Big snowshoes to fill

Strings of deer and elk hide were wrapped around the pillars outside the Ta'an Kwach'an Council's health centre like cobwebs this weekend. "The sun helps keep them white," said facilitator Chuck Hume.

Strings of deer and elk hide were wrapped around the pillars outside the Ta’an Kwach’an Council’s health centre like cobwebs this weekend.

“The sun helps keep them white,” said facilitator Chuck Hume.

Inside, the boardroom was covered in tarps.

Large, plastic tubs stood filled with murky, white water and atop the table lay curved pieces of birch. The pointed ones for men, the curved for women. All of them, lined with small holes, await their handmade laces.

“I’ve learned your hands aren’t as tough as you think,” said participant Mary Jane Allison.

More than 10 people, ranging in age and coming from a variety of First Nations, spent three days here making snowshoes.

And next weekend, the health centre will roll out the tarps, buckets and hide cobwebs again when the workshop is offered for another, three-day round.

“When I get old enough, it come to my mind that maybe I should start teaching young kids,” said elder Paddy Jim, the workshops’ instructor. “That’s how I learned, so I might as well pass it on to young kids. That’s how native people work. When you become to be an elder you pass it on to the younger generation. That’s what I am trying to do now.”

Jim learned how to make snowshoes from his parents.

He remembers watching his father make and lace the frame while he helped his mother cut and stretch the hide.

That’s the hardest part, said Allison.

Like many of the other participants, she stood at the tarp-covered conference table with her hands wrapped in J Cloths.

She would loop strips of the moist hide, cut about a half-an-inch thick, around each hand, then pull her arms apart, letting one side slowly unravel.

Thicker elk hide is used for the lacing that goes under the foot and thinner deer hide is used as the lacing at the front and back of the shoe.

“It may not feel like you’re doing much,” Allison said, pointing to a piece she just pulled. “But that one there is probably three-quarters of an inch longer.”

Allison is a southern tutchone native language teacher at Porter Creek Secondary School.

“As a language teacher, usually you should be teaching the culture and how to do this kind of stuff but, I don’t know how,” she said bashfully raising her shoulders and laughing. “I’ve learned a lot of other things, I know the theory, I’ve read about it, but I’ve never personally sat down with an elder telling me what to do and how to do it.”

As she says this, cutting another piece of hide, another facilitator yells out to her: “Not that thick Mary Jane.”

“See,” she said, looking up from under her brow, giggling.

“This is my chance to sit down and do what I am supposed to be doing,” she said.

The traditional story behind the snowshoe comes from an unexpected animal: the grouse.

The grouse went in front of the lady many times, weaving back and forth across the snow. That is how she thought to lace the hide back and forth. The idea is to stay on top of the snow.

“It’s a dying art, so I wanted to learn,” said Andre Paul, who is originally from the westernmost Sioux in South Dakota, known as the Lakota. He admits, snowshoes aren’t as popular in his traditional land, but he has been all over North America. He’s spent 20 years handmaking traditional drums.

Snowshoes are harder, he said, laughing.

Jim makes drums as well. And traditional toboggans. (They are the hardest to make because the birch has to be bent with hot water and steam, he said.)

“I make everything and I teach everything,” he said, adding trapping, Russell fencing, horse wrangling and hunting to the list. “Everything they want to learn.”

His own 14 children know how to do it all, he said.

“I don’t have to tell them anything I just tell them there’s a job to be done and it will be done because they learn off me. I don’t mind teaching people because I want to pass it on to the younger generation, what I know. Everything I do, they watch and they learn.”

The art of making snowshoes has changed since Jim learned it from his own parents.

The small pinholes along the frame of the shoe for the lacing used to be made with tooth or bone. Jim remembers his dad had made his own tool out of steel that worked like a hand-drill. At the health centre, Jim was able to hold an electric drill in hand and pull the trigger.

But some elements of the art will never change. Like picking good birch, said Jim.

The grain must be straight and it can’t brake when you bend it.

“If it bends like rubber, that’s a good birch,” he said.

He stands up abruptly and heads for the door.

“Give me two minutes,” he says waving two fingers up and over his shoulder.

In less than that time, Jim returned with a snowshoe frame without lacing.

He pointed to the curve at the top.

“That’s a bad birch,” he said. There was a crack. You could see the grain twisted like a cork screw at that point.

“If I don’t try, I don’t learn,” said Jim. “I don’t say, ‘I don’t know how to do it.’ What gets in my mind I wanna do and I wanna do it now, I’m not going to wait til tomorrow.

“And I make a lot of mistakes, I know where I make the mistake and I do a lot of different ways til I do a good job.”

When asked how many pairs of snowshoes he has made, Jim just started laughing.

“Lots,” he said.

When asked how old he is, Jim looked up with a coy grin.

“Only 88,” he said, “I still work hard.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Are they coming?

One of COVID-19’s big economic questions is whether it will prompt a… Continue reading

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, along with Yukon health and education delegates, announce a new medical research initiative via a Zoom conference on Jan. 21. (Screen shot)
New medical research unit at Yukon University launched

The SPOR SUPPORT Unit will implement patient-first research practices

Yukon First Nation Education Directorate members Bill Bennett, community engagement coordinator and Mobile Therapeutic Unit team lead, left, and Katherine Alexander, director of policy and analytics, speak to the News about the Mobile Therapeutic Unit that will provide education and health support to students in the communities. (yfned.ca)
Mobile Therapeutic Unit will bring education, health support to Indigenous rural students

The mobile unit will begin travelling to communities in the coming weeks

Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley, speak during a live stream in Whitehorse on January 20, about the new swish and gargle COVID-19 tests. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Swish and spit COVID-19 test now available in Yukon

Vaccination efforts continue in Whitehorse and smaller communities in the territory

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Faro photgraphed in 2016. Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old building currently accommodating officers. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Faro RCMP tagged for new detachment

Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old… Continue reading

In a Jan. 18 announcement, the Yukon government said the shingles vaccine is now being publicly funded for Yukoners between age 65 and 70, while the HPV vaccine program has been expanded to all Yukoners up to and including age 26. (1213rf.com)
Changes made to shingles, HPV vaccine programs

Pharmacists in the Yukon can now provide the shingles vaccine and the… Continue reading

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

A file photo of grizzly bear along the highway outside Dawson City. Yukon conservation officers euthanized a grizzly bear Jan. 15 that was originally sighted near Braeburn. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon News file)
Male grizzly euthanized near Braeburn

Yukon conservation officers have euthanized a grizzly bear that was originally sighted… Continue reading

Most Read