Making the Attikamek Snowshoe

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My finished snowshoes

I am currently reading “The Survival of the Bark Canoe,” written by John McPhee in 1975, about Henri Vaillancourt, the most well-known modern birch bark canoe maker. I have been looking at it for many years, and people keep asking me if I’ve read it, so I thought maybe I should. All I can say is I’m glad I didn’t get really really good at something in my mid-twenties and then have a book written about me.

Years later, Henri also went on to write a book himself, “Making the Attikamek Snowshoe,” which meticulously documents the process of snowshoe creation at the hands of native people in central Quebec. With its attention to detail and total focus on the people he’s documenting (rather than inserting himself), it might be the best craft book ever written.

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Moise Flammand in Henri’s book

I had never made a pair of snowshoes when I got the book. There’s one other book out there on snowshoe construction, but it’s all power tools and lumber and jigs and steam boxes, and I didn’t want to do it that way. I wanted to go out, cut the tree, work it with hand tools, bend it by eye, and lace it up with rawhide that I prepared. That’s the way it was always done, and it’s the way Moise Flammand did it in the book.

“Attikamek” means “whitefish.” I once asked a Cree elder – neighbors of the Attikamek people to the north – why they identified themselves with the whitefish. He thought about it a minute, and then said in the singsong lilt characteristic to Cree speakers, “Hmmmm…I don’t know. I should ask them. They would know!”

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Snowshoes from a trip to a Cree winter camp, 2013

In the time I’ve spent with the Cree people, in deep snow country much like the Attikamek lands, I noticed that there was no such thing as a traditional snowshoe that was not intricately made, ornately decorated, and woven with extreme fineness. All the Cree snowshoes I saw had patterns woven in to the tips and tails, and then highlighted with paint. Despite the long labor required to make – and especially to weave – these fine snowshoes, never once have I seen a rough snowshoe with thick rawhide in a widely spaced weave.

I have read that a central part of Cree, Innu, and Attikamek (all closely related people) spiritual practice is embedded in their crafts. Much of the hand work in a nomadic culture is related to getting food, and when you’re up north, it is mostly animals you’re eating. In order to speak to, offer gratitude, and to appease the spirit of the hunted, trapped, or fished animal, the People made their tools of the hunt as beautiful as they could. An ornately crafted snowshoe was not an emblem of pride displaying the maker’s talent, but rather an offering to the animal taken, made to show how highly the hunter esteemed the hunted. The wild game would not show themselves to a hunter who was lazy or sloppy in his craft, not deeming him worthy of their lives. Craftsmanship, in this worldview, was not art works for display or sale, but offerings for the living, and the dying.  (See the book Naskapi by Frank Speck for more on this.)

Me, I just wanted to know what people knew about the snowshoe. I wanted to make a pair of snowshoes that people made when their lives depended upon them.

I’ve made enough frames now that I can go fairly quickly with them.  But the patterned weaving…I really don’t care to think how long it took me.

Here’s some photos from the process.

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1 Comment

  1. Merrilee

    Incredible Nate! Such a love of craft and nature. Thanks for sharing the process.

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