Snowshoes and Canadian First Nations seem to be indelibly linked. From their first form, snowshoes have become an essential item for walking comfortably on snow. They allowed the wearer to hunt in winter without slipping or sinking, sometimes over long distances. In addition, the snowshoes helped the wearer to explore and discover the surrounding territory. But most of all, they were just helping the individual stay alive.
From its primitive beginnings in Central Asia, the earliest forms of snowshoeing were introduced to North America on a strip of land now covered by the Bering Strait. Undeniably, they have become an essential shoe to face the harsh Canadian winter.
Snowshoe styles abound
It is a fact that the Indigenous peoples of Canada, made up of First Nations, Inuit and Métis, perfected the traditional snowshoes worn today. Many tribes settled in temperate woodlands where snowshoes were an absolute necessity for safe travel in winter.
The Athapaskan tribe of the Canadian west coast and the Algonquin tribe of the St. Lawrence River valley relied the most on snowshoes and took them to their highest peak of perfection. In addition, many Canadian First Nations tribes often named the patterns in reference to native animals and introduced hundreds of variations of snowshoe designs suitable for all conditions and terrain possible.
The rounded snowshoes of the Cree tribe, the Naskapi tribe and the Montagnais tribe of Labrador and Quebec represent one extreme of snowshoe design. Designed to be both strong and light, their shape offers a large flotation surface in the light powder of the Far North. In addition, their short length, being wider than long, makes them ideal for climbing and descending hilly terrain and moving over rough terrain.
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The Bearpaw is a classic example of a rounded racket without a tail. The frame formed a large, wide shape similar to the paw prints of bears living in the forest. Plus, their oval shape made them ideal for walking on firmer snow through thick forests and mountainous terrain. In soft snow, however, this model lacked speed.
The beaver tail snowshoe is similar to the commonly known Huron snowshoe. This is the most aesthetically pleasing and finished style of round snowshoes with its tightly curved, square or rounded tail. The Algonquin tribe favored this style, with its teardrop shape, upturned nose and narrow tail. Making a good pair of beaver tails requires the essential skills of a master craftsman. Thus, their owners generally held these snowshoes in high regard.
Its versatility makes it ideal for use on flat trails, hilly terrain or in open forest. However, the tail proved awkward in thick woods but helped to follow and propel the foot forward.
Many individuals often used beaver tails for traditional big game hunting, where the hunter dresses to pay homage to the animal spirit. Thus, they have ceremonial significance, along with the drum and “nimaban” – a braided and decorated moose hide or caribou hunting charm.
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Designed to adapt to deep snow and wide open spaces, the Ojibwa snowshoe was instantly recognized by its classic pointed toe and rolled up toe. This snowshoe can extend up to 5 feet and, because of its square footage, is excellent for carrying heavy loads over flat terrain.
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Made to perfection
Many Canadian First Nations tribes made snowshoes from hardwood, usually ash. The wood has been steamed or quenched to make it pliable, then bent into shape. Then the craftsman laced the frame with rawhide – mostly strips of bare moose, deer or caribou skin – with the often beautifully intricate lacing. Snowshoe designs perfected by the Algonquins and other woodland tribes remained in use for most of the twentieth century. While some people made snowshoes for barter or trade, others were a domestic industry.
The small village of Loretteville, a thriving community a short distance north of Quebec City, is a prime example of how Canada’s First Nations established a solid lead in snowshoe making. Faber & Co was founded by “Noé Sioui and Celide Gros-Louis, granddaughter of the most famous Grand Chief Huron, Nicolas Vincent, who fought for the rights of the Wendate Nation”, according to the history of their company. Additionally, Faber & Co first produced snowshoes in 1883, and manufacturing continues today.
Thus, we cannot stress enough the importance of the snowshoe in the traditional hunting culture of the Canadian First Nations. Without them, life in the snowy north would be impossible. Countless photographs of individuals posing with snowshoes testify to the high esteem people have for this tool. Snowshoes were not considered a mere object of footwear. But, they were an expression of the art and craftsmanship passed down from generation to generation.
For more information on First Nations in Canada, visit http://firstpeoplesofcanada.com.
This article was first published on June 17, 2012 and was last updated on September 30, 2021.
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