Tanning Hides on the Shores of Lac La Martre
In March, NWTRPA On the Land Programs Consultant Jess Dunkin participated in a moosehide tanning camp in the Tłı̨chǫ community of Whatì. In this long-form essay, Jess describes her first exposure to tanning, the process by which a green hide is transformed into leather used for making moccasins, clothing, and bags.
As March wound to a close, I travelled to Whatì from Yellowknife to participate in a moosehide tanning camp. It can take upwards of two weeks to fully process a hide. This four-day camp, which was organized by Lani Cooke at the request of a group of women in Whatì, was never intended to capture the entire process. Rather, it was an opportunity for the women to share knowledge about tanning, to demonstrate the skill to children and youth in the community, and hopefully to ignite a wider interest in moosehide tanning. Three women from Whatì guided the work at the camp: elder Sophie Williah, Therese Romie, and Lena Gargan. Photographer Fran Hurcomb also attended the camp to document the Whatì approach to moosehide tanning.
While hides can be worked at any time, in Whatì the preference is do the work in March because it is cold enough to allow the hide to freeze, making scraping easier, but warm enough to work with bare hands. Also, the women believe that the long sunny days and the March winds contribute to softer, whiter hides.
Traditionally, moosehide tanning was women’s work and girls learned how to tan from their female relatives. Sophie, for instance, was taught by her mother, Mary Moosenose, while Therese apprenticed at the side of her grandmother and aunt. Like other traditional Dene practices, the art of moosehide tanning has suffered under the violence of settler colonialism. In many communities, only a small number of women know how to tan hides and even fewer have the time to devote to this labour-intensive practice. However, there is clearly an appetite for retaining and revitalizing this age-old skill. Tanning camps, workshops, and demonstrations are increasingly common in the NWT, and there is a growing number of passionate young Indigenous tanners like Melaw Nakehk’o, Tania Larsson, and Peyton Straker who are carrying this tradition forward.
There is no one way to tan a hide. Different communities have different approaches to tanning. Even within communities, there are individual differences between tanners. What follows then, is an account, of practices local to Whatì and personal to the three women who guided the workshop.
Starting the Work: Softening and Stretching
The group that gathered at Lena Gargan and Sonny Zoe’s camp on Lac La Martre worked on two hides at different stages in the tanning process. The first had had the hair and flesh removed at an earlier camp. It had also spent time on a frame and been scraped, although there was still work to be done to even it out. The second, though it had been harvested two years earlier, was a “green” hide, which is to say that it yet to be worked.
We began with the partially processed hide. Upon removing it from the bin where it had spent the last two days thawing (both hides had been stored in a freezer), the women observed hard spots on the hide. To avoid tearing, these would need to be softened before stretching. Spreading the hide out on a tarp in the cabin, we rubbed water melted from snow onto the dry spots with our hands before wrapping the hide in a tarp to retain the moisture.
All of the water used during the tanning process was melted from snow. The women were clear that we could not use town water on the hides because of any chemical additives, but also because Whatì has “hard water,” water with more dissolved materials. The same rule applied to the litres of tea we consumed daily.
As we waited for the hide to soften, we built a square frame from four long, seasoned spruce poles and blue nylon rope. Sophie guided the taking of measurements, so that the frame would be constructed appropriately. Having already spent time on a frame, the first hide had small holes along the edges to accommodate the ropes. With one end of the frame leaning against a picnic table, we lay the hide on a tarp on the ground in the correct orientation (neck up). Ropes were looped around the centre point of each pole and laced outwards to the corners of the frame. Over the next day, we tightened and re-tightened the lacing as the ropes and the hide stretched.
A moosehide tanner’s toolkit can contain a number of different instruments: knives for removing hair and excess flesh; fleshers made from bone (usually caribou or moose) or metal; metal scrapers for thinning the hide; and files for keeping tools sharp. No two toolkits are the same. For example, because the hide we were working was frozen, we used the same tools for both fleshing and scraping. Just as tanners learn the trade from their elders, it is common for them to inherit their tools from their mothers or the women who taught them. For this reason, tools are incredibly special to the tanner.
On the Frame: Scraping Begins
By late afternoon, the first hide had frozen enough for us to begin scraping. As the hair and flesh had already been removed, our goal was to thin the hide evenly. We began on the flesh side, scraping until the hide, which was a pinky beige colour, appeared yellow-white. The preference of the women was to begin scraping at the edges of the hide, moving inward until the tanner had to sit on the hide itself to access the centre. We didn’t follow this pattern strictly because we wanted to leave parts of the edge and the centre for the next day’s school group.
Both hides at the camp had been harvested in the fall. The preference in many communities is for hides harvested in the spring and Whatì is no exception; Sophie told me on more than one occasion with a shake of her head and a wry smile that she didn’t like fall hides. Spring hides are thinner and more malleable than fall hides, making them easier to work and in need of less scraping.
Scraping produces tendrils and bits of dry yellow-white hide. These remnants of tanning, like the hair that we would remove the next day, are not thrown out. Rather, they are gathered and returned to the land, out of respect for the animal. The hair can also be harvested for tufting, a three-dimensional art practice in which dyed bundles of moose or caribou hair are transformed into flowers, leaves, and birds.
