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12th June 2020

Hi! I’m Jocelyn, Research and Documentation Assistant, based at the Hull Maritime Museum. Normally I would be helping to document the Maritime Museum collection so that it is ready for the exciting Hull: Yorkshire’s Maritime City project. But instead, I’m at home!

Next up on “Jocelyn attempts to pin down exactly what this is”, is…

​Pair of snow shoes, turned up at one end. Caribou sinew netting, decorated with tufts of wool, made by American indigenous sub-Arctic peoples.

Snow shoes are ancient tools, similar to skis. But while skis are meant to slide over snow, snowshoes are meant to assist with walking – the wide surface area stops the wearers feet from sinking into the snow.

The book Chippewa Customs by Frances Densmore (1979) describes how the snowshoes are made - “The wooden frame of a snowshoe is usually of ash, the wood being bent by heating it. Strips of rawhide were commonly used for the netting below the feet, and twine for the netting at the ends… On the north shore of Lake Superior the Chippewa make the netting under the feet from the intestines of freshly killed moose and use the sinew for the smaller nettings… The netting in snowshoes was done with a wooden needle having the eye midway its length.”

There is a surprising variety among different snow shoes – shapes, sizes and materials. We knew that this traditional wooden pair was made in North America, not Asia or northern Europe, so that was a good start. But I wanted to know exactly which group it was that made these snow shoes.

The book Wood: Craft, Culture, History by Harvey Green (2006) says “The four most common shapes of snowshoes made by North American indigenous peoples are the Maine, Ojibwe, Alaska, and bearpaw. The Maine (also called the Michigan) shoe most resembles a tennis racket, the long tail piece serving to keep the shoe in line with the foot while walking. The Ojibwe has the Maine shoe tail and an upturned nose, the better to slip over exposed roots and other brush in the woods.”

Our pair of snow shoes are pointed at both ends, have curved sides, and are turned up at the front, so it looks to me like the snowshoes in our collection are Ojibwe-shaped.

The different snowshoe shapes

I began by searching the Canadian Museum of History collection to see if they had similar snow shoes. (No surprises, they have A LOT of snow shoes in their collection!)

2008.118.11 a-b, snowshoes, 1850-1854, Canadian Museum of History

I discovered these in their collection, which the Canadian Museum of History identifies as Huron-Wendat (culture), or Eastern Woods Cree (culture), or Northeastern Woodlands (culture), or Eastern Subarctic.

This was going to be difficult.

I began to search for snowshoes made by Ojibwe people.

A pair of Ojibwe snow shoes in the Minnesota Historical Society collection have similar red yarn decoration, but the shape is different – they have a rounded front, not an upturned point.

But! When searching in the Royal Ontario Museum collections, there are snowshoes with upturned toes that are Cree!

These snow shoes look the most similar to the ones in our collection. They are attributed to the Western Woods Cree people.

So who are the Cree and the Ojibwe people?

The Cree are the largest group of First Nations people in North America. Today they mostly live in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They are traditionally divided into several groups, each speaking its own variety of Cree language – East Cree, West Main Cree, Woodland Cree, and Plains Cree. Cree people were heavily involved in the fur trade with Europeans.

Most Ojibwe people live in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. They live in groups known as ‘bands’. Ojibwe are the second most numerous group of indigenous peoples in North America, behind the Cree.

Similar snow shoes to the ones in our collection appear in this painting of Plains Ojibwe by American artist George Catlin.

George Catlin, Snowshoe Dance at the First Snowfall, 1835-1837, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., 1985.66.451

The two cultures are distinct, but where the Cree and Ojibwe people live overlaps, particularly around the Great Lakes. It seems like both cultures were making “Ojibwe-shaped” snow shoes, as they were the most efficient at traversing the woodland in the area.

I am not an expert on the Cree or Ojibwe peoples, nor am I an expert on snow shoes – my best guess at attributing the snow shoes in our collection is that they are from the Great Lakes area and could be either Cree or Ojibwe.

If you know more about these snow shoes than I do, please get in touch!