#RockYourMocs: Why Native Americans — including Deb Haaland — are celebrating their moccasins

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland wore her moccasins during the 2021 Tribal Nations Summit on Nov. 15. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland wore her moccasins during the 2021 Tribal Nations Summit on Nov. 15. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Having worn moccasins and a vibrant ribbon skirt to her historic swearing-in ceremony in March, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland — the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary — has stepped out once again in the spiritually and culturally significant shoes. Joining President Joe Biden at the Tribal Nations Summit in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 15, Haaland paired her bright blue suit dress with moccasins featuring colorful beading.

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, later took to social media to call attention to the nod to her culture, and the Rock Your Mocs movement which helped inspire it.

"Until now, a voice like mine had never been at the table," she tweeted alongside a close-up of her moccasins. "Today I proudly wore my mocs to the White House as I joined the president and fellow cabinet members for the first day of the Tribal Nation Summit."

Haaland added the hashtag #RockYourMocs, a social media event now in its 11th year and running from Nov. 14 to 20, right in the middle of November's Native American Heritage Month. Billed by organizers as a "positive opportunity to be united and celebrate tribal individuality by wearing moccasins," Rock Your Mocs sees participants donning — and posting photos of — their moccasins, taking part in various events, including moccasin-making workshops, to raise awareness for Native American Heritage Month and doing their part to "honor our ancestors and ndigenous peoples worldwide."

Rock Your Mocs has become a global phenomenon that this year has seen involvement from the National Park Service — which falls under Haaland's purview and may soon have its first Native American director, Chuck F. Sams III of the Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes — and participants from far-flung locations like Machu Piccu. But it all began as a small Facebook event started by a young woman named Jessica "Jaylyn" Atsye, who simply wanted to celebrate her moccasins.

"It was actually only supposed to be like my friends," says Atsye, who, like Haaland, belongs to the Laguna Pueblo tribe based in New Mexico. But by making the event public, she unexpectedly attracted lots of interest.

"I had to think about what I wanted Rock Your Mocs to represent," she says. "It was to unify other Native and Indigenous people and to show the diversity within our culture."

Atsye eventually partnered with Emergence Productions, a talent agency and event production company specializing in Native American and Indigenous performers. From there participation ballooned into the tens of thousands, with many coming from abroad.

Those who don't own Indigenous footwear have gone to extreme measures to participate; the Rock Your Mocs Facebook page features creative alternatives for those who can't wear moccasins or whose tribes didn't wear moccasins, for the record. Atsye tells Yahoo Life that she's seen moccasins made out of duct tape. Someone once carved out a loaf of French bread and stuck their feet inside. Animals have gotten involved.

"People like to put their pets in moccasins," she laughs.

Rock Your Mocs founder Jessica
Rock Your Mocs founder Jessica "Jaylyn" Atsye says thousands of people now share photos of their moccasins. (Photo: Courtesy of Rock Your Mocs)

While participants can also show support by wearing a turquoise awareness ribbon in lieu of moccasins, Atsye tells Yahoo Life why they're much more than a sartorial statement. Spiritually, their thin soles are thought to bring the wearer "closer to Mother Earth" by feeling the ground underneath.

"They do hold prayers," she adds, "because they go wherever you go on... and you participate with them in ceremonies. It's like being closer to your ancestors."

She also notes the underappreciated diversity of moccasins across different regions and tribes; any pair can tell a story. Some involve wraps made from deer hides to protect the legs from a number of elements: cactus, rattlesnakes, the cold. A cold-climate region will call for a thicker style, or something to keep the moisture out, which is less of a concern in the dry Southwest where Atsye lives.

Scroll through the countless #RockYourMocs submissions and you'll notice that not every person showing off their moccasins is Indigenous. According to a Rock Your Mocs statement, "all our welcome to participate" — but urges those who don't share the heritage to be a "knowledgable ally" and respect the greater mission. That includes: knowing tribal distinctions, supporting Native American performers and small businesses; learning about local tribes and the land on which you live; educating yourself about Native American history and tribal concerns; and attending events or celebrations spotlighting Native American voices and contributions.

While Atsye hopes that, first and foremost, Rock Your Mocs helps celebrate diversity within Native culture and bridge the generational gap between elders and the young by honoring meaningful traditions and stories, she also recognizes that it's an opportunity to educate non-Natives about issues like cultural appropriation and the treatment of Native Americans throughout history.

"I feel like this is more of a positive look on Indigenous people," she says. "We're still here and we're still learning and we're still living."

Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.