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LITTLE SNOWSHOES FROM A CREE LADY essay
by Richard L. Provencher
6/14/2008 / Events
This form of tourist artifact was considered rare, since there was no established Cree art form in an area where Inuit Soapstone was predominant. A Cree native lady, who lived in Moosonee, created these miniature snowshoes, stating they took three days to make.
Decorated in red and blue dyed moose hide strips, they measured approximately three by twelve inches. Moose hide was also used for strapping, in place of babiche. There is a crack in the side of one snowshoe probably caused by dryness in the wood, which is now about 41 years of age. And after all this time, there is no natural moose odor.
I don't know if these artifacts are made any more, since receiving them as a gift in 1967.
There was an unusual knot in the tiny snowshoes where the feet would be held firmly.
Using this same style of native knot in full-sized snowshoes proved to be comfortable and effective. I had never seen such a one and must give credit where due. It is not cumbersome and is the best method of securing one's foot. It was my pleasure to have passed on this method of knot for others and using lamp wick instead of leather.
However the Ski-do was beginning to make its entrance known, thus replacing snowshoes. But gasoline was expensive, since Moosonee was approximately 180 miles from the nearest supply town of Cochrane, with a population of 5,000 at the time.
Also, it is interesting to note, from my experience as the Welfare Officer, for the western side of James and Hudson Bay that the Cree ladies did ALL the family work. Ie washing, cooking, getting firewood, looking after children, etc. Those men who could afford it raced around on their machines, fished, hunted and trapped.
In 1967 Moosonee was a Territorial jurisdiction administered by the government of Ontario. The Cree population of approximately 500 natives originally came from many bands situated on both sides of James and Hudson Bays.
It was a great experience for me to be the Welfare Officer, representing the government for the year I was there. The hours were long, the town quite isolated from mainstream society, but I learned so much. The Cree were a proud and resilient people.
They lived in their own homemade houses, with about 10% living in 5ft x 7ft canvas tents with sawdust flooring.
Within these tents, were the child/children, parents, perhaps a dog, food, clothing. Firewood was kept outside in teepee-styled shapes. Many natives had only a one-room 9 x 12 foot building, most having a canvas top from about waist high, with a hole cut through the ceiling for a stovepipe.
There was no electricity on the native side, across Shore Creek, in Moosonee. For those who paid $1 per month, there was a small outhouse size building with a water pump, which guaranteed fresh water. Most citizens took their water from Shore Creek. Trout lived in abundance there.
In addition there were geese so plentiful they could easily knock an aircraft out of the sky if a pilot strayed among waves of white geese, calledWavies. Partridge were in large numbers and they gathered in flocks of 30 or so. Within a short distance of Moosonee, all of the game one could shoot was easily accomplished.
Ducks were like clouds of feathery creatures and no one I knew even hunted them. American hunters came from all over to hunt for Geese, in one of five goose camps scattered about the area. Canada Geese were not a plentiful variety.
Shipsand's Island was a Preserve where geese could hide from noisy shotguns, and their its security allowed thousands of geese to rest there. Firewood was scarce since most had been cut and burned, leaving this muskeg country and the forest around quite sparse. Many natives traveled by snowshoe into the wooded areas for firewood, which could easily be several kilometers away.
I had the greatest admiration for one lady with seven children, who garnered all her firewood without help. She would have one child. a boy of eleven stay home in the morning from school to mind the younger ones. Then in the afternoon, her ten-year old girl would remain home to baby-sit brothers and sisters. Taking turns with her siblings allowed the mother to seek out firewood for her children.
Using her independence, since none of the men would help, she would head off with her sleigh to find wood. To this day, she and I remain friends, some 41 years later. The first time I met her was when she had no one to get her firewood. The Economic Development Officer who was discouraged at being unsuccessful and brought the issue to my attention. I said to him, "Why not just buy her an axe, then she can get her own firewood?"
"Do you think I'm the Welfare Department?" he answered with a snort.
Later I visited the lady in her one room, no insulation, 12 x 15 ft home, a mansion by the standards at the time. It had no partitions, sink, water, electricity, cupboards, washroom nor windows; but it had heart, and was home to her and seven children.
It was her castle, and she proudly showed me around. There was only one single bed, which was hers. When I suggested I might buy her an axe, which could be used to get her own firewood, I received a giant hug from this very stout lady.
And it was the beginning of a very long friendship even after I moved from Moosonee a year later. Today my wife, Esther, and I converse several times a year and exchange letters with her and her family, some of whom still reside in Moosonee. Her children, now numbering twelve live all over; with families of their own.
One of her dreams came true when she showed me her new three-bedroom
apartment in 1972 after I returned to Moosonee for a great visit.
My year in Moosonee taught me much about life, and its fragility. In the village I saw a cemetery filled with young children under the age of five. Sadly, it was one of the reasons the life span of a native in Canada, in 1967, was 30-32 years.
But, take heart, as I recount in this updated story. Living to the fullest was very precious to a native. Life was measured by the dawn of each day, the sun's morning rays, the cry of a Wavie, even flapping wings from a retreating partridge or shouts from a friend.
I have precious memories from that golden time, including friendship from one dear lady who made that pair of snowshoes many years ago. And I still have that precious gift.
* * *
Richard L. Provencher 2008
Richard enjoys writing poems; many of which have been published in Print and Online. He and his wife, Esther are also co-authors of stories and a print novel. They are "born again" Christians and very busy in their church, Abundant Life Victory International, in Bible Hill, Nova Scotia.
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