Skiing in Moccasins

I was sitting in the Tread of the Pioneer Museum in Steamboat Springs. After almost a year of researching exclusively online, I was in a room. And I had a beautiful thing – subject files. The problem with researching online is the inevitable reliance on key words. Searching through the New York Times, Ski Magazine, or Outside, I get articles on exactly what I am looking for, but little else. But subject files determine the key words for you. Skiing, ski equipment, ski technology, steamboat springs, rout county.

I found myself looking through the ski equipment folder. I often avoid articles on equipment. I personally find the subject somewhat tedious. But, without files on my usual online search terms – snow making, avalanches, ski resort – I was forced to look through what was available. I was surprised by what I found.

Looking through about 20 to 30 clippings and booklets from about 1900 on, a contiguous thread began to emerge. There is a tried and true story about ski equipment. Skis, bindings, and boots, a trio that is thousands of years old. And, they remained almost unchanged for thousands of years. However, in the mid-1800s, Norwegians – rather than their norther neighbors – began to avidly ski. And in Telemark, a new binding was born. From there boots, skis, and bindings are said to have remained the same. At least until after World War II. It is then that modern ski equipment emerges.

I knew this story. And it is the reason I often avoid articles on the subject. But I noticed a common typology used to describe old ski boots. Frequently, the original boots were described as moccasin-like or having moccasin soles.

In this depiction, you can see the hooked leather toe of the Sámi boot, as well as the traditional usage of two different sized skis. The hooked toe is thought to be the influence for the pointed toes that Santa’s elves wear.

The description first caught my eye in a 1977 article in Colorado magazine. Evelyn DiSante wrote that at the beginning of World War II “skiing was a primitive sport – the most modern equipment consisting of wooden skis… ‘bear-trap’ bindings and moccasin-like ski boots” (italics my own). The article itself was on World War II and skiing. So, it was unsurprising that she marked the war as the key turning point in ski equipment. But I did find the description of the boots as moccasins interesting. After all, Native Americans did not traditionally ski. In other words, moccasins were never used for skiing.

Describing things as moccasins is not in of itself shocking. For north American audiences, the footwear evokes an easily recognizable style and material. In terms of prose, it is neat and short. A single word stands in for a long description of soft, tanned, and decorated leather. And in only one instance it seems like a useful analogy. But the term reappeared as I continued through the folder.

A 2006 article from Skiing History described early boots with the same word. DiSante had used an Algonquin word – moccasin –  to describe a Sámi technology. The more recent author chose to simultaneously reference the Sámi from northern Scandinavian and Native Americans from Turtle Island (North America), to describe an early boot. Under an image, the caption read, “note the soft moccasin-style sole, the Saami toe, and the buckle loop to hold the heel strap.” Moccasin this time was highly specific. It referred specifically to the sole of the boot. The boot tips, in turn, was referred to as “Sámi.” Neither, in this example, require adjectives connoting Indigenous groups. Rather, the two words convey something more than boot material and design. The words in this context are meant to connote the idea that early ski technology was primitive.

In a Denver Post Magazine article from 1983, J.L. wrote that “until technology improved upon the basic sliding sticks idea, skiing remained primarily a mode of transportation for hunters, woodsmen, doctors, midwives, priests, undertakers, and postmen.” The author started thousands of years in the past. The implication is that until World War II skiing technology was primitive. Implicitly this suggests that ski equipment has continued largely unchanged over all that time.

According to these two articles – as well as a number of reputable histories of skiing – there is a moment in which the rudimentary action of sliding downhill transformed into a modern sport. By and large, this is considered a good thing, or at times even an accomplishment. There are at least two assumptions behind the idea of skiing’s progress. Assumption 1, skiing as a sport should be celebrated for bringing an old technology into modern European culture, broadly understood. But skiing did not have to evolve that way. And not everyone necessarily saw this new sport as necessarily good. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Sámi in Scandinavia were still using skis as an essential mode of transportation. For them, the skisport likely ranked far below transportation. Assumption 2, early technology was primitive. Today’s technology is modern. Usually, either the telemark binding in the 19th century, the first metal bindings in the early 20th century, or the end of World War II mark the most important turning point.

Cheyenne Moccasins from the Museum of the Americas in Madrid.

In order to quickly demonstrate the primitive nature of early ski boots, commentators used the adjectives moccasin and Sámi to denote the idea of primitiveness. A hooked tow or a soft sole lacked the deeper meaning of these articles’ arguments. Rather, invoking Indigenous people and Indigenous shoes suggests a pre-modern state, a moment that an imagined “we” have left and which we do not hope to return to.

