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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 8, 2003 - Issue 82


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Young Chippewas Learn To Make Shoes Old-Fashioned Way

by Alan R. Kamuda - Detroit Free Press Special Writer
credits: Mrs. Joe Socs making snowshoes. Creator: Monroe P. Killy (1910-) Photograph Collection, 1946 Minnesota Historical Society

Mrs. Joe Socs making snowshoes. Creator: Monroe P. Killy (1910-) Photograph Collection, 1946 Minnesota Historical SocietySUGAR ISLAND -- Even though modern snowshoes are readily available, the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians still teaches the traditional way of walking on snow.

Young Chippewas learn how to make wooden snowshoes at the tribe's Culture Camp, where age-old lessons are taught on weekends.

"Our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, and winter was a hard time," camp coordinator Bud Biron said. "It was before high-powered rifles, and you had to get real close to an animal to bring it down.

"By watching the animals around them and studying their tracks, they developed the original design of the snowshoe. And what they learned is an oral tradition that was passed down to me, and here at the camp we are passing on to the next generation with a hands-on learning experience."

Biron learned the art of snowshoe making from his father, who learned it from his father, who learned it from his father.

Historians have traced the origins of the snowshoe to more than 3,000 years ago, when they were a primary necessity in finding food. In North America, snowshoeing became prominent with the Eskimos and Eastern woodlands tribes.

Twenty-eight children and adults gathered at the Culture Camp last weekend to learn how to bend the wooden frames and tie the cowhide lacing onto the shoes.

"We try to make it a real interactive experience for the kids," said Biron, who holds two dozen weekend camps throughout the year. "I try to keep the activities of the camp tied into the season. Sugar-bush maple syrup camp in the spring, net tying in the summer, smoked fish in the fall, snowshoe camp in the winter."

A fire burns all day behind a two-story bunk house that sits in the middle of the island in the St. Marys Rivers east of Sault Ste. Marie. Strips of white ash are placed in a long metal tube, which sticks out of the fire and holds a few gallons of water. When the water starts to steam, the white ash becomes pliable and is fitted into a frame that bends the wood into shoe shape.

"Back in the pre-European days, my ancestors would place the wood on sheets of birch bark that had been soaked in water and placed over hot coals," Biron said. "The bark wouldn't burn because it was so wet, and the water would steam into the wood so it could be bent."

Two central crossbars are attached to the frames so they maintain their shape when dried. Biron was making a six-foot set of Ojibwa snowshoes for display in the tribe's art museum.

The children, aided by two employees from Iverson Snowshoes in Shingleton, spent the day lacing the shoes with thinly cut strips of cowhide. The hide was weaved between the crossbars and frames to help spread the weight over a wide area and keep the snowshoer from sinking hip-deep into the light-powdered snow.

"Further north, where the snow is deeper and the winter is longer, the lacing style was a bit tighter," Biron said.

After the work was done, the children spent the afternoon trying out the snowshoes on the mile of groomed trails near the camp.

"We work to hand down the traditions of our ancestors and teach the children life skills," Biron said. "They have it pretty easy today, and we work here to show them to use their hands and create things, to accomplish a goal, and when they're finished, I can see a rise in their self-esteem. They start to feel pretty good about themselves."

Sault Ste Marie, MI Map
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