Believe it or not, many indigenous people of North America went barefoot even in the snow or the pokey, spiky desert. Footwear was most important for traveling. The most common form of footwear in the American Southwest for over 7,000 years were simple sandals made of yucca or grasses.
I recently took a class on how to make an ancient style of Mogollan Plaited Yucca sandals commonly used by the Sonoran Desert people and people throughout the Southwest. I was taught by the Ek Chua fire society at a delightful and insightful primitive skill gathering called Winter Count that occurs in Maricopa, Az every February. The sandals pictured above are the ones I made!
We used the leaves of the banana yucca. The longer the better. We roasted the leaves over the fire until they changed from a dusty turquoise color to more of a kelly green color. This makes them much softer for the plaiting, or folded braid weave that makes the sandals. Once soft we removed the tips and the very edge of the leave while leaving as much of the leave in tact as possible. Then we took a wooden mallet and gently pounded the fat end of the leave so it became as pliable as the thinner end.
Once the leaves were all soft, they are ready to weave according to the diagram to the left. First we took a leave and folded it in half. The left half of the leave is turned away from me until it is facing me. The right half is then turned towards me until facing away from me. Then I took one yucca leaf and folded it in half around the bottom of the yucca “U” I just created . Repeat this process to make another U with a center yucca leaf folded in half so you have a set with 4 strands of yucca each. Here is where the diagram comes in. Follow it to begin weaving a sandal. Once you weave the leaves together as shown, then you shift and tighten the two parts of your set until they are snug together. This will be the toe of the sandal. Then you move beyond what is shown in the diagram.
From here you will take the outer and lower most leaf. On the left you will fold it away from you so you can then weave it under one and over the next two leaves. On the right you will fold the lowest leaf towards you so you can then weave it over one and under the next two leaves. Continue this rhythm until you run out of leaf length to weave. Fold over your ends and tie them down on the top of your sandal. This completes the heel. Hopefully they are the right length for you! Now weave its partner just the same way and then it’s time for the straps.
You can make the strap from cordage from the yucca leaves or use cordage that you already have. You need two pieces of cordage for each sandal, one long and one short. The short strap will for an upside down U to go around the back of your heel. The long strand will come up from either side under one of the middle toes. It will come on either side of your ankle, loop under the short, heel U, and come over the top of that U to tie in front where the foot meets the shin. Now you are strapped in and ready to go!!!
Believe it or not these sandals are disposable! These sandals will last for about 5 days of wear. What?!?! I remember asking. Even though they wear out after less than a week, whole regions of this continent used this as the main shoe design for over 7,000 years? It turns out that once adept, one can make a pair in only about 40 minutes. In one cave they found 25 pairs of ancient sandals stored, unused. It seems the people perhaps made them fast to have them stocked up and ready to run.
I hope you are having fun running and jumping into this leap year! I know I had fun learning to make these sandals from this land. You can come visit us here at the Inns at El Rancho Merlita and we can harvest and make these yucca sandals together in the springtime sun.
The ERM Family