National Park & Preserve Alaska
December 02, 2013
December's Object of the Month is a pair of red-colored snowshoes made by Wassillie Trefon in 1957 for his eldest son Henry. They are a beautiful example of a traditionally crafted Athabascan hunting-style snowshoe using local Birch for the frames. The red paint on these snowshoes is in keeping with the long-standing tradition of painting them with red ochre so that, in part, the blood stains from animals taken on hunting trips would not show.
Making snowshoes like these is time consuming and requires a great deal of knowledge. The artisan must know how to select the right birch tree, how to best chop it down, bend the frame, carve the wood, make the moose or caribou lacings, and weave the complex patterns of the webbing. In addition, he must understand the science behind what different styles and shapes are needed for different people, activities, and snow conditions. Snowshoe makers develop their own personal style based on what they saw, who they learned from, and their personal preferences.
Wassillie became a skilled craftsman through many years of practice and unspoken teachings and refinement of the craft passed down from generations of his elders. Wassilie was born and raised at Dilah Vena ("fish swim in lake) known popularly today as Telaquana Lake in 1898. He was a hunter, trapper, dog musher, and skilled woodsman known for his craftmanship in all the traditional Dena'ina woodworking craft that were still part and parcel of most Dena'ina men born in the late nineteenth century. This included building snowshoes as well as sleds, cabins, caches, and boats.
Today, traditional snowshoe-making is an endangered art, but thanks to objects like this in museum collections, elders and master craftsmen can learn how past generations made these items, and can continue to pass on the knowledge, stories, language, and traditions associated to the skills that are central to Athabascan people.
Wassillie Trefon's son Bill and daughter-in-law Martha donated this pair to the park's museum collection in 2007, and they are now on display at the park's visitor center in Port Alsworth.
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