Yakima Pony Beaded Moccasins

Yakima Pony Beaded Moccasins - circa 1850 to 1860. Formerly in the collection Southern Oregon Historical Society.  

Ex. Collection Southern Oregon Historical Society.
Ex. John Molloy, New York.

Minimalist Masterpiece

In our previous update “Abstraction before Kandinsky” we identified a number of ancient gallery objects rooted in abstract forms. Some of these pieces show a departure from “reality” in the depiction of imagery. Other works, in their color, shape, size, scale or process, emphasize these intrinsic qualities, rather than outside reference or narrative. All of those works embody aspects of what in our own time has become associated with an abstract aesthetic.

Today we are pleased to present a masterpiece of minimalism, a pair of 19th century Yakima moccasins, these predating by a hundred years the concept in the art of the 1960’s.


Minimalism circa 1960

Sculptor Carl Andre, speaking of the striped paintings of Frank Stella wrote "Art excludes the unnecessary”. Or as the painter Ad Reinhardt, said : “The more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is. More is less. Less is more.” 

In his 1966 seminal essay “Specific Objects” Donald Judd stated that the American contemporary minimalist movement was a “rejection of residual inherited European artistic values”.

Minimalist artists of the 1960’s wanted to engender in the viewer an immediate, mostly visual response, experiencing pure qualities of color, form, space and materials rather than meaning and symbolism lying outside the work. The medium and materials of the work were their own reality. Repetition of forms, and use of limited color were part of this “revolution”, with acknowledged antecedents dating back to Kazmir Malevich’s Black Square on white (1917).

Minimalism circa 1860: The Yakima Mocassins

Native American artists, of course, never had to wrestle with or overcome the weight of European artistic tradition, so there was no need for a self-conscious rejection.

The present moccasins, believed to be unique in Yakima tradition, embody many other characteristics of what would come to be identified as 1960’s American minimalism.

Against a simple background of white beads, green beads form arrows. These are not the arrows denoting the four cardinal directions of the Lakota Sioux with their yellow (east), red (south), black (north), and white (south) colors.

Nor do these arrows appear to be the similar looking trekking signs illustrated in Garrick Mallery’s Picture Writing of the American Indians. As an Indian friend who examined the opposite facing arrows on the moccasins wryly stated, “If they depict an Indian walking, he didn’t know which way he wanted to go”.

Rather in the purest sense the arrow designs seem to symbolize nothing. They are arrows on a white background, embodied in a sculptural form and simplified color palette, one integral construct working together. As for the opposition of the arrows, pointing in on themselves, another student of American Indian art averred, “Signifies? It signifies that the artist found this pattern more engaging, more visually interesting”.  Or as Frank Stella said of his painting “What you see is what you see.”

In these moccasins we have a complete world, with no need for outside reference or interpretation. Everything has been stripped to utmost simplicity. Yet, as has been said of minimalist architecture, there is an unspoken balance even in a self-referential world. Things have been “reduced to a stage where no one can remove anything further to improve the design”.

Within this self-contained world, there is a breath taking beauty which reaches out and touches our hearts. In the words of the Navajo prayer & blessing:


(Closing Prayer from the "Navajo Way" Blessing Ceremony): 

In beauty I walk 
With beauty before me I walk 
With beauty behind me I walk 
With beauty above me I walk 
With beauty around me I walk 
It has become beauty again 
It has become beauty again 
It has become beauty again 
It has become beauty again 

Hózhóogo naasháa doo 
Shitsijí' hózhóogo naasháa doo 
Shikéédéé hózhóogo naasháa doo 
Shideigi hózhóogo naasháa doo 
T'áá altso shinaagóó hózhóogo naasháa doo 
Hózhó náhásdlíí' 
Hózhó náhásdlíí' 
Hózhó náhásdlíí' 
Hózhó náhásdlíí' 

(Walking In Beauty Blessing) 

Today I will walk out, today everything unnecessary will leave me, 
I will be as I was before, I will have a cool breeze over my body. 
I will have a light body, I will be happy forever, 
nothing will hinder me. 
I walk with beauty before me. I walk with beauty behind me. 
I walk with beauty below me. I walk with beauty above me. 
I walk with beauty around me. My words will be beautiful. 

In beauty all day long may I walk. 
Through the returning seasons, may I walk. 
On the trail marked with pollen may I walk. 
With dew about my feet, may I walk. 

With beauty before me may I walk. 
With beauty behind me may I walk. 
With beauty below me may I walk. 
With beauty above me may I walk. 
With beauty all around me may I walk. 

In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk. 
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk. 
My words will be beautiful. 


MB Abram, director of MB Abram Galleries, studied art history at Harvard University with Professor John Coolidge, and at Oxford University with Professor Francis Haskell.