"And did those feet in ancient time ..."

Aboriginal way of life in danger of disappearing

by Peter Carlyle-Gordge

Footwear can tell us a great deal about the culture, art and economy of indigenous peoples, at least according to Jill Oakes of the department of Native studies and her research partner Rick Riewe of zoology.

During the past two decades they have travelled to Greenland, Alaska, Siberia, the Far East of Russia and across the Canadian Arctic to work with and study aboriginal peoples. In 1994, Oakes and Riewe served as joint chairs of Northern Studies at Trent Un iversity and are adjunct curators of the Bata Shoe Museum as well as research associates at the Canadian Circumpolar Institute at the University of Alberta.

Oakes' interests include an interdisciplinary analysis of ways Aboriginal women improve their community quality of life through the informal economy, management of resources and passing on of traditional knowledge. Riewe is interested in northern wildlife management, land use and the impact of industrial development on Aboriginal hunters and trappers. He coordinated the Land Identification Project for the Nunavut land claim and also edited the Nunavut Atlas.

The two recently co-authored a book, Our Boots: An Inuit Woman's Art, assisted by major funding from the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, which has provided some $400,000 of research funding since their association with it began in 1985.

Their latest research projects, funded by the museum and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, involved a month-long visit to Siberia to study the lifestyles of the Nenets and the Khanti, traditional reindeer herders, and a tour of 14 Europ ean museums where they studied, photographed and catalogued footwear from the circumpolar region.

Riewe says the study of Siberian reindeer herders, which involved living with the nomads, clearly showed their way of life is in danger and may not last another five years. Many have been forced from traditional lands by oil and gas exploration. In addi tion, the reindeer herds themselves have been affected by pollution from industrial and military projects as well as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

"Many of the animals have died from a form of leukemia," he says, "and the meat of the reindeer is now tainted so traditional buyers such as France have closed the market."

Oakes adds: "These peoples are very traditional and live much as Canadian Aboriginal peoples did two centuries ago, moving every three days and living in teepees. The Khanti have been badly hit by oil and gas developments which have taken away their herd ing grounds. In the past, they travelled hundreds of kilometres each year, but now they are barely nomadic at all."

The two had to travel by helicopter to find the reindeer herders and they even shared the beds of the nomads, with one teepee sometimes holding up to a dozen people. Oakes says many think the days of reindeer herders won't last into the next millennium. Only about 200 Khanti are still involved in herding and many have put their traditional lifestyle in peril.

Their study of herders was facilitated in part by Arkadi Gachilov, a professor of Native studies in St. Petersburg. Oakes says environmental protection laws in areas controlled by Russia are weak and there has been surprisingly little research done on the problems Aboriginals face.

"Their plight is basically being ignored by the government," she explains.

The second part of the Oakes-Riewe research this year involved a comprehensive cataloguing of Eskimoan footwear in European museums. They plan to create a CD-ROM, providing museum curators with a detailed reference tool, since details are often missing in many collections. Oakes, who has herself worked with Inuit women in preparing skins and making and decorating footwear, says modern examples are still beautiful and of good quality, but when compared with much older specimens it is clear that the past workmanship was far s uperior, more refined and intricate.

Among others, Oakes and Riewe have visited museums in Cambridge, Oxford, London, Leiden, Frankfurt, Berlin, Dresden, Oslo, Helsinki and Bergen. They intend to publish works on the footwear and lifestyles of Greenlanders, Alaskans and Siberians.

They say this kind of research - often working with elders - is very important because many details of traditional ways may be lost once the elders pass on and the lifestyle disappears.

"The younger Aboriginal generation is starting to show interest in learning how their ancestors used clothing and footwear to display their gender, culture, status and values," Oakes says.