MILFORD — For a quarter of a century Bill Mackowski traveled from Labrador to the Yukon and the far-reaching corners of Quebec, flying his little float plane to remote native Cree and Inuit villages so he could learn traditional Native American snowshoe patterns. The far-flung adventures and hard travel left Mackowski in need of a new hip, ankle and knees, until finally he had to pack up his bush plane and sell it.
But at 66, some say Mackowski is just getting started.
His personal odyssey has made him one of the foremost authorities in North America on the many complex Native American snowshoe patterns. And three grants in the past two years from the Maine Arts Commission have allowed Mackowski to begin the next leg of his journey: the work of passing on the knowledge.
“If he were in Japan, Bill Mackowski would be considered a national treasure,” said Stephen Loring, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. “Japan has a wonderful policy of recognizing the artists rather than the objects, recognizing the skills that are important to Japanese culture and the people who preserve them.”
Loring called Mackowski’s trips to the Yukon and the outlying villages of Quebec and Labrador legendary. The Smithsonian anthropologist even called Mackowski a hero.
“He’s picked up a lot of the anthropological research work from the 1920s and 30s and even in the 19th century. He’s done detailed analysis, and he had the smarts to think about talking to the native people about the detail they put into the shoes,” Loring said. “But he’s also just passionate about the symbolism in the snowshoes as well as the craftsmanship.”
Because of his personal quest to preserve a dying art, Mackowski was twice named a Master Artist by the Maine Arts Commission and given three grants totaling $21,000 to continue his work. In addition, this winter the Penobscot Historic Preservation Commission received a grant for $3,200 from the arts commission for Mackowski to teach Penobscot women how to make snowshoes.
For decades, his basic, ash-and-nylon snowshoes have been sold across the country. Orders for these classic winter woods shoes come from foresters and game wardens. And they’re sold in outdoor outlets like Orvis.
But Mackowski’s passion is making the “fancy” snowshoe, as he calls it, those snowshoes with the intricate native designs made from deer hide and ash.
“My goal is to eventually bring the art form back to Indian Island, back to where it belongs,” Mackowski said of the Penobscot community, which sits across the Penobscot River from his home in Milford.
“In my experience the Penobscot snowshoe design was the best in the world.”
A lifelong guide, trapper and woodsman, Mackowski has fashioned a showroom at his home that looks like a natural-history museum. His workroom could double as an old saw mill, with piles and pieces of ash everywhere, including in the air. Another barn houses part of an ancient snowshoe collection.
But of greatest value to Mackowski is the knowledge he gleaned from artisans he met in Cree and Inuit villages who could teach him a craft that dates back thousands of years.
“Some 50 to 75 years ago these people lived in remote locations in small family groups. They went everywhere with snowshoes. Everyone knew how to build them. It was a life skill like building a fire or making a canoe,” Mackowski said.
“My one regret is I never took any photos. It seemed an imposition.”
He would go into remote villages with locals and ask the elders in the tribe how to weave their traditional snowshoe patterns and what those symbolized.
These artisans were private people, reticent to share with a stranger. But Mackowski made friends.
“Bill has collected snowshoes from individuals who still use the same pattern and technique that have been used for several hundred years, if not thousands of years,” said snowshoe maker Anthony Jenkinson of North West River, Labrador.
“He has been all over James Bay and Hudson Bay looking for the Cree people. He paid for it all out of his own pocket. And I don’t know where he refueled that little plane.”
When Mackowski started flying into remote villages in the mid-1980s, he had no support from the state or a university. For 25 years his interest in the ancient patterns of snowshoes and the living history that still exists in these places was self-driven and self-funded.
“One of the first things I said when I stepped in a door was that I was a trapper, and have trapped since I was 7,” Mackowski said. “These people all live subsistence lives, so that was an immediate connection. Then when I’d start asking about snowshoes they’d just stare at me. Why was I interested in that? But when we started talking, others in the tribe would drift into the room and listen.”
Mackowski’s devotion to the cultural importance of his craft is why two years ago the Maine Arts Commission gave him a grant to teach an apprentice with the Penobscot Nation.
“Bill is more like a renaissance man,” said Kathleen Mundell, the commission’s programs director. “And the fact he is reintroducing these techniques back into the community where they started, it’s gone full circle. He’s someone who has been a real champion for his art.”
Carol Dana, the Penobscot Nation’s language specialist, said there are no snowshoe makers on Indian Island now. But with Mackowski teaching the dying art, she has hope that will change.
“The Penobscot pattern is quite ornate. I don’t remember ever seeing somebody do it, and I’m 62,” Dana said.
Penobscot Nation elementary school teacher John Neptune is Mackowski’s apprentice. He began learning the intricate Penobscot snowshoe design from Mackowski two years ago thanks to the commission’s grant. Now Neptune goes across the river to learn the craft from Mackowski, listen to his stories, and the two men trap together.
“I enjoy hearing his stories just as much as making the snowshoes. That’s how the tradition was (originally) passed on, through stories,” Neptune said. “Listening to Bill reminds me of an old native soul. He is very similar to the native elders.”
Neptune wants to be the individual who brings this lost art back to his tribe before it slips away. Like Dana, he has hope.
“I think it’s something our ancestors took a lot of pride in. Life has peeled away those traditions and cultures,” said Neptune, 43. “To me, I think it is the basic foundation of who we are. And it’s still there but it’s lost. We need to bring it home.”