Monday, 19 November 2012


Another article by Martin Hunter from the Nipigon Museum Archives

"How the Indians of the North Make and Wear the Webbed Footgear which Makes Existence Possible in the Stern Country They Inhabit"

"Nothing is too good for the bush-dweller, be it the food he imports, the clothes he wears or the equipment which he requires for his daily calling. Cheap or shoddy goods such as can be made to answer the every-day purpose in civilization have no place with the people who inhabit, or pass into, the wilderness. Everything must be of the best; their very lives demand it. Imagine the consequence that would result to a lone hunter in the Northern wilderness, miles away from any human aid, should his axe break, his gun explode, his snow-shoes give out or his canoe buckle through bad material or faulty construction. His welfare, aye, his very life, depends on having things of the very best."

"This rule holds good right through every requirement where men have to transport their necessaries over long distances, on lakes, rivers and portages, or in the winter season by hauling them on toboggans, or packing on their backs. It is with the latter condition, and particularly the only means of travel, that this article has to deal."

"Let us begin with the first requisite in the construction of the snow-shoe, the frame. The Indian sallies forth into the forest and selects a straight-grained yellow or black birch - a young tree, even of sufficient size to give the required wood, is not chosen, because when worked up into shape the wood is not as durable and strong as from an older tree. The tree in demand is one of from eight to ten inches in diameter."

" The proper tree being found, the Indian cuts it down. Next he chops off a cut sufficiently long to give him the required length for his frames. This done, he inserts and drives in a the small end of the log a hardwood wedge. This opens the stick so it will split into equal parts. The same process is then gone through with halves and again with the quaters, if he desires a number of pairs. Splitting at the heart and at the small end always insures the pieces separating in even thicknesses."

"The Indians also make snow-shoe frames of tamarack, ash and white birch, but only when yellow or black birch is not obtainable. Tamarack, while a strong wood, is very heavy; ash frays easily on a crust and loses its shape in wet weather, while white birch though making a nice, light snow-shoe frame, is worn away very quickly when crust walking."

The wood obtained, the Indian right there at the stump axes each piece to almost the dimentions he requires, and, if his wood yard is far from his camp, may light a fire to thaw out the wood and there use his crooked knife till he gets that exact size and shape he wants. This lightens his burden in carrying the wood to camp - something his white brother would not think about."

"The bending of the frames is generally done at night. One reason for this is the man's time is too much taken up during the daytime procuring food for his family, and secondly, it helps him pass the long winter evenings."

"The frame having been knifed to the proper thickness, the heaviest part in the middle tapering off toward the tail ends, all is ready for the bending. A large kettle of scalding water is kept over or alongside the fire and with a rag mop the maker thoroughly soaks the whole length of each stick, every now and then slightly bending the wood over his knee toward the desired shape. This is done to gradually stretch the fiber of the wood, and this alternate immersion and bending is kept up without haste until the frame is quite supple. One piece of flat wood the length of the proposed breadth of the shoe is then prepared. This engages and extends the two frames at the middle. The maker now ties the pair of frames securely together, once at the tail end, once each side of the middle, and again at each side of the toe. When this is completed the frames are hung up to dry in the camp, but care is taken not to have them too near the fire. It is marvelous how uniform the two separate frames are when complete. The only tools used are the hunter's ax and his crooked knife to finish off with."

"In the complete snow-shoe the woman's work also enters. Preparing the deerskin is her province and it is done in this manner:
  • The green skin is put to soak overnight.
  • Her husband has shaped for her and planted outside the camp door a log of peeled wood having two legs, after the fashion of a tanner's "horse."
  • Upon this in the morning the woman places the skin in its wet state, hair-side up
  • With a shin-bone of the animal she scrapes down the hair, stubbles and impuries, going over a small section at a time until the whole skin is free and clean.
  • It is then turned over and the flesh-side gone over in a like manner.
  • The skin is then thoroughly washed in the clean water
  • Then examined once more over the "horse" for any place that may have been overlooked.
  • When perfectly clean of all fat and other impurities it is wrung out and put away in a damp state.
  • If in the cold weather it is stretched on a frame to freeze flat.
"The next process is the cutting of the skin into lacing , or babiche, for the netting of the snow-shoes. Most of the Indian women are very dexterous at this work. I say dexterous, because cutting the thongs up into strands of a uniform thickness and breadth, since the skin is thicker in some places than others, is only done by those with a sensitive touch and a quick eye. Some women cut the skin up beginning at the edge and working towards the middle, while others cut the skin intwo halves and work one side at a time into netting, and agian others divide the whole skin into quarters, finding the smaller piece of skin much more convenient to handle."

"The cutting of the babiche is done on a small flat board placed on the woman's knees. With a very sharp knife she severs the strand from the main piece of skin with great uniformity and quickness. With the knife held securely in one hand she revolves the skin with the other, finishing off with a residue of the size of dollar bill. If a frozen skin is to be cut up the work is done out of doors, where the heat of the hands just keeps it pliable enough for good handling."

"The toe and the heel of the snowshoe requiring finer strands than the foot or middle part, fawn skins are used for these parts. If the Indian has none, the flank or thin part of the heavier skins are utilized for the fine netting."

"After the strands are cut up the woman winds them into balls, stretching with her teeth and hands a length of a yard or so as she rolls the babiche. This is to prevent it shrinking and consequently slacking when worked into the shoe. The balls are then tied up in a piece of cotton or cloth and put in a damp place till required."

"Along with the frames which the man had put to dry in shape, are the four bars, knifed to the proper curve and size. These being ready, he marks off the places for the bars, makes his mortises and engages the bars. The frames are always dried an inch or two narrower than the shoes are intended to be when finished, therefore when placing the bars the spring is so that they go in with a click and remain firmly in place. The tails are, of course, sewed or screwed together before the bars are inserted."

"His next work is to bore gimlet holes about an inch apart, from one side of the front bar around the frame down to the end of the same bar at the other side. At each place the holes are two in number, about one eighth of an inch apart. The same is done each side of the tail part, back of the heel bar."

"Some tribes of Indians, especially for spring walking, bore down each side of the middle or foot part, but as a general rule the main netting is over the frame."

"When all the loles are finished the man (for it is considered his part of the work), taking a strand of uniform and selected babiche and starting from the end of one bar, going along the inside of the frames, laces his babiche out and in the holes as he comes to them, knotting his lace at each set of holes. This is the mounting or stay for the actual knitting to engage over. The frames now being ready in every particular they are handed over to the women."

"Among the interior tribes where the men are lords and masters and do nothing that could be considered a woman's work, they would not think of knitting a snow-shoe, but among those Indians near the frontier who are in the habit of seeing their white brothers assist at woman's work, some very expert snow-shoe knitters are found, doing work quite quickly and neatly as the women."

"Two needles are required, which are generally made of ivory and sometimes pass through two or three generations, from mother to daughter. The needles are of the same pattern, only one is somewhat smaller than the other, being used for the finer strands of babiche in the toes and heels."

"Putting good, careful work into the knitting of an ordinary size, general use snow-shoe requires a full day's work, but as the woman always does the small knitting of both shoes first, the pair takes two days' or four long evenings' work."

"Did I foresee a remote probability of any reader of this article requiring the knowledge to knit his own snow-shoe I would give it from start to finish. To a dweller in the far North country to "know how", in many things, is good medicine. The writer, years ago, through an accident, had to knit one  snow-shoe on Christmas Day, and that with a tight belt, but he wishes no such calamity to the reader."

Walking in Snow-shoes will be the next part of this article by Martin Hunter.

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