Storyboot workshop teaches moccasin-making, promoting 'reconciliation stitch by stitch'

For thousands of years, Indigenous people have worn mukluks and moccasins and now a downtown Toronto workshop aims to keep the tradition of creating the footwear alive for future generations.

Indigenous instructor says she teaches to keep ancestors' skills alive

For thousands of years, Indigenous people have worn mukluks and moccasins. A downtown Toronto workshop aims to keep those traditions alive for future generations. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

For Rosary Spence, making moccasins is about more than the craft itself — which demands patience and skill in both beading and sewing — it's about preserving a culture.

"It's in our memory, our blood memory, to use these skills and work with our hands," she told CBC Toronto.

And as people across Canada celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day on Sunday, Spence said it's important for her culture to keep the traditions of her ancestors alive. 

Spence, who is Swampy Cree, has been making moccasins since she was eight years old. It was her grandmother, she says, who shared her knowledge of the craft.

"When I was younger, it was more something to do at home," she said. 

Rosary Spence, a Storyboot School instructor, said the root of the word moccasins in Cree is connected to the earth and medicine. 'We’re connected to earth and we’re connected to medicine — that’s our place of healing,' she said. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

But since her grandmother passed away, Spence said creating moccasins has shifted from a time-consuming activity to a way of preserving a generations-old tradition.

And wanting to pass down that knowledge to others is why she teaches the skill.

Spence instructs a workshop at the Bata Shoe Museum, located near Bloor Street West and Spadina Avenue, called Storyboot School. Through the classes, which are taught in partnership with Manitobah Mukluks, participants learn the art of making mukluks and moccasins. 

"They take away a skill that they can carry on throughout their lives ... that they can pass on to their children," she said.

Non-Indigenous people invited to learn craft

Mukluks and moccasins have been worn for thousands of years by Indigenous peoples, but the workshop also hopes to attract non-Indigenous, as well as Indigenous, students who want to learn the art. 

"There was so much interest and publicity about the school that all sorts of people wanted to participate," said Sheila Knox, with the Bata Shoe Museum. 

The Storyboot School workshop was held at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto in March, teaching the art of moccasin-making and the history of Indigenous fashion. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

The latest workshop session ended in March, but Knox said she hopes to offer it in other cities and remote locations across Canada, "so people farther away can have the opportunity to learn these skills." 

"We have a very healthy interest in preserving moccasin and mukluks made by Indigenous people, and we take that responsibility very seriously," she said.

"We kind of call it reconciliation stitch by stitch." 

Making moccasins is a multi-step process that involves tracing and cutting out patterns, beading and sewing. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Kassidy Morin, who's part of the Chippewas of Nawash, said she took part in the workshop, and the challenge of making her first pair of moccasins, as a way of learning about her own history and remembering family members who died. 

"I am beading forget-me-knots, which in my family represent those who passed," she said.

"I've started on a new journey to reconnect with my history and my past and where I come from." 

Morin said she hopes to one day pass the skill on to her children — if she can master it herself. 

"If nobody passes along the traditions, then we won't have them for the future."  

Kassidy Morin, a student who took the workshop, said she has recently started on a new journey of connecting with her family's past. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Check out some of the moccasins on display at the museum and being taught in the workshop, which are either of North American or circumpolar Indigenous heritage. 

These Wyandot moccasins date back to around 1820 and are embroided with moose hair and dyed with walnuts to get their dark brown colour. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)
This pair of moccasins comes from the Miꞌkmaq nation in New Brunswick. A countless number of beads were used to create the floral design. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)
On display here are a pair of Dené moccasins, decorated with wolverine fur and moose hair tufting. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)
Moose hair tufting is where you take white moose hairs and dye them different colours, bundle them up, sew them onto the shoe and trim them. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)
These tall Inuit boots were made by a man from Baffin Island. The boots were made with seal skin to add warmth and make them waterproof. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)
The vamp of these Anishinaabe moccasins are pleated and heavily beaded. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)
Pictured here are a pair of moccasins from Norway House Cree Nation. The shoes have been detailed with silk embroidery and horse hair. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)


With files from Richard Agecoutay


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