. 12:4 (Oct.-Dec., 1910). 542.

[23] Karl H. Schlesier. (1993). The Wolves of Heaven: Cheyenne Shamanism, Ceremonies and Prehistoric Origins. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 9, 82.

[24] George Bird Grinnell. “Great Mysteries of the Cheyenne. 542.

[25] Gordon Yellowman, Cheyenne Sundance priest. Personal communication, December 29, 2009.

[26] Mrs. Georgia Dupont, Kiowa elder. Personal communication, April 2, 2002.

[27] Barbara Hail, ed. (2000). Gifts of Love and Pride: Kiowa and Comanche Cradles. Heffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University. 49.

[28] Finson. Embodiments of Power (2003). 193; George Bird Grinnell. (1972). The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Way of Life. Vol. II. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Originally published by Yale University Press, 1923. 435.

[29] Collection catalogue. SNOMNH Department of Ethnology.

[30] Barbara Hail. (1980). Hau, Kola! The Plains Indian Collection of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 61.



Anquoe, Jim, Sr., Kiowa elder. (2002). Personal communication, El Reno, Oklahoma.

Barnard, Herwanna Becker. (1941). The Comanche and His Literature, With an Anthology of                            

His Myths, Legends, Oratory, Poetry, and Songs. Doctoral Dissertation. University of

Oklahoma, Norman.

Bearbow, Minnie. (1965). Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Ethnology

Department Collections Catalogue.

Bread, Dr. Jerry. Kiowa educator. (2002). Personal communication, Norman, Oklahoma.

Coffey, Karel Ann, Comanche. (1989). Personal communication, Norman, Oklahoma.

Dupont, Georgia, Kiowa elder. (2002). Personal communication, Carnegie, Oklahoma.

Ewers, John Canfield. (1978). Murals in the Round: Painted Tipis of the Kiowa and  

     Kiowa-Apache Indians. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Finson, Bradley A. (2003). Embodiments of Power: Nineteenth-Century Warrior Art Among

     The Cheyennes and Kiowas. Unpublished Doctoral dissertation, University

of Oklahoma, 2003).

Gelo, Daniel J. (1989).  Comanche Belief and Ritual. (Doctoral dissertation, Rutgers

State University, 1989).

Grinnell, George Bird. (1972). The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Way of Life.

Vol. II. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

        . (1910, October – December). Great Mysteries of the Cheyenne.

     American Anthropologist n.s., 542-575.

Hail, Barbara. (1980). Hau, Kola! The Plains Indian Collection of the Haffenreffer Museum

     of Anthropology. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Hail. Barbara, ed.  (2000). Gifts of Love and Pride: Kiowa and Comanche Cradles. Brown

     University: Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

Jordan, Julia. (1965). Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Department of

Ethnology Collections Catalogue.

Kracht, Benjamin R. (1989). Kiowa Religion: an Ethnohistorical Analysis of Ritual Symbolism.

     (Doctoral dissertation, Southern Methodist University, 1989).

Palmer, Gus Jr., Kiowa linguist. (2003). Personal communication, Norman, Oklahoma.

Saddleblanket, Louise. (1965). Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Department of Ethnology Collections Catalogue.

Schmidt, Karl and Iva.  Karl and Iva Schmidt Collection. Western History Collections,

University of Oklahoma.

Solomon, Forest, Kiowa. (1998). Personal communication, Norman, Oklahoma.


Text copyright 2012 Bradley A. Finson

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