It is always rewarding to find a quality artifact of the material culture of indigenous peoples (such as the First Nations in Canada and Native Americans in the U.S.), but even better when its provenance is known. More often than not the story behind an antique’s previous owners is lost in time, but in the case of these snow shoes we know quite a bit about their owner and collection history.
These snow shoes were acquired by Christian Henne II on a trip to the Klondike in 1897. They were passed down in his family until they were recently sold by his now elderly granddaughter. They are in remarkably good condition, having hung on a wall since they were acquired 118 years ago. Tribal members would reweave their own snow shoes whenever the babiche wore out, but they would reuse the same frames for many years. Since neither the weaving nor frames of these snow shoes show signs of heavy use, they had most likely been recently made when given as a gift to Henne.
What is particularly intriguing about this rare form of snow shoes is that they were made by a cultural group (Tlingit) and within a region (Pacific Northwest Coast) that are not typically associated with snow travel accoutrements. However, the Northwest Coast Tlingit peoples also occupy less temperate regions away from the immediate coast, eastward into the mountainous region of the Yukon, which explains why snow shoes were part of some Tlingit tribes’ tradition.
The Snow Shoes
These snow shoes are a style made by Inland Tlingit, which includes the tribes (called Kwáan) Áa Tlein Ḵwáan of the Atlin Lake area, Deisleen Ḵwáan of the Teslin Lake area, and T’aaku Kwáan of the Taku River basin.
They have two-piece birch frames, bent into rounded, upturned toes where the wood is spliced and lashed together.
The frames are dyed red, and the fine weaving is either babiche (strips of semi-tanned hide) or sinew (dried tendons). The middle of the snowshoe where the foot is placed has wider weave, laced with stronger strips of rawhide.
While men usually made the frames, both men and women wove the netted sections of the shoes.