Cote woman earns extra Christmas cash hand-crafting boots, mukluks and moccasins

            Imagine what Santa’s workshop looks like, especially the one where handcrafted moccasins, mukluks and gauntlet gloves are being made, and you’re seeing Joann Severight’s workshop.

            On the table are spread many pairs of white-leather moccasins, leather boots with warm linings, black leather mukluks, fur-lined slippers and warm gloves, all enhanced with the addition of colourful beadwork. On the shelves are piles of folded leather, waiting to be used, and there are bins and boxes containing an assortment of associated items, including rabbit fur, partially-made pieces of footwear and cardboard patterns. A big bin located next to an industrial-sized sewing machine holds the scraps: bits of leather and fur, threads and paper.

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            For at least 25 years, Severight, a member of the Cote First Nation, has been spending a good portion of each year accepting orders for handcrafted leather goods, and then making them. She cuts out the leather, stitches the pieces together and applies the colourful beadwork assembled by herself and her daughter.

This year she had to stop taking orders for Christmas gifts by the middle of November, and each day she’s busy making the boots, moccasins and mukluks so that her customers will have them before December 25.

“I take a couple months off in the summer,” she said. But beyond that she is kept busy in her workshop.

It was in 1985 when Severight began working with the Cote Arts and Crafts program, which had lasted for about five years before disbanding. When she struck out on her own, she had acquired one of the program’s heavy-duty electric sewing machines which she uses for the stitching.

“I did beadwork before that,” she said. “My grandmother, Isabel Tourangeau, used to make moccasins and ‘wrap-arounds,’ which are like moccasins but are higher on the ankle and have cords to tie the leather as it wraps around.

“We would watch her as she worked,” she said. “She used to tan her own hides and when she did, we’d run away because it was really stinky. She used rotted jumper brains in the tanning process.”

“My Auntie Alice (Musqua), Dad’s sister, did beading at home too. She did beautiful work.”

It was in the late 1980s when Severight started work on her own, making moccasins, mukluks and gauntlets, which are similar to gloves, but are not cut out for individual fingers and are much longer going up the arm.

After obtaining her post machine, which is the heavy-duty sewing machine, she found suppliers of cowhides, made her own patterns and set to work.

It’s the decorative beading that takes time, she said, explaining that she is now working with her daughter Tina Moar of Munster who does the beading, especially the more intricate work.

“Tina has always been beading with me.”

Showing a table filled with completed items that are waiting for the customers to pick up, Severight said that all of them were pre-ordered. Some are decorated with the owners’ names, others have special designs like butterflies and flowers, and many are traditional Ojibwa designs.

“My granddaughter, Latisha Moar has now started to bead with us.”

“Some of these are going to Toronto,” she said. “Some of my moccasins have been taken to England and Germany and a woman from California bought mukluks that she had wanted as gifts.”

Attempting to count the number of pairs of footwear and hand wear that she has agreed to make before Christmas, she gives up saying “too many.”

“I want to pay off my truck,” she said, laughing. “Or just make some extra money for Christmas.”

In addition to doing her leathercrafts, Severight takes time to teach beading and making moccasins to students at Chief Gabriel Cote Education Complex. She also works as a janitor at the Cote First Nation band office. She does work with Mark Forsythe, a superintendent at Good Spirit School Division, teaching about the traditional medicine wheel, and plans to spend time teaching leathercraft and beadwork to students at The Key First Nation.

She also donates moccasins to the families of deceased Cote Band members and has spent time cooking at wakes.

After Christmas, she’ll be back in her workshop. She’s got a call for a pair of gauntlets and two pairs of moccasins. She has made leather dresses for graduates and jackets as well.

Working under the name Jo’s Leather Crafts, Severight says she is in a 50/50 partnership with her daughter, who does the beadwork at her home in Muenster, but they tend to see one another most weekends.

One of 15 children born to the late Peter and Elizabeth Tourangeau, Joann is married to Danny Severight and the couple has three children: Tina, who she works with, and two sons, Daniel and Ivan, who live at Cote First Nation.

When not at work with the leather, Severight says she enjoys listening to gospel music and going to church. Her brother is George Tourangeau of the Lighthouse Mission in Kamsack.

Joann and Danny raise horses as pets and she says that their sons plan to race them as a hobby this year with chuckwagons or chariots.

Although Eunice Kitchemonia of Keeseekoose First Nation makes “star blankets,” Joann said that she knows of no one else in the area who makes the footwear like she does.