About a week ago, after visiting with my elder and doing more work on my first pair of moccasins, I felt compelled to start making a second pair out of cow hide. But unlike the elk skin moccasins I had just made enormous progress on, these would be plain moccasins. They would feature no beading at all, nor embroidery, nor paint. Just plain leather.
So I got my moccasin pattern out and got to work. It was already late when I started, and I nearly stayed up all night marking and punching holes. My hands became red, achy, and far too sore to continue using the punch, so I started sewing. I quickly found that I had more learning to do, but was grateful for the lesson with these plain cow hide moccasins, rather than finding out when I attempted to finish my elk skin mocs. When I finished the first one, I could feel the spirit imbued within it. It was electric and it energized me to finish the second one. Today is the day that happened.
While I was punching more holes and sewing last night, I thought of a woman who had been a part of the militant Jewish resistance against the Nazis. She held up the hand-made leather boots she had worn while she fought for years to slow down and disable the military she took part in fighting against, and she said “We were artisans.” They had been made by a fellow resister during their time in the forest, and had remained intact for several decades beyond their use. At first, I didn’t know why this memory was surfacing as I was sewing the second moccasin together. I thought that perhaps it was because someone had recently called me an artisan.
Today, the sound of this woman saying “We were artisans” continued to ring in my head as I put the last few stitches into my moccasins. And today, I suddenly realized why this was happening. I realized that this teaching — to make my own shoes with my bare hands and a couple of tools — has been passed down for tens of thousands of years. This practice has sustained peoples whose culture was a crime for decades, whose children were being abducted and brainwashed to think that this kind of teaching was “uncivilized”, and who have remained defiant in the face of several attempted genocides against them. This practice and this teaching has been targeted repeatedly for eradication, and the only logical conclusion of successful eradication is helplessness and dependency upon a global system of exploitation and slavery.
Making moccasins is making my own shoes. Doing it myself, with just a couple of tools and my bare hands, is taking a stand against that exploitation and slavery, and saying no to capitalist corporations that seek to colonize and enslave desperate peoples overseas to make my shoes for mere pennies—for which they gladly charge me a half a month’s groceries, if not more. Doing it myself is taking power into my own hands, which I can now use to subvert a capitalist economy. Doing it myself taught me how weak my hands were when I began punching all those holes, but it has also enormously strengthened my hands, which can now outlast my back while I sit down to do the work. Doing it myself has taught me how much work it really is to make a pair of moccasins, and that in turn has taught me to value my hard work.
This teaching has given me a skill set that is vital to sustaining myself and contributing in a meaningful way to communities who seek to do the same. It has connected me, though in an indirect way, to my Jewish, Scandinavian, Slavic, and once-Celtic roots. That is why that woman’s voice rings in my head, saying “We were artisans.” She takes pride in the fact that although her people were confined by colonial structures and political powers to particular professions for centuries, her people found a way to thrive off of those professions and use them to continually resist the forces imposed upon them. When she wore those boots in the forest, they were a reminder that the oppressions she faced, and the oppressions her ancestors faced, would eventually be the undoing of her oppressors, for they had mistakenly given her and her ancestors the tools to stand and fight — and to do so with pride in who she is.
This is what my moccasins are to me. This is what I feel in them, whether they are in my hands or on my feet. This is what power feels like.