Built about 40 feet long out of white and black spruce, willow and eight to 10 untanned moose hides, moose skin boats are perhaps one of the most culturally significant treasures of the Mountain Dene.
“For the Shuhtaot’ine (Mountain Dene), they are a cultural icon. It defines who the Mountain Dene are in many ways,” territorial archaeologist Tom Andrews told a crowd of students and community members in Fort Smith last week at Aurora College.
Andrews and Leon Andrew from Tulita were both in Fort Smith Thursday at the request of the South Slave Aurora Research Institute for the screening of Tie-cho-ka: Quelques images du Grand Nord, a 30-minute silent documentary produced by French anthropologist Jean Michéa documenting his time spent with the Mountain Dene in the 1950s.
Maximizing his time at the college, Andrews also gave a presentation on the importance of moose skin boats to the Mountain Dene, which covered the history of the boats and detailed how they are made.
“All through the 20th century, we have this wonderful photographic archive of moose skin boats,” Andrews said. Using the photos as well as extensive oral history from Mountain Dene elders, Andrews said he is able to piece together much of the history of the boats, which are next to impossible to find preserved today.
The boats were invented as a necessary mode of transportation for the Mountain Dene who would travel up into the mountains for the winter to hunt sheep and moose but, come spring, needed a way to bring their heavy haul of meat back down to Tulita.
Using the fresh moose hides they had harvested, the Dene built one-way boats that would sustain the weight of the meat. The hides were sewn together and stretched over a spruce frame while a supply of animal fat was used to make sure the seams were moist and sealed.
The trip down from the mountains brought their cargo through hundreds of kilometres of sometimes treacherous waters, past landmarks such as the sacred Red Dog Mountain, to the shores of Tulita.
Once they reached their destination, the green hides would dry, shrink and destroy the wooden frame of the boat, making them next to impossible to reuse, nevermind preserve for historical purposes, so those hides were recycled for other items.
Local shares historical importance
For Andrew, who was featured as a boy in Michéa’s film and whose father and grandfather built moose skin boats, the importance of keeping the knowledge alive is what inspires him to share the story of the boats with others.
“Most communities have their oral history. For us, the moose skin boat gives us some of the background knowledge from the Mountain Dene. The knowledge should be shared with everyone and hopefully people can learn from it,” Andrew told The Journal.
Last summer, the community of Tulita spearheaded a moose skin boat revitalization project that saw a group of nearly 50 people plan and execute a three-week project to build a boat. Andrews was a part of the team building the boat and said the moment it touched water caused a flood of emotion.
“It’s a moment of laughter and a moment of tears when the boat hits the water. There was a drum dance to pray and christen the boat,” he shared with the crowd.
The Mountain Dene have built moose skin boats at least once every generation in order to keep the practice alive in the community.
“The skills and knowledge are being passed down from generation to generation,” Andrews said. “Hopefully there will be another one made in the next generation.”
In order to preserve last year’s moose skin boat, the community removed the raw hides and plan to cover the frame with canvas made to look like moose hide. The frame is currently displayed at the community’s airport to welcome visitors to the home of the Mountain Dene.