While Sophie was the elder at the camp, guiding the work that needed to be done, it was very clear that this was a collaborative affair. The three women talked and debated about how best to approach the next step. Much of this conversation was had in Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì, so I missed the finer points of the discussion, but the outcomes were translated so that non-Tłı̨chǫ speakers had the necessary direction.
Skilled Hands Needed: Removing the Hair
On Tuesday morning, we spread the second hide out on the floor in the cabin, flesh side up, and removed the small bits of meat with kitchen knives. Once that task was complete, Sophie guided the trimming of the hide; removing excess hide from around the legs makes it easier to fit the hide to the frame. The decision was made to work at removing the hair inside the cabin. To this end, Lena and Therese built a simple structure, a three-foot spruce pole nailed to a square piece of plywood, over which the hide was draped. The women used long knives to remove hair. (You can watch a video of Sophie working here). The knives had to be sharpened often as the coarse hair of the moose quickly rendered them dull. As with scraping, hair was removed from the edges of the hide before moving inwards. Mastering the tension in the hide, the hand position for the knife, and the blade stroke to remove the hair close to the skin without damaging the hide is easier said than done. Lena patiently guided my hands with limited success.
A New Generation of Tanners
We welcomed our first group of students from Mezi Community School on Tuesday morning. We divided the grade 5/6 class into two groups. One group went outside to learn about scraping from Therese, while the other stayed inside with Sophie to try their hand at removing hair. Later, they switched.
Each class was only at the camp for a few hours. Even in that short time, though, it was clear that tanning held a strong appeal for some of the students. One of the boys in the Tuesday morning group scraped steadily for the better part of an hour, while his peers came and went. Similarly, there were two girls in the afternoon group on the same day who worked with Sophie until the hide was clean of hair.
We finished scraping the flesh side in the morning, so before the grade 7/8 class arrived in the afternoon, we turned the hide over. Although the hair side had been scraped at a previous camp, there were still patches where the follicles, or hair roots, were visible. In addition to the general thinning that we had done on the flesh side to even out the hide, we also needed to scrape away the follicles so that the hide had a uniform appearance.
With the help of the grade 7/8 class, we were able to finish scraping the first hide on Tuesday afternoon. We then removed it from the frame and folded it up inside of a large Rubbermaid, to which we added warm snow water and dish soap. After letting the hide soak for an hour, we took it outside and hung it over a simple frame made from two long spruce poles with one cross piece. The hide spent the rest of the camp outside following the March sunshine.
Before calling it a day on Tuesday, Sophie cut holes around the edges of the second hide using scissors so that in the morning we would be able to hang it on the frame. While some measure the spacing between holes, Sophie worked intuitively, placing holes one-by-one approximately six inches apart, her scissors working their way through the hide and the fleshy membrane that would need to be scraped the following day.
Wednesday’s Work: Scraping Continues
Wednesday morning found the grade 3/4 class out at the camp. Together, the women and the students did the work of stretching the hide onto the frame. As the hide needed to freeze before we could begin scraping, we weren’t able to get back to work until the afternoon. In the interim, we enjoyed some fresh lake trout, Lena’s heavenly bannock, and tea with the students.
By the time the grade 1/2 class arrived in the afternoon, the second hide was sufficiently frozen for scraping. We began work on the flesh side. This hide was darker and redder than the first, but our goal was the same: to thin and even out the hide. This class took to the hide with abandon. Unfortunately, warm temperatures, sunshine, and many little bodies sitting on the hide as they worked thawed the hide out and forced us to stop scraping mid-afternoon. We took this opportunity to move the first hide so that it was in the sun and to fix the frame for the second hide. Unfortunately, the second hide didn’t freeze again on Wednesday, so we didn’t get as far as we were hoping.
On Thursday, we rose early to finish scraping the flesh side of the second hide before packing up the camp. Scraping the hair side will have to wait for a future camp, as will soaking and hanging and smoking this hide. There are plans afoot to do this work in the summer so that the hide, which is now the property of the Whatì Presence Office of the Tłı̨chǫ Government, can be donated to the community sewing group in the fall.
I stopped at the school before leaving Whatì. The grade 5/6 class had already printed photos and written sentences about their time at the camp, which were proudly displayed on the wall outside their classroom:
“When I was at Lina’s camp [sic], I cut moose hide. Dora said, ‘I did a great job cutting moosehide.’”
“I’m scrapping [sic] a moosehide.”
Some of the students who visited the camp had experience with tanning, a fact their facility with the knife and scraper made apparent. For others, this was the first time they had been exposed to the work of processing a hide. For this group, the camp only gave them a taste of the traditional Tłı̨chǫ knowledges and skills required to transform a green hide into leather, but perhaps the experience of shaving hair from the hide or the weight of the scraper in their hand ignited something. At the very least, and this is no small thing, the camp was a celebration of the richness, beauty, resourcefulness, and resiliency of Dene culture.