The Inuit and Yupik were the primary Aboriginal groups in the Arctic who wore mukluks (known as kamiks among the Inuit). In the subarctic, various styles of mukluks and moccasins, a closely-related, soft shoe, were worn by each Aboriginal group in Canada. When Western explorers arrived in the seventeenth century, they too adopted the traditional footwear for survival in the Canadian wilderness.
Originally, mukluks were made from sealskin, moose hide or caribou. The boots rose to the ankle or mid-calf, and in winter were insulated with the fur of beavers, squirrels, bears or other animals.
The soft, flexible design of both the mukluk and moccasin was well suited for travel in fragile birchbark canoes in summer and skin kayaks and snowshoes in winter. However, the manufacture of each pair represented a great investment of time and energy for both hunter and craftsperson. Under ordinary conditions, a pair of mukluks or moccasins might last a couple of months, but when groups travelled and conditions were bad, four to five pairs of moose hide moccasins could be required each day.
With the arrival of European fur traders, design and crafting techniques began to change. Aboriginal women, especially those in contact with trading posts, played an important role in this process, learning new sewing techniques and incorporating new materials and styles into their handwork. One reason for their acceptance of foreign innovation was sheer practicality. With ready-made fabrics, a craftswoman no longer had to scrape the skin, soak and tan it, stretch the hide and/or even sew the garment. Traders also took part in accelerating the change, encouraging the adoption of European fashions in the hopes that Aboriginal hunters would spend more of their time in the pursuit of fox, beaver and muskrat for the fur trade rather than hunting caribou or moose for clothing.
With this new influence, mukluk and moccasin designs flourished. Pom-poms, tassels and delicate beading patterns on the top of the footbed began to appear and over time the motifs became custom. Today one can easily trace a decorated mukluk or moccasin back to its particular geographic home.
These days mukluks and moccasins are seen all over the world. Although rubber soles are often added to new versions intended for wet weather and urban environments, traditional mukluks and moccasins are still produced. Canada's largest manufacturer of both traditional and modern mukluks and moccasins is Winnipeg-based Manitobah Mukluks. In recent years, celebrities such as Kate Moss and Beyonce have brought international profile to the company and, in turn, have helped Manitobah keep traditional arts alive in Aboriginal communities throughout Canada.
Metis siblings Sean and Heather McCormick grew up near their family's trading post in Winnipeg. Over the years, they developed close relationships with many Aboriginal elders and craftspeople on reserves across Manitoba. In 1997, with an aim to preserve the traditional arts and share traditional footwear with the world, they co-founded Manitobah Mukluks.
Since then, Manitobah footwear has been worn by international celebrities, featured in the world's top fashion media and can be found in top retailers all over the world.
Wear with pride.
At Manitobah Mukluks, being an Aboriginal-owned business means making a commitment to building sustainable Aboriginal communities, sharing success with others, keeping traditions alive and celebrating Aboriginal values and history. One of the ways the company achieves these goals is through its Storyboot Project.
The Storyboot Project was established to create business-building partnerships with elders and artisans who fashion mukluks and moccasins the traditional way. From these artists, Manitobah commissions one-of-a-kind footwear and then produces a limited collection of replicas called Storyboots. Storyboots are at the heart of the Manitobah footwear collection and are made available at luxury retailers in every corner of the globe. Through this 50/50 profit-sharing agreement artisans and elders become true partners in the business of bringing Aboriginal footwear to the world.
Recently, ex-Olympian (and Kahnawake Mohawk) Waneek Horn-Miller joined Manitobah as an ambassador for the Storyboot Project, travelling to Aboriginal communities and encouraging youth to take part in workshops that provide new skills, opportunities and an understanding of their heritage. Through her role with Manitobah, Waneek helps Aboriginal youth learn and value crafts that have existed for thousands of years.
"There was no road leading in or out of the small Cree community where I grew up. It was a beautiful river delta – the largest inland delta in North America. I remember the wilderness, the wildlife, the people, the natural beauty of it.
There were only about 500 people living in Grand Rapids at that time, but our days were full. We were a self-sufficient people, a fishing community full of gardens and children who learned to thrive and live in harmony with nature and elders who made the clothes we wore. My mother was an expert. It took her about an hour or two to make the moccasins we used every day.
Tracking moose, we could move so silently through the forest in those soft shoes. You could feel a twig under your foot before it would snap. She made mukluks, too, but we saved the mukluks for special occasions or dances. Eventually, the dam changed our way of life in Grand Rapids, but our memories will last forever. We are the town that lost its name, but not its memories."
— Gerald McKay, ice fisherman, activist, Cree Grand Rapids First Nation icon.