I have been obsessed with the indigenous people of America and pioneering skills since I was a little girl. I began wearing headbands with feathers in them at age three and making teepees at age four. And when it came time to play what was then called “cowboys and Indians,” I always played the latter.
As I grew up, I wanted to acquire all of the old-fashioned skills of making things by hand. I learned how to make fire without matches, how to build a shelter out of branches, and how to make soap out of animal fat. But more than anything, I wanted to make my own elk-hide dress, like the one worn by “Stands With a Fist” in the movie “Dances with Wolves.”
However, even back in 1992, an elk hide was a hefty $350. I knew I could easily ruin it, so I decided to practice first with roadkill. My first try, using a squirrel, was a complete disaster. I was so excited that I didn’t pay much attention to the directions. After a week of trying this and that, I ended up with what looked like an elongated rawhide dog chew with a few whiskers on one end!
I have learned a great deal since those days. While there are dozens of ways to tan an animal hide and a wide variety of materials to do it, we will talk about the most common methods that the native people used.
We will focus mainly on deer and elk hides here. There are slightly different methods for different types of hides, but these are the two most commonly used hides among native people.
Wet Scrape and Dry Scrape
This is really a matter of preference, and both methods were used by different tribes. The most common method appears to be a dry scrape. Hides are either secured to a log or tree and then scraped with a bone or stick to remove all bits of flesh and skin membrane. Alternatively, hides were staked to the ground so that all the flesh could be removed. It is imperative that all flesh and membranes be removed from the inside of the skin. If this is not done, the hide will rot. But while you want to remove all the flesh, you don’t want to rub so hard that you make a hole in the hide. That was something I did repeatedly until I finally got the hang of it!
To remove the hair, the hide should be soaked for a few hours in water mixed with wood ashes. Then, using the same type of tool that was used to remove the flesh, the fur can be removed. At this point, the hide is now ready to be tanned.
Using the Animal’s Brain
While there are other materials that will work to tan a hide, the most commonly used method was to use the brains of the animal. Even if you don’t want to remove the fur, it’s a good idea to soak the hide for a few hours in water mixed with some wood ashes. This helps to break down the fibers in the skin and makes penetration of the brain mash easier. It also will result in a softer hide.
Many tribes also added items to the brains to help make the hides softer. Some used the spinal fluid from the animal, others used the liver, but most tribes used some of the fat from the animal. The brains were smashed into a thick pulp and liquefied fat, or softened fat was mixed in. This mixture was then spread over the inside of the hide and massaged in. The hide was then soaked in water for an hour or so. After that, the water was squeezed or pushed out of the hide (by using a flat rock or flat piece of wood). Some tribes would wrap the skin around a tree and twist it to get the water out. The hide was then stretched back into shape and allowed to dry.
Is There More to It?
While this sounds fairly easy, trust me: It is a very labor-intensive process.
Sometimes the brains do not penetrate on the first try and this method needs to be repeated. Other times — as I learned the hard way with my first squirrel – if you soak the hide too long the hair comes off even if you don’t want it to. Which means you now need to scrape that side as well and remove ALL the hair.
Why Are Some Hides Buttery Soft?
Sometimes you want hides that are tough and strong for shoe bottoms or totes, but is there anything nicer than a super soft piece of leather?
To get that buttery-soft feeling, the fibers of the hide need to be broken down. It’s similar to the way we break down the fibers of meat. Tough meat needs to be beaten and pierced to break up the fibers. Most tribes got those soft skins by working the hide over and over until it obtained the softness they were looking for. After tanning, the inside of the hide was again rubbed with fat, pulled taut using the preferred method, and then worked over again with a rounded stick or rock. Of course, many hands make light work and, in most tribes, women worked together. But when one considers that most teepees were made from the hides of a dozen animals (or more) sewn together, you get a real appreciation for the work that was involved.
Have you ever made leather and tanned hide? What advice would you add? Share your thoughts in the section below: