My great, great-grandmother on the paternal side of the family was Angélique Beaudoin (pronounced bo-d’uah). She has been described as “metis”, Which means that his parents were mixed race. Her father was French Canadian and her mother was an Ojibwa Native American. This makes me a descendant of the Ojibwa, and because of this lineage, I am interested in Ojibwa history and culture, including Ojibwa snowshoes.
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About the Ojibway
The Ojibwa are also called Chippewa. According to information from the American Indian Heritage Foundation, as researched by Glenn Welker in “Indigenous peoplesAmerican treaties called the Ojibwa the Chippewa. Take out the Ojibwa “O” and say both “jibwa” and “Chippewa”, and they sound quite similar … hence the variation in sound between native pronunciation and US government pronunciation. Historical records reveal several spellings of Ojibwa, such as Odjibwe, Ojibwe, and Ojibwe.
And the name Ojibwa was given to them by other tribes meaning “to wrinkle”. This name referred to the style of moccasin they wore, with the toes sewn inward to keep snow out. But the Ojibwa refer to themselves as Anishinabe, a word that means “people of origin.” Although I am a little interested in their linguistics, I am more intrigued by their history, in particular their adaptation to winter on snowshoes. The Ojibwa lived in the Great Lakes regions and survived many winters with heavy snow.
The Ojibwa snowshoe
In 1860, Johann Georg Kohl originally wrote the book titled Kitchi Gami: Life among the Ojibway of Lake Superior. He captured many aspects of the life of this tribe at the time. Referring to what is essential to the life of the Ojibwa, he said, “It is the snowshoe that is as necessary in the winter as the canoe in the summer. He continued, “All over North America all the warriors, hunters, traders, travelers, worshipers, men, women and children, moved around on snowshoes at this time.”
By examining various historical references (including The crafts of the Ojibwa: Chippewa by Carrie A Lyford), white ash was most commonly used for snowshoe frames. Strips of green wood were steamed or heated over a fire to soften the wood until it was pliable. It was then carefully folded into the desired shape. Usually they inserted two wooden sleepers to strengthen the frame.
The decking was made of narrow strips of rawhide woven together and attached to the frame. Depending on the period, the skin came from moose, deer, elk, caribou and horses. Lyford wrote that the Ojibwa used a hexagonal weave in the net of the racket. For the bindings, they would tie a piece of leather to the decking where the foot rests, and a leather wrap crossed the instep to hold the foot in place.
The Ojibwa woman walked on “Bearpaw” snowshoes. These were short and oval or nearly round shoes that were good for maneuvering in camps and villages. Men often wore a long, narrow snowshoe that allowed them to navigate (to facilitate straight-line travel) in deep snow and in fields or forests while they were hunting.
It is important to note that the natives created their own design for a snowshoe. This design would help them when hunting in various terrains in the Great Lakes region.
Snowshoes designed for tracking had a long, pointed tail and a long, pointed, upturned tip. One of the reasons for the toe cap was that the shoe could glide gracefully through the snow and brush that surfaced above the snow. Today, this wood-frame snowshoe with spikes at both ends is called the “Ojibwa snowshoe”.
Johann Geog Kohl wrote: “The nature of the terrain to be traversed to a large extent regulates the shape and size of the racquet. The size would vary depending on their use and terrain. Some were 5 feet (1.5 m) in length or more and one and a half feet (0.45 m) in width on average.
Read more: Traditional wooden snowshoes: shapes, designs and names
Snowshoes in Ojibway traditions
An interesting Ojibwa tradition was the racket dance. In an 1835 painting by George Catlin titled Snowshoe dance in the first snow, the artist depicted Indigenous hunters wearing snowshoes while dancing around a pair of snowshoes suspended from a large pole during a snowfall. The dance was in the hope of having a successful hunt during the coming winter season. Snowshoeing in the Ojibwa definitely had an important place in their traditions and history.
In SEO A dictionary of the Ojibwa language by Frédéric Beraga, “agim” is the native word for snowshoeing. In addition, “nind agimosse” means “I walk on snowshoes”. Johann Georg Kohl indicated that the Ojibwa name for snowshoeing probably came from the word “agimak”, which means ash wood. Ash wood, as we have learned, is a common material for most snowshoe frames.
“Nind agimike” means “I do snowshoes”. So i decided nind agimike in a snowshoe weaving class to get a feel for the Ojibwa snowshoe. I actually didn’t make the shoe itself, but I did weave the racket bridge from a kit.
Make my own snowshoes
Several years ago, I took a weekend course at a university environmental education center. Students had the choice of choosing one of a few snowshoe kits, including Bearpaw, Alaskans, and Ojibwa snowshoes. I, of course, chose the Ojibwa. The kits were manufactured by Country paths of Wilcox and Williams Inc., a popular traditional snowshoe manufacturing company in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
We started classes on Friday evening. The first task was to sand the white ash frames and measure out several feet of tubular nylon lacing. It was not too bad for the start of the course. But on Saturday, I started to question my skills as I spent 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (with only two half-hour lunch breaks) weaving and having to backtrack by making a mistake in my diagram. I hate going back. So he definitely put my patience to the test.
The instructor said, “Pay attention to the golden crossing rule. This rule requires lacing with rights on the lefts and below the horizontals, the lefts on the horizontals and below the rights, and the horizontals on the rights and below the lefts. I was definitely experiencing a weaving challenge, let alone a headache.
After a while, I understood. Sunday at noon, I had finished weaving a nice pair of Ojibwa snowshoes. Alas, all I had to do was varnish and add the bindings.
I felt a connection with my snowshoes, having participated in their assembly. I also felt a connection to the history of the Ojibwa by experiencing in a tiny way what my ancestors experienced as they too wove to make their snowshoes. But their weaving was out of necessity, while mine was out of hobby. A big difference, I realize.
Read more: Making your own snowshoes from scratch
No better feeling
For my maiden voyage, I traveled to the shore of Big Eau Pleine Flowage in central Wisconsin, where I live. The flowage gave me wide open, flat terrain with deep snow. So, it was exhilarating! I loved the feeling of almost walking on snow. It’s amazing how, with all of my snowshoeing experience on aluminum frame rackets and my traditional Bearpaws, I really didn’t feel flotation like I did on these larger Ojibwa rackets.
Listening to the rustle of my Ojibway snowshoes as I take a peaceful hike on a secluded trail in Wisconsin or Upper Michigan, I will think of my great-great-grandmother Angelique. I guess as a child she used snowshoes as a way of life. It is conceivable that his Ojibwe grandfather hunted on snowshoes and his grandmother collected firewood while the children ran and played games, all on snowshoes.
And who knows, on a hike with my Ojibway snowshoes, I might come across one of Angelique’s past trails or the trails of my other Ojibway ancestors from centuries ago. I’ll never know. But it has a special meaning to know that it could happen.
What is your experience with Ojibwa snowshoes? Please feel free to share your experience, comments and questions in the section below.
This story is based in part on an article published by Jim Joque in Silent Sports magazine, “The Path of Ojibwa Snowshoes”, in January 2006. This article was originally published online at snowshoemag.com on March 3, 2012. It has been updated in February. 23, 2021, to include new information.
Read more :
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Looking Back – A Look at Traditional Snowshoe Design in Canada
The future of traditional snowshoes: we value our 6,000-year-old tradition