Snowshoes and Canadian First Nations probably don’t seem an obvious pairing, but, nonetheless, the two appear to be indelibly linked. Consider this First Nation quote passed down from generation to generation: “The white man always attempted to avoid the snow or skirt it, whereas the Indian always looked for the best way to walk on it and live in harmony with nature.”
From its earliest form, it became almost inevitable that the snowshoe would develop into an object of prime necessity for comfortably walking on snow, without sliding or sinking, thus enabling the wearer to hunt in winter – sometimes over long distances, explore and discover the surrounding territory and, above all, simply stay alive. From its primitive beginnings in Central Asia this early form of snowshoe was brought to North America over a strip of land now covered by the Bering Straight, and became an indispensable item of footwear for tackling the harsh Canadian winter.
It’s a proven fact that the North American Indians perfected the traditional snowshoe worn today. The First Nations tended to settle in the forested temperate zones where snowshoes were an absolute necessity to move safely around in winter.
The Athapascan Indians of the Canadian west coast and the Algonquin (Huron) Indians of the St. Lawrence River valley relied most on snowshoes and brought them to their greatest peak of perfection. Naming their designs by reference to native animals, the First Nations introduced hundreds of variant patterns suitable for all possible conditions and terrain. The Bearpaw, Swallow and Beavertail are classic examples.
The Bearpaw’s frame formed a large wide shape similar to paw prints of forest dwelling bears. Their oval shape made them ideal for walking on firmer snow through thick woodland and mountainous terrain, but in thicker snow, lacked speed.
The Beavertail – favoured by the Algonquin – was teardrop shaped with upturned toe and narrow tail. Its versatility made it ideal for use on trails, rolling terrain or open woodland, but it proved clumsy in thick woods or on very deep powdered snow. A forward ‘kick’ was provided by the tail to propel the next step while reducing fatigue. Designed to suit deep snow and wide open spaces, the Ojibwa (Cree) snowshoe was instantly recognised by its classic pointed tip and upturned toe.
Native American snowshoes were made of a hard wood, typically ash. The wood was steamed or soaked to make it pliable, then bent into shape. The frame was laced with rawhide – mostly strips of denuded moose, deer or caribou skin – with the lacing often beautifully intricate. The snowshoe designs perfected by the Algonquins and other woodland tribes remained in use throughout most of the twentieth century and while some may have been made for barter or trade, most were a home industry.
The small village of Indian Loretteville, a prosperous community a short distance north of Quebec City, is a great example of how the Canadian First Nations established a firm lead in snowshoe manufacture. It’s here that descendants of the Huron tribe still make an excellent quality product for sale in Canada, the United States and worldwide.
The rounded snowshoes of the Cree, Naskapi and Montagnais Indians of Labrador and Quebec represent one extreme of First Nation snowshoe design. Made to be both strong and lightweight – their shape providing optimum flotation for the light powdery snow of the far north and their short length, being wider than long, making them ideal for climbing and descending hilly terrain and for moving about over rough ground.
The beavertail snowshoe with its tightly bent, squarish or rounded tail is the most aesthetic and highly finished of the rounded snowshoe styles. To make a good pair of beavertails requires the significant skills of a master craftsman and as such these snowshoes are usually held in high esteem by their owners.
Beavertails are almost never used as a basic working snowshoe but are often reserved for traditional big game hunting, where the hunter ‘dresses’ to pay respect to the animal spirit. In this way, they hold ceremonial significance, along with the drum and the ‘nimaban’ – a braided and decorated moose or caribou skin hunting charm.
The significance of the snowshoe within the traditional hunting culture of the Canadian First Nations cannot be overemphasized. Without them, life in the snow covered North would be impossible. Countless photographs, taken of individuals posing with snowshoes, is evidence of the high regard the people have for this implement. An implement looked on as not just an object of footwear, but an expression of artistry and craftsmanship passed down through generations.
For more information on Canada’s First Nations, visit http://firstpeoplesofcanada.com.