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Woodland Indians moccasin exhibit inspires, teaches

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - Hand-crafted moccasins from several tribes filled a room May 31 for a special exhibit at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways.

Most moccasins on display originated from the late 1890s, with the oldest pair being from the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy and dating back to about 1850. Many pairs were decorated with intricate bead and quill designs.

Event advertisements promised more than 40 pairs of moccasins to visitors of the Ziibiwing Center in Mount Pleasant, but guests were treated to about 100 pairs from private collectors who live in the area.

The one-day exhibit primarily focused on moccasins constructed by indigenous people east of the Mississippi River, from the Great Lakes region to the Atlantic Ocean and some areas southward. Today, these tribes are commonly described as woodland Indians.

A large number of moccasins at the exhibit came from the collection of Mike Slasinski, a curator who runs the Great Lakes Logging and Indian Culture Museum in Saginaw. Slasinski typically schedules appointments for private viewings of his vast collection of historical items.

Slasinski showed many visitors around the exhibit, answering their questions about particular designs. He also explained the cultural significance of different tribes' moccasins.

Other moccasins were provided by five collectors, including Tom Noakes, a longtime enthusiast of American Indian artwork.

''My father was a collector of historic Indian artifacts, and he put together a pretty impressive collection,'' said Noakes, who donated a dozen pairs of moccasins to the exhibit. ''I grew up with the Native arts.''

Most of his collection comes from public auctions, trading with other collectors and antique shows far from his home in Michigan. He also checks eBay, but he uses caution because it is sometimes difficult to verify the authenticity of items sold at the popular online auction Web site.

While outside possession of indigenous artwork and cultural items can be a touchy subject in Indian country, Noakes said it has never been an issue for him. He acknowledged that he has heard of a few rare instances that generated some controversy.

Visitors were encouraged to bring their own moccasins and cultural items to the exhibit; and Jerry Ramsey, a re-enactment professional who has been in several films and documentaries, took up the offer and shared many items from his collection.

He also proudly showed a print from a painting of himself by well-known artist Robert Griffing, who specializes in paintings of woodland Indian people and their encounters with uncertainty upon the arrival of Europeans to North America.

Ramsey, a member of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, has become especially interested in cultural exhibits recently because of confusion between woodland and Plains Indian styles of traditional regalia.

His awakening comes from a recent pow wow when he saw a few people dressed in traditional woodland Indian regalia. He discussed their regalia with them, and he now realizes that somewhere along the line his tribe started to adopt Plains Indian regalia. He thinks it is possibly because the Plains style is flashier and more visible at events like pow wows.

''No headdresses, no fringes,'' said Ramsey, who traveled about two hours from his home in Manistee to view the moccasins and share his items. ''We wouldn't have had them. It would have been suicide the first time a fringe got caught in a [tree] limb.''

Ramsey said he hopes the exhibit inspires Native people in the area to get an idea of their background and start to make their regalia more true to their tribe's history.

''Don't forget about your ancestors. Look at all the good stuff they made.''

Judy Pamp, assistant director of the Ziibiwing Center and member of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, which operates the center, attended the exhibit with her three children.

Pamp is teaching her children to craft moccasins, and they are responsible for fixing any holes in their footwear if they do not take proper care of them. She will soon be guiding them in beadwork and viewing moccasins at the exhibit helped the family see other designs and gave them inspiration.

''I like to see other styles, appreciate other people's talents,'' she said. ''The beauty created for centuries by our people shows our perspectives in the universe.''

Several others attended the event, including a group from nearby Central Michigan University and a guest from Europe.