Starting September 11, Indigenous youth between the ages of 12 and 25 are encouraged to sign up for Storyboot Schools, where they will be taught the traditional art of mukluk-making. Mukluks are Indigenous footwear that are crafted by hand and worn by several different Indigenous tribes in Canada.
The Storyboot Project was created by the Manitobah Mukluks, a company owned by Métis CEO and founder, Sean McCormick. The project is aimed to help Aboriginal artists who create mukluks and moccasins sell their work and receive 100% of the profit and recognition.
The Manitobah Mukluks have partnered with the TreadRight Heritage Initiative and the Bata Shoe Museum to establish a Storyboot School in Toronto.
Traditionally, the process of making the mukluk was passed down from elders to youth. But as the Canadian government placed bans on many Indigenous cultural aspects, along with placing Indigenous youth in residential schools, the knowledge of making the mukluk became limited to few people.
The Medium had the chance to interview The Storyboot School’s director, Waneek Horn Miller—a Canadian who won gold in water polo in the 1999 Pan American Games.
Miller is from the Mohawk tribe of Canada, and has been a strong voice in the reclamation of Indigenous cultures. She grew up doing beadwork with her mom to help pay for her athletic expenses. Today, she is the director and spokesperson for The Storyboot School and the Manitobah Mukluks company. Miller’s role as the director is to go to each school at the beginning of the school year, at the end of the school year, and on their graduation day.
In a phone interview with The Medium, Miller said, “I’m a big believer in ensuring that I have a good grasp on who I am as an Indigenous person and being able to know who I am with the context of my culture—but also how to translate that into mainstream society and empower an entire community. Not just the Aboriginal community, but Canada as a whole.”
Miller expressed, “Moccasins and mukluks have a very strong cultural significance in our community. We give mukluks and moccasins to babies that are born and couples when they get married. It’s to signify a new path in life.”
Miller believes that the schools bringing both Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups together is a form of non-traditional reconciliation. She said, “People [are] coming together and learning how to make something beautiful, and sharing it, enjoying it—and I think that’s how we as a country, at a small micro level, are going to feel past something that was quite traumatic.”
Miller expressed that it’s important for youth to take part in this initiative.
She said, “You’re not actually just participating in mukluk and moccasin-making, but you’re actually actively taking part in cultural revitalization, which is something bigger than themselves—by teaching them things that were essentially outlawed and these practices were beaten out of our ancestors through residential schools. So the fact that they’re there and they’re giving their time is honouring themselves and their grandparents and all the people who fought to hold onto these practices—and also honouring the generations to come, so that they know they can pass them onto their kids and grandchildren.”
TreadRight Heritage is the non-profit branch of The Travel Corporation. In an interview with the program manager, Zach Vanasse, The Medium was informed that this is their first initiative with Canada.
“We’re always looking for different projects, and so when something like [The Storyboot School] came along, it was very easy and obvious to say that this is something we would love to get behind,” said Vanasse.
Vanasse explained that the underlying theme of the TreadRight Foundation is also about giving back by helping historical destinations and cultural values be sustainable.
The TreadRight Foundation is providing the grants needed for The Storyboot School to keep their learning space at the Bata Shoe Museum. They’re also buying the materials needed for the shoes, such as cowhide, suede, leather, and beads.
Sage Petahtegoose is a film and production student at Humber College, and one of the two teachers that will teach at the Bata Shoe Museum. She is Anishinaabekwe, and is from the Elk clan from Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, a reserve found in the Robinson Huron Treaty territory.
“I just have a love for showcasing the teachings that I’ve received, and portraying that through film,” Petahtegoose told The Medium.
Petahtegoose learned how to make moccasins from her mom and grandmother.
“The first time I made [a moccasin], I think I was twelve. They say you should always give your first pair away. I gave mine away to my great-uncle. [This is because] you learn a new skill, and you’re not doing it just for yourself. You’re doing it to give back to the people around you,” she added.
She hopes that the Indigenous youth living in cities, such as Toronto, are able to participate in classes such as these and find out about their culture, because it’s often difficult to do so in urban areas.
“Being able to pass on what I know, and know that it’s in a room full of other people who respect the teachings that I’m going to give them, is really important to me,” she said.
Petahtegoose and Vanasse both stated that this school is targeted towards Indigenous youth, who will be chosen first to participate in classes. As interest increases, non-Indigenous individuals will also be welcome. Classes will be held every Sunday from 1-4 p.m. at the Bata Shoe Museum.
There are currently five schools across Canada, located in Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, and London, Ontario.
The Medium also spoke to Winston Ma, the Travel Corporations’ public relations and digital media specialist. Ma said, “There’s 35,000 Indigenous members of [Toronto]—but they are never talked about. The culture’s never talked about, and when you talk about the Native culture, you always think ‘Well, it’s outside of Toronto’.”
Ma also informed The Medium that 20 Indigenous youth have already signed up for the classes taking place at the Bata Shoe Museum in a classroom that can only hold up to 15-20 students. He added, “This proves that there is a high demand among Indigenous youth to learn more about their traditions and heritage, and we hope to see more interest as more people learn about the school and its mission of celebrating the success of Canada’s Aboriginal people.”