Mukluks are soft boots traditionally made of hide, created by Canada's First Peoples for warmth and maneuverability in natural environments. The word 'mukluk' originated from the Yupik word maklak, meaning bearded seal – a key animal source for Aboriginal clothing in the north.
The Inuit and Yupik were the primary Aboriginal groups in the Arctic who wore mukluks (known as kamiks among the Inuit). In the subarctic, various styles of mukluks and moccasins, a closely-related, soft shoe, were worn by each Aboriginal group in Canada. When Western explorers arrived in the seventeenth century, they too adopted the traditional footwear for survival in the Canadian wilderness.
Originally, mukluks were made from sealskin, moose hide or caribou. The boots rose to the ankle or mid-calf, and in winter were insulated with the fur of beavers, squirrels, bears or other animals.
The soft, flexible design of both the mukluk and moccasin was well suited for travel in fragile birchbark canoes in summer and skin kayaks and snowshoes in winter. However, the manufacture of each pair represented a great investment of time and energy for both hunter and craftsperson. Under ordinary conditions, a pair of mukluks or moccasins might last a couple of months, but when groups travelled and conditions were bad, four to five pairs of moose hide moccasins could be required each day.
With the arrival of European fur traders, design and crafting techniques began to change. Aboriginal women, especially those in contact with trading posts, played an important role in this process, learning new sewing techniques and incorporating new materials and styles into their handwork. One reason for their acceptance of foreign innovation was sheer practicality. With ready-made fabrics, a craftswoman no longer had to scrape the skin, soak and tan it, stretch the hide and/or even sew the garment. Traders also took part in accelerating the change, encouraging the adoption of European fashions in the hopes that Aboriginal hunters would spend more of their time in the pursuit of fox, beaver and muskrat for the fur trade rather than hunting caribou or moose for clothing.
With this new influence, mukluk and moccasin designs flourished. Pom-poms, tassels and delicate beading patterns on the top of the footbed began to appear and over time the motifs became custom. Today one can easily trace a decorated mukluk or moccasin back to its particular geographic home.
These days mukluks and moccasins are seen all over the world. Although rubber soles are often added to new versions intended for wet weather and urban environments, traditional mukluks and moccasins are still produced. Canada's largest manufacturer of both traditional and modern mukluks and moccasins is Winnipeg-based Manitobah Mukluks. In recent years, celebrities such as Kate Moss and Beyonce have brought international profile to the company and, in turn, have helped Manitobah keep traditional arts alive in Aboriginal communities throughout Canada.