Instead, the descriptors are used to evaluate the value of old ski boots. Both words suggest a primitive past, despite the continued use of both styles of footwear today. In turn, the uniqueness of Indigenous or Native identities on opposite sides of the ocean were collapsed in favor of one overarching idea of a premodern past. The imagery of Indigenous footwear provided the subtext for just how non-modern (and so of limited use) old ski boots were compared to their plastic cousins.

Although rarely viewed this way, skiing in the United States is a moment of double-appropriation. Skiing is often described as Norwegian in origin. But it is really Sámi. (When reading early English language texts on skiing, the Sámi are called “Laplanders,” a term no longer used.) The Sámi historically inhabited the northern portions of Scandinavia. However, their largely nomadic lifestyle – along with their language, clothing, and other parts of their culture – came under fire as powerful and militarized nation states emerged in the region. In the 19th century Russia, Sweden, and Norway attempted to build nationalist cultures that mirrored France, Germany, and Britain. This process required the cultural unification of their respective countries. To accomplish this goal, the Norwegian government forced Sámi peoiple to integrate with nationalist cultures. This was done through the enforcement of boarders, mandatory Christianizing schools, and through an attempt to (in the eyes of the Norwegian state) modernize Sámi culture. (A very similar process occurred in the United States through state-sponsored Native American boarding schools and through the Dawes Act among other things.)

While nations overlay and disguise geographical, ethnic, racial, and cultural differences, they frequently adopt pieces of the Indigenous cultures they tried to erase. In the United States, we see this through the use of Native American imagery. Western ski resorts are complicit in this, with some like Steamboat and Jackson celebrating their frontier pasts. However, at times the appropriation of Indigenous cultures is more quotidian. For instance, Americans regularly wear moccasins as slippers. And, of course, it is from this appropriation that the term “moccasin-like” derives its significance in the articles described above. Though not a perfect analogy, much as Americans adopted moccasins, Norwegians adopted skiing. Under Norwegian influences, skiing rapidly turned from a tool for transportation and herding into a sport. This was the original appropriation of skiing.

Snowshoe Thompson

In time, skiing was brought to the United States for the first time in the mid-19th century by Scandinavians indoctrinated in new nationalist discourses. Despite how primitive the technology supposedly was, skis played an essential role in the colonization of the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas. Using skis postmen and priests floated over snow, while trains got stuck in the winter weather. As a result, skis kept mining towns connected to other settlements in areas. There is an irony here. Although this technology was deemed primitive, the Indigenous (to Scandinavia) ski proved more valuable to settlers in the winter than the metal, mechanical technologies celebrated at the time as the height of modernity.  Nevertheless, without skis, mining the western mountain ranges would have proven far more difficult. Without appropriating this Sámi technology from Norwegian immigrants, the removal of various tribes – and their forced integration through reservations and schools – could have slowed or stopped settler colonialism in the region. As a result, we see the second moment of appropriation of skiing. The appropriation of skiing by Americans from Norwegians.

In the U.S., Scandinavian Indigeneity does not seem to sufficiently demonstrate the idea that skis, until World War II, were primitive. Instead, Sámi must be helped or replaced by an (equally false) Americanized image of Native American primitiveness. There is little appreciation and knowledge within the United States of Sámi people. So, the use of their name to demonstrate primitiveness could be read as accidental. But I don’t think it is. The use of the term moccasin to demonstrate the apparent primitiveness of the boot is easily understood by Americans. And the combination of a “moccasin” sole and a “Sámi” toe links the two together into a single – and geographically impossible – example of a distant past.

These descriptions of technology, mirror the sale of Native American imagery at western ski resorts. Stores with Native Americans in headdresses (or in some places the stylized selling of head dresses) are commonplace in ski towns. For example, after leaving the museum in Steamboat, I walked through town, attempting to get a sense of the atmosphere. Three of the most prominent stores referenced Cowboys and/or Indians. Much like ski boot descriptions, these stores universalized distinct Indigenous peoples and cultures. For instance, at the end of downtown, with the ski mountain in the background, was a store named Cowboys and Indians. As I entered the store, I was invited into a world of leather. And the ambiance was overwhelmingly western. While the left side of the store was predominately Cowboy themed, the right side was dedicated to Native American artisanal works. The interesting part, however, was that almost all the Native American works were created by Indigenous people in Mexico – not by Native Americans, a term usually reserved for people Indigenous to what is now the United States. There is nothing wrong with selling Indigenous made wares, provided they are truly made by Indigenous people. But like the articles about ski boots, the store flattened Indigenous heterogeneity into a homogenous past. And in both instances, white American skiers get to place themselves as moderns next to real and continuing cultures that are deemed primitive.

Published by Jesse Ritner

I am pursuing my PhD in history at the University of Austin Texas. I specialize in Native American Histories, American Imperialism, environmental history.

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