Greg Johnson, slit toe moccasin artist

One of the highlights of our time on the Lac du Flambeau reservation was meeting with the artists who live and work on the reservation and now show their work through the NiiJii Gallery.  Greg is also the Gallery’s artistic director, a position that leaves him less time to do his own work.  He spoke with several of us about how he came to revive and now teach the art of making slit toe moccasins, a skill that was lost during his parents’s generation due to the boarding house school movement (worth a post on its own…)

He’s the youngest of a large family and had received a pair of moccasins from his grandmother that she had made in the 1930s.  After her death and as the moccasins began to need repair, he decided to take them apart in order to teach himself how to make them.  He has since written an article on how to make them and worked with young apprentices to teach them the skill.

He showed us a pair made by his young apprentice using pre-tanned hide as using hides that Greg had tanned was too risky in the learning process.  He pointed out the use of beads and velvet as part of decoration on the ankle.  Beads are called “gifts of the spirit” and velvet “spirit material” in the Ojibwe language as they were aspects the Ojibwe learned through trade with the French and their missionaries, thus moccasins bring together the gifts the Ojibwe already had (hunting deer and tanning hides) and the gifts they received from the French and their spiritual tradition and practices.  The beads on his grandmother’s moccasins, he noted, were from the 19th century, and that the practice was often to reuse beads that had been part of something else.

When I asked him what it took to be a moccasin maker, he answered that you had to be a good hunter first to get the hides, and that he tans his own deer hide using the traditional processes, ones that he noted many people don’t like doing as it utilizes the animal’s brains.  Tanning takes at least a week.

Greg constantly mentioned the work of others, noting that the basket maker, Sandra Peterson who met with others, was a good moccasin maker too, as was his apprentice who would continue now to make them.  He noted that having once been an art form that was dying, it has come back and that at their powwows you would see many people wearing these moccasins–and he shared a story with us about meeting a woman whose sister had made her moccasins using Greg’s “How To” article.  [Perhaps someone from this group will be able to upload a picture of the apprentice’s moccasins; I didn’t bring a camera.]

—Susan Cook

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One Response to Greg Johnson, slit toe moccasin artist

  1. Greg Johnson says:

    Thanks! Nice story! It was truly a pleasure to participate!
    I need to know if anyone has a list of emails of the teachers that were on the trip.
    I have some pdf’s of the moccasin patterns they can use for their students.
    What’s great about these patterns they can be made from either leather or paper!
    Great for the kiddos.
    Thanks for visiting!

    ~Greg Johnson aka Biskakone
    My email is biskakone@yahoo.com

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