About 25 years ago, as I was going through the proverbial mid life crisis, you know, all the introspection on how I might make my life more fulfilled, it occurred to me that since I'd been using snowshoes most of my life, learning to make myself a pair could prove to be both challenging and rewarding as well. Since I had met a self-taught snowshoe maker, Dick McCubrey, a few years earlier, I approached him. Dick was not only more than willing to teach me his craft, he was also happy to pass on to me a valuable collection of molds which he was no longer using.
This snowshoe experience turned out to be a truly life altering opportunity that has enri3ched my life far beyond my greatest expectations. Not long after I'd fumbled my way through weaving my first few pair of shoes, I was on one of my early flying trips to Northern Quebec, when we got weathered in for a full five days. It just happened that we were on a remote lake that was the site of a Cree winter camp. In the course of exploring the site I came across several pair of both old and useable Cree snowshoes. My first exposure to these works of art. Being a newly educated snowshoe make, and having an appreciation for the work and skill required in making snowshoes, I was absolutely amazed at the intricacies, skill, and craftsmanship of the Cree snowshoes. I knew I needed to locate some of these traditional Native snowshoe makers and learn some of their techniques and snowshoe styles.
A friend on the lower St. Lawrence river in Quebec, knew an elder in a remote Montagnais village that made snowshoes, and arranged for us to visit with him. I quickly realized that snowshoe making as a life skill was a vanishing part of Native culture. So I set out to locate as many of these Native snowshoe makers as I could, and try to visit and learn some of their knowledge and skill. I was soon to find that only in the more remote and un molested communities was the craft still alive. Over the next 20 years, I was fortunate to be able to travel all across Northern Canada and Alaska, and visit with nearly 100 of these traditional craftsman and women. In the process, I began collecting snowshoes from many of these makers, and others in villages across the North. That collection now numbers almost 200 pair, and is one of the most extensive and well documented collection of Native snowshoes in the world.
Most of my collection is usually on loan to museums or universities across North America. In the process of studying the wide variations in styles and construction techniques of these snowshoes and their makers, I spent a lot of time visiting different museums and private collections of snowshoes. The thing that became very evident is that the craftsmanship and finesse of the work on snowshoes had decreased as the life skill was fading from the Native culture. I was again amazed at the quality of workmanship in some of these collection pieces from over 150 years ago. As I visited more collections it seemed that in each one their was 1 or 2 pair that were so exceptional, that they really needed to be more accessible to people who had a real appreciation for the mastery of these old snowshoe makers. The shoes were scattered across so many different locations and collections that, that most of them would never be seen by any snowshoe collector. So I began a project along with a fellow snowshoe maker to try and replicate the most unique and impressive of these shoes from collections all across North America.
Using many of the crafting techniques I learned in my visits with makers in the remote villages, we are recreating these magnificent snowshoes on a very limited basis. And offering them to collectors and others who have an appreciation for the artistry of snowshoes.
The snowshoes are all made of traditional wood, either ash or birch, and all the filling (babiche) is of either caribou, deer, in some cases moose, or beaver hide. And is all prepared and hand cut. These are full sized, men's snowshoes, unless otherwise noted.
Naskapi Beavertail Snowshoe
This style snowshoe is found only on the Ungava Peninsula of Quebec, among the Cree, Montagnais, Innu, and Naskapi. The original of this particular shoe was collected in 1898 by Adrian Turner, at Fort Chimo, now called Kuujjauq, and is currently in the Smithsonian collection. It was made by a member of the Fort Chimo band, of Mushuau Innu (Naskapi). It's by far the most extreme example of the beavertail style. Not only because of the tightness of the tail bend, but also for the extraordinary width of the shoe. The pattern of weaving is like none I've seen anywhere else, because of the difficulty in filling the unusual shape of the frame. The mor erecent beavertail styles are considerably different in shape and detail.
In 1927, William Strong, an ethnologist, spent the winter living with and recording the life style of the Naskapi of Northern Labrador. He said of their snowshoe making, "in so far as creative skill is manifested in material appliances, the Northern Indian seems to have reached his highest point in the designing and manufacture of snowshoes. It is the greatest addition to the sum total of circumpolar culture, and even the inventive genius of the North. The Eskimo willingly barters his choicest products for the Indian snowshoes. The Naskapi have carried the art to a high pitch, both as to technique and variety of types in use".
This shoe measures 27" long and 27" wide
Naskapi Beavertail Snowshoe - $925.00
This highly ornate shoe is a recreation of a snowshoe that is currently in the Grand Teton National Park Museum.
There is not much information available on its background, or collection dates or location.
What I have been able to research on the shoe leads me to believe that it probably originated in either Eastern Ontario or Quebec, sometime in the mid 1800's. Because of the beautiful and meaningful patterns painted on the shoes, I would guess that the snowshoe was intended for some ceremonial purpose. It is striking in not only its colors but its workmanship.
