Dig It: Indigenous-created winter gear

Much of the winter snow gear we use, and a few of the activities we take part in, are owed to Indigenous Arctic peoples’ adaptation to their environment

As I’m sure many a Kamloopsian did, I enjoyed several days up at Sun Peaks over the holiday break, taking advantage of the warmer weather and good cross-country ski conditions.

I also bought some new gear, partly based on friends’ recommendations, as well as some general observations about what other people on the hill were wearing.

It got me thinking about the origins of some of this gear. Dig It readers might be surprised to know much of the winter snow gear we use, and a few of the activities we take part in, are owed to Indigenous Arctic peoples’ adaptation to their environment.

A good friend has been eyeing a new pair of snow glasses for a week or so at a local ski gear shop, coveting their fancy technical lenses and stylish frames. They are indeed lovely and, while a bit of a technological leap from the first snow goggles used by Indigenous people for hundreds of years, they fulfill an identical role. The earliest technological solution was a pair of goggles created from a thin (one-to-two-inch) strip of a natural material with two small slits cut horizontally over the eyes. These natural materials generally consist of wood, bone, antler, leather or whale baleen, among other things.

According to researchers at Parks Canada, these snow goggles have been in use for at least 800 years and were used to protect the wearer from both snow blindness and the prolonged UV rays that can be especially harmful during the long days of Arctic summer sunshine.

We also crossed paths with many an outdoor enthusiast getting in their exercise on a pair of snowshoes. Metal and plastic have replaced wood and rawhide, but modern snowshoes often still reflect the size and shape of the original design, created to spread out the user’s weight and facilitate travel across deep snow.

Snowshoes have a millennia-long history and have long been used in Europe and Central Asia, with the practice brought into the Canadian Arctic by Inuit peoples. The oldest known pair of snowshoes dates to almost 6,000 years ago and were found in the Italian Alps in 2003, now housed in the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology in Italy.

While the oldest snowshoes may have originated in Europe, most snowshoe designs seen today have come from Indigenous peoples living in the Great Lakes area in Eastern Canada. Likely the most familiar style is the Ojibwa (Cree) style, with pointed toes and long tails, but several other styles have also arisen, including Alaskan, Beavertail and Bear Paw, all adapted for terrain and snow conditions.

Some ski hill users chose to have a less “exercise” day for themselves and instead took advantage of comfortable sleds and let the dogs do the work.

Dogsled teams are a regular sighting at the hill. Modern dog sledding is generally associated with tourism, sport or competition, such as the Iditarod, but its origins lie in the Arctic, with indigenous use of dogs for transporting people and supplies or hunting. There is poor agreement in the literature as to when and where this practice began, but it most likely began in northern North America and spread to Siberia, or vice versa, more than 2,000 years ago.

The first dog sled teams had fewer canines than we generally see now and one or two dogs were originally used to pull small sleds, while the musher (a word with French origins and based on an English interpretation) often broke trail with snowshoes. As dogs were selectively bred for specific traits, the larger packs we see now were used for pulling larger loads and/or multiple people.

As with snowshoes, there are regional variations in style and size of sleds, also adapted to the local environment and conditions.

So, as we take part in our beloved traditional Canadian winter activities, we can tip our tuques to Indigenous peoples for the invention and perfecting of much of the gear we use.

Kim Christenson is a Kamloops-based archaeologist. Interested in more? Go online to republicofarchaeology.ca. Dig It is KTW’s regularly published column on the history beneath our feet in the region.

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