Walter Ufer first traveled to New Mexico in 1914 under the sponsorship of Carter H. Harrison, the Mayor of Chicago, who along with prominent local businessmen, provided funds for the city's young artists to visit Taos. Ufer also traveled as a guest of the Santa Fe Railroad whose management eagerly subsidized artists to paint western scenes in order to encourage public travel. Upon his arrival in Taos, Ufer was so impressed with the landscape and people that he exclaimed: "God's country! I expect to live and die here" (in Patricia Janis Broder, Taos: A Painter's Dream, 1980, p. 212). At the time, the Taos Indians were experiencing great social change; their traditional lifestyle, which revolved around the cultivation of corn, was quickly becoming outmoded in an era of increasing industrialization, forcing many of the local Pueblos to take on menial jobs in the village. Ufer once observed: "The Indian has lost his race pride ... He only wants to be American. Our civilization has terrific power. We don't feel it, but that man out there in the mountains feels it, and he cannot cope with such pressure" (in "Art in the Southwest," El Placio, May 24, 1928, p. 403). As a result, Ufer often painted scenes of Native American life that reflected the difficulties of cultural transition and expressed the artist's compassion for their hardships.
In the present work, Ufer's depiction of a moccasin mender contains subtle details that reveal the precariousness of tradition in the face of acculturation. Though the specific Pueblo is not known, the figure is clearly identifiable as a Taos Indian due to his wrap-braided hair style, which, among the Pueblos, was confined almost exclusively to the Taos area. The setting of The Red Moccasins, with its broken boards, rough clay walls, and damaged Santa Clara blackware pot, highlight Ufer's concern for the declining native culture, while the man's white garments reveal the partial assimilation of outside influences. Patrick Houlihan notes that his white shirt is "not unlike those worn by Anglo or Hispanic men of the time, and the second is a white blanket rolled and tied about his waist," which was a common practice for Taos men (Native Faces, Indian Cultures in American Art, 1984, p. 67).
Houlihan suggests that the painting's title "may refer to the Taos practice of dyeing the upper portion of the men's moccasins ... [which] are made of two pieces, a soft tanned deerhide upper section and a hard rawhide sole." He adds that the figure may be "wearing moccasins, heelless shoes, or boots that have been altered to conform to the traditional Taos prohibition against heeled footwear within Pueblo walls ... for the Pueblo people the sharp-angled footwear of Anglos would cut or otherwise harm the earth, which is sacred ... The importance of heelless boots, shoes, or moccasins to the Taos man is in adherence to Taos traditions, and the value of such footwear was often impressed on the young by their elders" (Native Faces, p. 66).
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