The style is consistent with other shoes of that time frame and location, and probably ended up in the Western US as part of an early collection.
One of the most colorful snowshoes I have seen, and very unique in that most were usually made as working functional snowshoe.
This snowshoe is 45" long and 16" wide
Huron - $825.00
This style of snowshoe was the traditional Alaskan type of shoe. Its native heritage is in the area surrounding the Yukon and Porcupine river drainage, and the lower Mackenzie river of the North West Territories. Athapascan is a bit of a misnomer for this style, because the name Athapascan is much broader in both Native groups, and linguistically, than the origins of this snowshoe. It might be more accurately called a Gwitchin style, as the major Native group that inhabit this area.
The shoe is designed for open travel over very deep snow areas. The original is in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, although there are others in various collections. What intrigued me about this shoe was the delicacy and attention to detail of this esthetically pleasing style. It was one of the only ones I have seen that were decorated with the line of trading beads along the mid line of the shoe. After a great deal of research, I was able to learn that these were used as a sign of status of the snowshoe's owner, and when entering a camp the individual and his status could be determined by seeing his snowshoes outside the shelter.
I spent some time in Fort McPhearson, in the North West Territories, with the last of the traditional Gwitchin snowshoe makers, and although Robert was a very accomplished maker and still used the tools his grandfather had passed down to him, the shoes he made were not anywhere as refined as the shoes that were crafted in the late 1800's.
These are a beautiful recreation of a truly traditional snowshoe. They measure approximately 68" long and 12" wide.
The trading beads are authentic 1800's beads.
Athapascan shoe - $1025.00
These are one of the style snowshoes that really started my interest in recreating the unique and unusual shoes we are making. The Penobscot Nation is located just miles from our farm, and our land not only borders their reserve, but at one time was an important settlement of the early Penobscots, and before them, the Red Paint People.
I have always been interested in the history of the Abenaki tribes, and in the course of studying it, I came across a few snowshoe pictures, and in some of Specks work, descriptions of their crafting. But it wasn't until a visit to the Abbey Museum in Bar Harbor Maine, and a chance to look at an original pair of shoes collected in the mid 1800's, that I really had an appreciation for the high level of craftsmanship of the early Penobscot makers.
This shoe is not only one of the most intricately woven patterns, but also the most technically difficult to weave that I have ever seen. All of the designs in the toe and heal of the shoe are woven in as the pattern is, but to fill the shoe from 3 sides, is very difficult and skilled work. And to realize that this work was done over 150 years ago, with the most primitive of tools and situations, is almost unbelievable. I have found two other examples of these snowshoes, one is in the Heye collection of the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, and the other is in the Thoreau Museum, in Concord Massachusetts. It was purchases on Thoreau's historic trip to Maine in 1853, on Indian Island, here in Old Town. Although it is not quite as ornate as the others, it is unmistakable. The same unique style, and sets the time frame perfectly. The very unusual mid section weave is done in only one other area of North America. And I will explain the connection in the description of the Attikamekw shoes.
A truly unique and beautiful snowshoe, with a great history. This shoe measures 31" long and 16" wide.
Penobscot shoe - $1275.00
The original of this snowshoe was in the Hudson Bay Company collection at Lower Fort Gary in Manitoba. It is now in the New Provincial Museum in Winnipeg. This shoe may be the most beautiful snowshoe ever crafted, it was collected in the mid 1800's in an area of central Quebec inhabited by a band of natives originally called Atikamekw, or Tetes De Boule. There is some confusion as to the linage of these two groups that inhabited the same area in different time frames. Their history is long and intertwined. At any rate, these snowshoes are a testament to the high degree of sophistication and detail that these Native women elevated their craft to. The very involved designs that are woven into the pattern are all perfectly symmetrical and pre planned. The fineness of the babiche, and the attention to detail of even the knots in the babiche to me, is amazing. And again, remember these were all done by a Native woman living a substance life style 150 years ago, in the harshness of the Northern Canadian bush. The colors, the uniformity of the shoes, the consistency of the weave, all point to almost perfection. We have tried to capture all this in our recreation, but still perhaps falling short of the craftsmanship of the original shoes.
These shoes are a real collectors item and should be the centerpiece for any collection. They measure 42" long and 20" wide.
Attikamekw snowshoe - $1525.00
Note on weaving:
The mid section weave, as you can see, is very similar to the Penobscot shoes just before this. For years, I never understood how such a unique weave pattern could show up in 2 styles of snowshoes, from such separated areas, with no evidence of influencing styles anywhere in between. It was only by chance that I met a grad student who was working on a project to define the relationship between the government of Lower Canada and the Natives within its boundaries in the 1800's. He was working on what were called petitions, these were formal letters of complaint from the Natives to the government, that addressed concerns or complains of the different Native bands. To make a long story shorter, he had come across one from the Tetes De Boule, complaining of incursions by the Abenaki of the South shore of the St. Lawrence. Up the St Maurice river into their traditional hunting and trapping grounds. Hence the connection, at least to the Abenaki of New England.
