Snowshoe artisans among last to follow traditional Athabaskan technique

Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2002

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- 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 Athabaskan 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 Athabaskans were very long -- up to 5 feet -- with birch frames. They are known as ''Alaskans'' and used for hunting.

Athabaskans 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.

Spruce won't work because it's too brittle, Yaska said.

The wood is cut into four long strips, and they are bent into shape using blocks and spreaders. The tops are spliced together for a rounded tip, and the tails are lashed together in a point with babish -- strips of dried caribou or moose tendon. About 35 to 40 holes are then marked and drilled for the lacing. It takes about two weeks to finish from this point, Yaska said.

While newer, high-tech snowshoes have buckles and straps for lashing the snowshoe to a boot, Native-made snowshoes have a unique foot lashing made from a long strip of caribou babish or tanned moosehide, according to Lynch.

''It's tied in a special way,'' Yaska explained. Once the lashing is tied to fit a specific boot, ''you can slip it on. You don't even have to use your hand. You just twist your foot back in and out of it.''

Yaska and Albert have used mostly nylon twine from hardware stores for their fillings. Dennis still uses babish when he has it.

Old-style snowshoes were finished with a thin coat of red ocher. Dennis still uses ocher on his snowshoes. Yaska uses an orange-red carpenter's chalk for the same look.

None of the snowshoe makers could say exactly how many pairs they have made over the years. Dennis said he and his wife, Verdissie, used to make four or five pair a winter.

The three men sell their shoes, though their work doesn't appear to be widely known.

Yaska said the advantage his custom-made shoes have over manufactured shoes is that he can craft them to the exact length and width a customer wants. However, he pointed out that manufactured shoes may be better to haul around on a snowmachine because they're less likely to break. He believes his snowshoes are lighter, but otherwise he thinks the performance is similar.

Native art auctioneer Duane Hill called the Native-made snowshoe the ultimate Alaska art. He has been in the local art business for 30 years and said it's rare to find someone making snowshoes. But there is a demand, with most buyers intending to display them, he said.

Dennis usually gets $500 to $600 a pair.

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