70-year-old hand-made snowshoes returned to Gwich'in family in N.W.T.

Robert Feagan, left, with Joseph Tetlichi, right, and Tetlichi's wife Glenna. Feagan recently travelled to N.W.T. to return the snowshoes that Tetlichi's father made 70 years ago. (Robert Feagan / Submitted - image credit)
Robert Feagan, left, with Joseph Tetlichi, right, and Tetlichi's wife Glenna. Feagan recently travelled to N.W.T. to return the snowshoes that Tetlichi's father made 70 years ago. (Robert Feagan / Submitted - image credit)

A Gwich'in family in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., has a new heirloom after the son of a former RCMP officer returned a pair of 70-year-old snowshoes.

The snowshoes were made by John Tetlichi in the 1950s, and he gifted them to an RCMP officer who had been transferred to work in Aklavik, N.W.T.

That officer was Robert Feagan's father, Hugh Feagan. Robert spoke to CBC about the snowshoes, and his father's time in the North.

"He thought he was being smart," Robert said of his father. "Before he went to a Aklavik … he bought snowshoes from the store in Edmonton. When he got to Aklavik, he learned that they were horrible."

Locals directed the officer to John Tetlichi, known to make the best snowshoes in the region. Tetlichi agreed make him a pair.

"My dad used them for years, you know, breaking trail for dogs when the snow was deep and so on," Robert said.

Later, when Robert was in high school in Yellowknife, he used his father's snowshoes to tend to his own trapline.

Time to go home

But Hugh Feagan, now 95 and living in Ontario, recently decided it was time for the gift to be returned. He contacted Robert, who lives in Edmonton and who had been in possession of the snowshoes for the past few decades.

"He loved those snowshoes, but he also realized even a bigger part of the Tetlichi family's heart would be filled by the snowshoes and that's why he wanted them to be taken home," Robert said.

Since John Tetlichi had passed away, Robert was instructed to reach out to the maker's son, Joseph Tetlichi.

Joseph spoke to CBC alongside Robert Feagan.

"I didn't even know [my dad] made snowshoes," Joseph said, adding that at first he had thought Robert had reached out to the wrong family.

"I lived out on the land for 20 years trapping and hunting with him, and he never, he never in front of me, made snowshoes," he said.

However, Joseph said he checked with his older sister who confirmed that their father "made snowshoes periodically when he needed to."

Act of reconciliation

Joseph said he's beyond words to receive the snowshoes.

"Words cannot describe the feeling," he said. "I look at it as reconciliation."

Joseph said he knew Hugh Feagan, and that the officer had once told him that one day he would return all of the gifts he'd received while living in the Mackenzie Delta.

"I get so, kind of like, emotional when I think of that, because a lot of people get gifts from Aboriginal people and a lot of them probably use it for the wrong reason," he said.

"And here's a person that wants to do the right thing and that for me is what you call respect."

Robert Feagan recently travelled to the N.W.T. to return the snowshoes.

Joseph said he will now share them with the rest of the family.

The quality of the snowshoes is incredible, Joseph said, noting that they were made for survival, not for commercial purposes.

"I think back of our Gwich'in people and how they used to live out on the land and how they used to make the snowshoes, the toboggans, the dog whips, everything that they had to do to survive out on the land and the quality of the stuff that they'd done," Joseph said.

"The snowshoes, even though they were made 70 years ago, it looked like they were made yesterday, so that is just amazing."