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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 6, 2002 - Issue 58


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Snowshoe Artisans Still Follow Tradition

by Natalie Phillips Anchorage Daily News
SnowshoesANCHORAGE, AK - Nick Dennis travels by snowmachine to the outskirts of the tiny Native village of Nikolai looking for rare stands of birch. Two hundred miles north in Huslia, George Yaska scans ridgetops for birch stands during the fall moose hunt.

The two Native snowshoe artisans do not know each other, but they are on the same mission - searching for the perfect birch tree.

To Yaska, the perfect tree is straight, with no limbs for about six feet and no knots.

When Dennis finds a prospect, he nicks the side of the tree to see whether the grain is straight. Then he bends the tree over to make sure it doesn't snap.

In the Yukon River village of Ruby, George Albert, who at 50 is a generation younger than 74-year-old Dennis and 68-year-old Yaska, also covets the perfect birch.

"The growth rings are far apart on a good one," he said. "If they are small and close together, you might as well cut it up for firewood. You're just wasting your time if you don't have the right birch."

The three men are believed to be among the last Interior Native Alaskans making snowshoes in the unique Athabaskan style that has been passed down for generations. And the snowshoes they make are nothing like the $250 high-tech ones of aluminum, nylon and hypalon that dominate today's recreational market.

All three snowshoe makers fear their craft will be lost when they go.

Over the past decade or two, many Native elders who knew how to make snowshoes have passed away, said Bill Simone, an anthropologist with the state Department of Fish and Game.

The state has so few snowshoe makers left, said Vernon Chimegalrea, the cultural outreach director at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, that "it's very unusual" to stumble upon one.

Children in the village of Huslia stop by occasionally and watch Yaska work.

"But they think it is too hard," he said. "They are not interested," he said.

"I never learned to write," Dennis said with a laugh, explaining why he won't be leaving instructions behind. And children in Nikolai aren't interested anyway, he added. "Those young guys only want to snowmachine and watch TV."

Snowshoes have been around for thousands of years, said Fish and Game's Simone. Archaeologists don't know when skis or snowshoes came into use, but there is evidence that crude foot extenders for traveling over snow originated in Central Asia about 4000 B.C., according to William Osgood and Leslie Hurley, authors of "The Snowshoe Book."

Indians, not Eskimos, were responsible for innovations in the snowshoe, they report. Eskimos traveled mostly over sea ice or the wind-packed snow of the tundra, while Indians traveled in temperate forested areas.

The Athabascan Indians of Alaska and Canada and the Algonquin Indians of Ottawa and St. Lawrence River Valley "brought the snowshoe to the greatest peak of perfection," the authors report. They developed hundreds of different patterns and designs.

The wide, nearly round beaver-tail-style shoe that is about 2[1/2] feet long by nearly 2 feet wide was developed in Labrador and Quebec. It has a fine, tight weave suited to very deep, fine frost snow, according to Garrett and Alexandra Conover in their book "A Snow Walkers Companion."

Traveling west from Labrador to Alaska, the snowshoes become longer and more pointed, sometimes with the ends turned up.

Snowshoes made by Athabascans were very long - up to 5 feet - with birch frames. They are known as "Alaskans" and used for hunting.

Athabascans also made a stubbier 3-foot shoe designed for walking on brushy trail or breaking trail for a dog team, anthropologist Simone said.

Dennis, Yaska and Albert make the longer shoe.

Traditionally, men make the frames and women weave the mesh, or "filling." The wood frame of men's shoes were decorated using a red ocher, a red iron that is found in the soil. Women sometimes decorated theirs with yarn, Simone said.

A good birch is about 8 to 10 inches in diameter, Dennis said. Trees with drooping branches are believed to have the strongest wood, wrote Kathleen Lynch, the author of "Making Snowshoes," a 50-page booklet produced by the Tanana Chiefs Conference for its survival school.


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