Sometimes when I walk through the shelves of the collections storage, on a hunt for something specific, a something else catches my eye and I’m drawn in to investigate. This time I was looking for cricket gear. I had come across two silk sashes that Victor Nancollas had used as belts while he was playing cricket in England and then in Salmon Arm. One yellow and one fuchsia, they seem too nice to have been used as a belt playing sports but what do I know about cricket? Sashes in hand, I wanted to know if the museum had any other cricket equipment in the collection to which I could add these new additions. Nosing around the cricket and other sports equipment is where I found what I really want to dig into: snowshoes. Big ones.

There were three sets of snowshoes on the shelves of the collection storage and they were actually all quite big. One pair, though, is six feet long and comes to a point at both ends. Like the other pairs, the webbing is made of thin, treated rawhide and has a rather long, pointed tail (swallowtail). The bindings are dark brown leather straps with metal buckles. They were well-used in their life.

Naturally, I wanted to know why these snowshoes are so big. So I got to work researching.

People indigenous to areas with snowy winters have been using snowshoe technology for centuries – long before they were first documented doing so. This tremendous experience in snow technology led to the development of various kinds of snowshoes for varying conditions, terrains, and activities. For example, round snowshoes developed for shorter distances and staying atop the snow. The increased surface area helps the wearer to not sink into the snow but are bulky and therefore not suitable for traveling any kind of distance. Oval-shaped snowshoes without a tail are useful when tracking through treed areas where a longer tail would bump into trees or underbrush. Also not the best choice for distance, as the surface area isn’t enough to keep one afloat.

Very long and very pointed snowshoes like the ones I found in the collection excel in relatively flat or rolling terrain with lots of snow. The large overall surface area of webbing keeps the wearer on top of the snow. The pointed tip at the front avoids ramming one’s toes into a snowbank. The long swallowtail back helps keep the wearer in a straight line as the tail tracks in the snow. Today some call this style Ojibwe snowshoes, after the people who developed them and who clearly did so with much intention and expertise.1

These Ojibwe snowshoes: how did they get from the territories of the Ojibwe people, near the Great Lakes, to Salmon Arm?

The unfortunate, and somewhat unsatisfying side to the tale of these wonderful snowshoes is that their provenance has been lost or was never held by the museum in the first place. Meaning that there is no record of such snowshoes ever being donated, nor do our records reveal any undocumented snowshoes which have yet to be accounted for. This happens from time to time at every cultural institution engaged in collecting; no matter how diligent the record-keeping, paperwork is lost, tags fall off, both humans and machines err.

So the snowshoes remain enigmatic. Without provenance I won’t accession them as part of the Permanent Collection but instead add them to the Teaching/Props Collection. My hope is that instead of living on a shelf, they can be used as a future educational tool or perhaps as part of a story of migration of objects across the continent titled “How Did They Do It Before Amazon?”. (That’s a joke.)