Tanning is a process that transforms an animal skin into a soft, durable and water-resistant leather that can be used to make useful things like boots and jackets. Home tanning moose hide is a long and labour-intensive traditional skill that has been passed down through generations of Yukon First Nation people.
In long ago times, tanning hides was necessary for survival. When harvesting an animal, First Nations people ate the meat for sustenance, and then used the hide to make clothing, shelter coverings and other useful things, such as ropes and cords.
Back then, learning to tan a hide was a rite of passage. Young people, mainly women, learned from watching and helping their families through the multi-day process, from scraping to stretching to smoking.
In modern times, with access to commercially tanned products and technologies, home tanning has been practiced by fewer people. Over the past few decades, traditional knowledge keepers have worked to bring it back by hosting training sessions and culture camps in communities throughout Yukon. There has been a resurgence of programs for First Nations people to relearn and reclaim important cultural practices.
Today home-tanned hides are commonly used in many Yukon First Nations beadwork and sewing pieces. The uniqueness of the hide and hard work that goes into the tanning process generally commands a higher price than a piece made with commercially tanned hide.
Home-tanned hide has a distinctive look and feel. It shows marks and colour variations from the slow process that is all done by hand and often using only natural materials. The resulting hide retains the deep nostalgic smell of wood smoke.
A home-tanned hide is very different from a commercially tanned hide. Commercial tanning is a modern process that uses chemicals and is generally done in larger batches in an industrial setting. Some harvesters will do part of the prep work for tanning themselves and then send the hide to a commercial tannery to complete the process.
“You need lots of practice to make a skin. If you keep practising, you will learn how to do it. That’s how I learned. I used to watch my mother when she made a skin. I sat right close to her and watched her.”
– Gertie Tom, Kwanlin Dün First Nation Elder in How to Tan Hides in the Native Way
The tanning process is long and labour-intensive. Usually, many people work together over days or weeks to complete the job.
There are many ways to tan a hide. People follow different processes, depending on where they learned and who taught them.
This description is based on information from Kwanlin Dün First Nation Elder Gertie Tom’s book How to Tan Hides in the Native Way.
The process begins with carefully skinning the animal. More holes in the hide means more intricate work sewing them up later on.
First, the hide is hung on a branch or a tree stump with the hair side facing up. Then, the hair is cut off using a small sharp knife.
Once the hair-side is smooth, the hide is flipped over, and any remaining flesh is scraped off using a special fleshing tool made from a bone in the moose’s leg. This work can take days, depending on how tough the hide is.
When all the flesh has been removed, the skin is hung over a smooth board and thinned out using a long double-handled knife. This part of the process takes time and experience because it’s easy to hold the knife the wrong way and cut through the hide by accident.
Once the hide is smooth and of even thickness, small holes are cut around the edge of the hide.
Then, the hide is plunged it into water to soak and wrung out until all of the blood comes out of the skin. When the water rinses clear the hide is stretched out and hung to dry.
When the hide is dry, it’s hung above a low fire that produces a lot of smoke, so it absorbs the smoke. Generally, it takes a full day to smoke a hide: half a day for each side.
Next, the animal’s brain is put into a small porous sack and added to a tub of lukewarm water. The sack is squeezed until liquid comes out and the water turns milk white. Then, the skin is plunged into the brain water to be soaked and stretched.
Generally, skins are stiff and difficult to work with. Brain is used because it contains an enzyme that helps break down the hide and allow it to stretch and soften. This prepares it for the final smoking process.
Today, some home tanners choose to use other types of enzymes—either vegetable or manufactured—instead of brain for this part of the process. Then the skin is stretched, wrung out and hung to dry.
The soaking, stretching and drying process is repeated until the hide is soft. Then it’s ready to smoke again over a low smoky fire made from rotten wood and pinecones. The hide is smoked until it turns the desired colour – red, yellow or a deep brown. Once it’s smoked enough, the hide is left overnight and then hung outside to air out. Then the hide is ready to cut and use.
Another tanning method involves soaking a moose hide in brain tan solution and then hanging it outside to freeze dry four or five times over a cold winter. In this process, the repetitive freeze and thaw allows the expanding ice crystals to break apart the fibres and soften the hide over time.
Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association
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Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A-5G4