Indigenous students learning how to make mukluks in Toronto

Fifteen Indigenous young people will learn how to make mukluks in Toronto starting this Sunday.

Mukluks 'kept my people alive in one of the harshest environments in the world' says Storyboot School director

A woman makes moccasins at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. (Katherine Holland)

Fifteen Indigenous young people will learn how to make mukluks in Toronto, starting this Sunday.

They will be given cowhide, rabbit fur and glass beads. If they choose, they can paint designs on the mukluks instead of doing beadwork.

"The sky is the limit in terms of what you can use to make a mukluk," says Tara Barnes, director of brand development for Manitobah Mukluks, a Winnipeg-based footwear company that is offering the course — part of its Storyboot School program — at Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum. 

"The concept behind the mukluk is that you use the whole animal. We think learning how to make them is so essential to the survival of this amazing craft."

The aim of the six-week course is to enable the participants, who were selected after applying online, to go home with a brand new pair of mukluks they have made themselves. 
"The sky is the limit in terms of what you can use to make a mukluk," says Tara Barnes of Manitobah Mukluks. (Manitobah Mukluks)

Manitobah Mukluks calls the Aboriginal footwear the "original winter boot of North America." Usually mukluks are up to the knee, soft, created out of natural materials, decorated with beads and lined with fur.

The company has run the course at least once before in Toronto, but this year, it is expanding its offering.

There will be four consecutive courses in all, each consisting of six three-hour sessions. There are spots for 15 students in each course, which means up to 60 Indigenous young people will take part.

"This is the first semi-permanent class," says Barnes. "There's definitely an appeal in walking out with a pair of mukluks that you made yourself."

Beadwork on a moccasin. (Katherine Holland)
Speaking to CBC News from Ottawa, Barnes said the company has been able to expand its classes with the help of a $20,000 grant from the TreadRight Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that supports ancient cultural traditions. 

The course is part of Manitobah Mukluks' Storyboot School, in which Indigenous artists teach students the craft of making traditional footwear by hand. The course and materials are free for those selected to participate. 

Barnes says Toronto was chosen as a course location because it is "a hub for Indigenous people."

It takes at least 18 hours to make a mukluk — longer if the beadwork is intricate. She says the beadwork is the most challenging component of the course.

Waneek Horn-Miller, director of the Storyboot School, will greet students at the start of class on Sunday. (Submitted by Waneek Horn-Miller)
Waneek Horn-Miller, from the Kahnawake Mohawk territory, is Storyboot School's director, and will greet the first batch of students on Sunday to explain the cultural significance of mukluks.

"It's an age-old footwear made generally by people in the north," Horn-Miller told Metro Morning this week. "It basically kept my people alive and able to function in one of the harshest environments in the world."

Starting this month, the Bata Shoe Museum has set aside a display case for five to 10 expertly crafted mukluks available for sale. They range from $300 to $2,800, depending on the labour involved and their cultural significance. 

Horn-Miller says there in renewed interest in Indigenous art forms. "The school is about reinvigorating a traditional art form."

Horn-Miller says she learned beadwork from her mother.  "It built internally this sense of pride in knowing how to do something that my ancestors did."