Babiche was not the only thing to be woven through the freshly harvested birch wood snowshoes fashioned by Aurora College students, teachers and community members over the last several months.
For instructor Lawrence Cheezie, the true fabric is tradition.
Cheezie, whose family tree holds roots in Fort Chipewyan and Fort Smith, was taught the art of snowshoe building by his parents and has used handmade pairs his whole life. As one of the only people around still making his own snowshoes, he said he passes on the knowledge so that it won’t disappear.
“They’re gone now, but I still have what they taught me,” he said of his parents. “I don’t want it to die. Nobody makes these anymore, so I’m trying to teach the young fellas how to do it. Hopefully next year we can do this again.”
Last Thursday wrapped up the third snowshoe making course taught by Cheezie at Aurora College’s Thebacha campus in Fort Smith, where students looking for a challenge are taught to build a pair of intricate and functional snowshoes from scratch over the winter.
Starting in October, students were challenged with harvesting the birch to make the frame, steaming it into shape and finally binding it with babiche.
“All of us went out there in the bush, cut the birch down, brought it here, took an axe and started cutting it down to shape. Then around the middle of November we started bending it. We bent it and let it dry for a couple of weeks, then we started putting the loops on and started lacing it. The lacing took a long time; it’s hard to catch on to that. They had to lace it and redo it and take it apart,” Cheezie said. “I think they got frustrated a little bit, but they stuck to it.”
Elder Violet Edji of Fort Good Hope, who was taking the course for the first time, said it was indeed a tough course.
“Frustrating,” she said. “Makes you want to cry when you’re undoing it and redoing it, and then you undo it again. I think crocheting is easier!”
The lengthy and demanding process engaged students for two hours, two evenings per week, but the final products made it worth it for participants.
Norris Ricketts, an international student in the teachers education program (TEP), now has a pair of authentic, Northern snowshoes to take back to Jamaica.
“It’s something unique to me. Doing the TEP program, I really do appreciate Aboriginal people’s artwork, everything associated with their skills. So this came in as something for me to try out, so I got involved.”
He said it was challenging to take on a task so foreign.
“Where I’m from, we have nothing like this,” he said with a laugh. “So doing something like this, I can take it home and show it off to my people that I’ve been here in Canada, in the North of Canada, with the Aboriginal people and they taught me how to do this. That’s something interesting.”
For others like Debbie Dillon, a business admin student from Inuvik, it was their second time taking the course.
“I didn’t really completely finish my first pair, but I also wanted to make another one the traditional way,” she said, motioning that she’d be giving her newly finished pair to her mother.
Though it was challenging, Dillon said it was “a good learning experience.”
Good enough that she said, if offered again, she would probably take it once more.