Published: April 20, 2018 By

CU Boulder outreach initiative gives public chance to weave, wear replica Native American sandals

An extensive collection of Southwestern prehistoric sandals is housed in the Museum of Natural History at the University of Colorado Boulder. Because the sandals are ancient artifacts, researchers can’t just strap them on to see how well they wear.

But a team of scholars in classics and anthropology—with help from the public—is doing the next best thing. An outreach program called “Walking in Another’s Shoes” is bringing together hand-weavers, runners and a range of scholars.


Erin Baxter

Last fall, CU Boulder students and local artisans learned to weave these sandals, attempting to replicate the weaving styles of prehistoric Native Americans. Archeologists familiar with this footwear hosted webinars to convey the techniques used by the ancients.

This spring, students and runners from the general public have been able to create their own sandals and wear them -- running around the Boulder foothills to test durability. Using various phone applications, such as Pacer, allows participants not only to track the time and distance walked, but also analyze the type of terrain they traverse.

The project, which is supported by a CU Boulder Outreach Award, is helping unlock mysteries of the sandals. The project is led by Erin Baxter, a lecturer in the Departments of Classics and Anthropology who holds a PhD in anthropology and a master’s degree in museum studies from CU Boulder.

In the early 1900s, archeologist Earl H. Morris gathered the collection of ancestral Pueblo sandals housed in the CU Boulder Museum of Natural History. These shoes contain stylistic variations and tread patterns that once identified various tribes.

Although most of this footwear did not stand the test of time, the articles that did survive can unfold mysteries of the labor investment needed to make them, as well as their creators’ identities.

While these ancient shoes exist, it is hard to glean information from them. Baxter said she began researching the sandal collection after wondering, “What’s the deal with all these sandals?”

By having participants actually make and wear the sandals, Baxter will gain a better understanding of the amount of labor it took to weave a pair and the durability of the footwear.

Because scholars can’t just stomp around the foothills in ancient artifacts, “Nobody has been able to figure out how long they are able to last,” making this project pertinent to the understanding of ancient Pueblo peoples.

When first learning to make these shoes, participants wove with commonly manufactured textiles. However, to maintain authenticity, the final products will be made with yucca fibers collected by a group of Apache students. While the weavers will never be able to make exact replicas of these sandals, the goal is for them to come close.

This venture includes the departments of anthropology, classics and art history, and one goal is to give students interdisciplinary, hands-on experiences.

Collaborating groups include the Handweavers Guild of Boulder, which meticulously wove the shoes specific stylistic components, and the Barefoot Running Club of Boulder as well as the CU Running Club, which has tested the footwear in the Boulder-area foothills. Native American nations have also been consulted to on accuracy of the weaving, and they have collected yucca for the shoes.

“Walking in Another’s Shoes” is also collecting information about the identity and social structure of these Pueblo people. At the project’s end, there will be a “publishable paper that will include the names of the 200-plus authors, because lots of people will have collaborated on it,” Baxter said.

Elspeth Dusinberre, a professor in the classics department of the College of Arts and Sciences, shared high praise of Baxter. “She is probably the best and most creative teacher I have met,” Dusinberre said. “She is wonderful.”

At the top of the page: An image of analysis of a Pueblo III sandal (about AD 1200) that students and handweavers are trying to emulate because it  is one of the simpler designs. Photo by Benjamin Bellorado.