Floating on Snow
Snowshoe technology has been refined by Alaska’s Indigenous peoples over thousands of years. Snowshoe frames were typically made from straight birch or strong driftwood and steam bent into the appropriate shape. Webbing was made of babiche (semi-tanned hide cut into thin strips of cordage). In Dena’ina Athabascan culture, a child of three or four would be given a set of snowshoes. The snowshoes were indispensable for travel during the winter months and, by a relatively young age, children learned to master walking in them. They were customized for the individual and children received increasingly larger pairs as they continued to grow. Each region of Alaska had their own styles of snowshoes based on local geography and climate, but all snowshoes function in the same way by distributing a person's weight over a larger area. This allows the wearer to float above the snow and to travel longer distances without becoming fatigued.
By the middle of the 20th century, the skills and knowledge needed to craft traditional snowshoes had largely disappeared as mass-produced snowshoes became widely available. By the late 1970s, new materials, such as aluminum and plastics, were incorporated into snowshoe designs. Composite materials revolutionized the form, dimension, weight, and other physical features of modern snowshoes. Since that time, continued refinements have allowed snowshoes to become smaller, lighter, cheaper and easier for the novice to use. These innovations have led to the rising popularity of snowshoeing as a winter activity and renewed interest in learning from the few traditional snowshoe makers left in Alaska.
Esan, Gift of Leonard Grau, Anchorage Museum Collection, 1955.9.4ab
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