Moose hide tanning is a traditional art, a complicated process that requires a lifetime of learning and practice. It also requires patience, hard physical work, commitment, and expertise, not only for tanning the hide but for hunting and harvesting the moose. Indigenous nations around the world have been harvesting and processing animal hides since time immemorial to produce clothing, shelter, tools, and ceremonial objects. In Denendeh, the Dene harvest moose for its meat, hides, bones, antlers, and sinew. There are probably as many different Dene methods for tanning a moose hide as there are Dene communities or living Dene elders. Traditional moose hide tanning is not as widely practiced as it once was. We are reclaiming and revitalizing moose hide tanning within our own small community by seeking out guidance and expertise from elders and experienced moose hide tanners, and working on moose hides wherever and whenever we possibly can. We set up moose hides in our back yards, at our friends’ cabins, in our living rooms, and we travel to other communities to learn methods and techniques. Moose-hide tanning is a journey and a lifestyle: it is a good life.
A moose hide tanning process, in general and simplistic terms, involves fleshing, stretching, scraping and punching. When a moose hide tanner receives a hide from a hunter, the first step is to remove all of the flesh from the hide. One method is to remove the flesh with a knife, but this requires precision and skill to do properly. Another method is to hang the hide on a nail or over a board or stump, pull the hide taut with one hand, and punch the flesh off with the other hand using a moose leg bone punching tool. The next step is to stretch the hide by lacing it up onto a frame made of spruce poles. While it’s on the frame, the hair is sheared off as close to the skin as possible. When the hide dries, it is scraped with a scraping tool to thin out the thick spots. Once the hide is scraped to a consistent thinness, it is removed from the frame, folded up, and left to soak in warm water or brain solution until it becomes soft and malleable again. Brains are the essential ingredients for the traditional hide tanner. A solution is made out of fermented brains in which soaks the hide at various stages of the process. Sometimes the brains are baked first, and sometimes they’re smeared all over one side of the hide. Once the hide is soaked through, it gets punched all over again, and is hung to dry. As it is drying, the tanner scrapes, softens, and stretches the hide. When it’s dry, it is sewed into a tube shape for smoking. A smouldering fire of rotted spruce wood is set, and the tube-shaped moose hide is secured above the fire so the opening of the tube is right over the smoke. A skirt that reaches the ground is stitched around the opening of the hide tube to prevent the smoke from escaping. The fire can smoulder for anywhere from fifteen minutes to several hours. After that, the process of soaking, punching, drying, softening, and smoking is repeated until the hide is supple enough to stick a needle through.