Almost exclusively, the weaving of snowshoes fell within the realm of women's responsibility, with these patterns being passed down from mother to daughter. My theory is that at one point, either an Attikamekw woman was brought or accompanied by an Abenaki hunter back from Quebec, and somehow found her way to the Penobscots, who were of the Abenaki nation, or a Penobscot woman accompanied by a hunter on a foray into Quebec, and for some reason, stayed. I have no other information at this time to help me choose which may be the case. At any rate, this helps explain the weaving of this unique pattern in both style of snowshoe.
The Penobscot Minnow
This is a very old style Penobscot snowshoe, originally designed for running down big game on light snow, as the deer or moose were slowed by the conditions. It evolved to a racing snowshoe, which was used in many Winter games, in which most all Abenaki villages competed. With the long tail, for proper alignment, and short nose for ease of lifting the toe, most good racers could run as fast on snowshoes as on bare ground. And usually, they would cover more ground, because of the even going of a slightly crusted snow. I came across this style locally, in my friends old camp. And I was quite intrigued by its uniqueness. I was told it was referred to as the minnow shoe, because of its profile, which looks like a small fish. This is a very unusual design, and it is found nowhere but the Penobscot villages of Maine. It is 59" long and 14" wide.
Penobscot Minnow - $625.00
Montagnais Spring Snowshoe
This type of snowshoe, as far as I've been able to determine, doesn't exist in any other collection. I was visiting with an elder who made snowshoes in the village of Mashteuiatsh, on Lac St. Jean Quebec, and we were discussing the use of different style snowshoes for the varying snow conditions at different times of Winter. I knew that the Natives designed their snowshoes differently, to accommodate the abrasive sugar snow of late Spring, called seguinasam. They would tie the babiche in the foot area, through the frame of the snowshoe, rather than around it. To keep the babiche from being cut by the crusty snow. I didn't realize that the people of this area even went so far as to make the frame of the snowshoe out of the much denser yellow birch, which would not absorb as much water as white birch when the Spring days warmed up. Or that they wove the shoes of babiche, made from beaver hide, because it also would not soak up water and sag, or become heavy as moose or caribou hide would. As far as I am aware, this was the first time anyone had documented the use of these alternative crafting techniques for Spring snowshoes. I still haven't seen any reference to this type of shoe in any of the collections I have visited, or any of the written information I have seen on snowshoes. Although I have questioned many old makers on the subject. Some are familiar with the style, others have only heard of the Montagnais around Lac St. Jean making them. I have recreated this style from the verbal directions of the old makers. The Montagnais is made of yellow birch and beaver hide babiche, and is 34" long and 19" wide.
Montagnais - $725.00
I first came across the original of this snowshoe in the Beta Shoe Museum in Toronto. I was impressed by the detail, as well as how incredibly ornate they were. According to the reference, they had been collected in Alaska in the mid 1800's. And the origin was listed as Aleat. This really surprised me, as I had always been lead to believe that due to the hard wind swept snow on the Aleutian chain. And that there was no evidence that they ever crafted them. In the process of researching the shoes further, I located 2 other museum pair, both almost identical. And one referenced as Aleut, the other as Athapascan. This opened another option. I contacted the museum of the Aleutians, after some in depths research that they had no record of the Aleuts making snowshoes. The form of the tail on these shoes, was a very unique feature. The only other place I had seen that type of constriction in the frame, was on the shoes made by a band of in land Tlingit from Teslin Yukon, and it was very specific to a few families. The 2 piece frame, with the overlapping toe, and concave bend of the toe, also had similarities to the Teslin style shoe. After picking the brain of everyone I could find who might help shed some light on this shoes origin, I would learn that in the time frame of when this snowshoe was collected, that the term Aleut was commonly applied to Native people, not only on the Aleutian chain, but also along the central Alaskan coast. That was the connection. The Tlingit were primarily a coastal people, but there were 2 bands that over time, had moved in land up the Taku river, to their present day villages of Atlin B.C. and Teslin Yokon. I am not going to try and rename the snowshoe, that is for the pros, I will just leave it at what I was able to find, and admire this snowshoe for its beauty and craftsmanship. The weaving is relatively straight forward, but the degree of detail, from the painting on the shoe, the color scheme, and the delicacy of the frame, makes me think that this shoe was only used for ceremonial purposes. The most intriguing feature of the shoes, are the upright tufts of fur set into the frame. I've never seen this in any other snowshoes. I asked the mammalogist at the Royal Ontario Museum to try and identify the species of fur on the original pair in their collection. His conclusion was that it was wolf fur. We've created the shoes using wolf fur, to keep them as close to the original as possible. This shoe is 45" long and 8" wide.
Aleuten - $825.00