By Markus Klek
Native American Use
Getting Ready to Tan
Fleshing, Thinning, Braining
Smoking & Conclusion
With this article, I am picking out one small element of the complex interrelationship of native people and their environment and what can be learned from it today. I would like to honor the Buffalo Nation and all our non-human relatives, whose lives we take to sustain ourselves, and maybe help to reevaluate the way we use our resources, especially when a life has been spent for them. The buffalo is one good example of this tragic process; a creature that has been exploited to its almost complete destruction. Even today this tragedy is continuing to a certain degree in Yellowstone National Park, home of the last wild and unfenced buffalo herd in the USA.
The article will describe the art of tanning raw bison hides into robe size hides with the hair left intact; similar to the way as practiced by the women of many Native American tribes on a large scale, until the end of the 19th century. It will be a step by step description of the work process and also the use of bison hides, including quotations and observations made by early travelers and pioneers amongst native tribes of the 18th and 19th century.
I still remember a drawing I made when I was a kid back in Germany. It was a self-portrait of me dressed in leather with a fur cap on my head and a rifle in my hand. I presented it in school and explained that I wanted to be a trapper when I grew up. The teacher laughed and said that all little boys liked cowboys and Indians and that those feelings would disappear, as we grew older. I was very angry with her. The underlying fascination of the powerful buffalo, that shaggy beast, that in our modern world looks like a relict of times long gone by, stayed with me for all those years.
My first encounter with live buffalo was a rather unimpressive one. In my early twenties, I traveled to New York and went to visit a friend in Buffalo, NY. After arriving at the train station at night, he drove me to the local zoo to see the namesakes of his town. There they were, in a small enclosure, sadly staring from the dark into the headlights of our truck. Today I live in San Francisco and am fortunate to have a small herd of bison close by. They live in Golden Gate Park in the middle of the city. I got my first real piece of buffalo from those animals in the form of shed winter hair that I collected when I was volunteering to help clean up the paddock. Then one day I ran across the address of Jim Miller of Michigan, the first man I heard of who was brain-tanning buffalo hides and teaching classes too. When I called him, he said I need not apply for class until I had tanned at least a half dozen deerskins and a bunch of pelts. Therefore, a few years later after I had accomplished that, I traveled to Michigan in January and was fortunate enough to have a one on one class with him. (call Jim at “Willow Winds” 515 736 3487 for information on his classes or a copy of his booklet “Brain tanned Buffalo Robes, Skins and Pelts”).
Brain-tanning is not a strictly Native American art, but was practiced in many parts of the world throughout human history. For example, the Iceman from Italy wore brain-tanned skins. (“Der Mann aus dem Eis “by Angelika Flechinger and Hubert Steiner, also “Leather” by Lotha Rahme on European tanning tradition). Unlike modern day commercial tanning, brain-tanning is an environmentally safe way of tanning that does not use or produce any toxins or chemicals.
These tanned buffalo hides had a multitude of uses for native people. They were used as bedding, for example among the Kiowa as described by J.J. Methvin: “When a boy or girl grows up to sufficient size or age, a Pa-lo-tle-ton is set apart for his or her exclusive use. This is a buffalo robe, neatly dressed, made of a full skin, with the head fastened by the lips to the heads of their lounge- like, willow beds. The On-ta-koi is the ordinary robe for the bed. It is only a half robe, and cut off also at the neck. The hide of the Pa-lo-tle-ton is carefully taken off, with all the skill of the taxidermist, so as to preserve its full covering of the head, with even the horns and eyes and ears and lips, and also the legs down to the hoofs, and sometimes even the hoofs are retained.”
Bison robes were also worn by both sexes instead of overcoats to give protection against the elements. As Marquis writes about the Crow: “Often such an article served as a substitute for an entire suit of clothing with only the ever-present Indian breechcloth underneath”. Jesuit Joseph F. Lafitau writes in the 18th century: “they drape themselves in robes, holding the skins closed with their hands unless they were traveling, in which case they would tie them with a belt towards the middle of their bodies”. Boller also observed among the Mandan, that women getting firewood in winter were: “belting their robes around them in such a manner that, while affording a complete protection of their bodies, the free use of the arms was not interfered with.”
The robes also doubled as canvases for representing belief systems or experiences of individuals or the society as a whole. The female symbol language used for painting hides, varied from the artistic language of men. The decoration of hides could be a very organized undertaking that was highly esteemed in the society. (See Grinnell’s description of women’s privileged Quilling societies among the Cheyenne or Virginia Bergmann Peters statement of Mandan women wearing rings and bracelets to show the number of robes decorated). The third use of hides was as trade items in intertribal trade and especially as a major trade item in trade with non-natives, to procure the highly valued European made goods. James A. Teit for example states of intertribal trade in “The Salishan Tribes of the Western Plateaus”: “The Crow robes were most highly valued. Often a horse and, in addition, a well made leather shirt, was paid for one of the best robes.” On the other hand, James W. Schultz relates an episode on a trading transaction in 1879, between a white trader and the Blackfoot man Bear Head, who paid 10 “head and tail” (full uncut skins) buffalo robes for a 44 caliber Henry repeating rifle including 300 rounds of ammunition. (As stated below, one woman was able to prepare approximately 10 robes a season) Of course, prices varied over time and region and so did the quality of the prepared robes amongst the tribes. Swiss artist Rudolf Kurz observed the following in the middle of the 19th century: “The Absaroke (Crow) are famous for their robes, in no other nation are the dressed skins so soft and pliable.” Whereas Verendrye writes a century earlier that the Mandan dress skins more skillfully than any other tribe.
Another area where tanned robes found use was in various religious ceremonies that required representation of the Bison or its significance to the people. Participants would wear or use the robe to represent or call upon these properties. Black Elk, the Lakota holy man, has described the use for robes in almost all of the sacred rites of his tribe. These robes were tanned in a ritual manner, but I have not found any reference to a description of such a ritual. The hair of the buffalo was believed to contain the soul of the animal. Especially skins from albino bison were highly valued by most tribes. These white hides found use for example in the buffalo-calling ceremony of the White Buffalo Cow society among the Mandan. Joseph Epes Brown says in his book on Black Elk: “The buffalo was to the Sioux the most important of all four-legged animals, for it supplied their food, their clothing, and even their houses, which were made from the tanned hides. Because the buffalo contained all these things within himself he was a natural symbol of the universe, the totality of all manifested forms. Everything is symbolically contained within this animal”. A complete investigation of the complex role the buffalo played and still plays for many North American tribes is more than can be accomplished in the framework of this article.
Virginia Bergman Peters’ book, “Women of the Earth Lodges” cites a lot of miscellaneous uses for tanned and untanned bison hides. It includes making them into sleds in winter, using them as scare crows in corn fields, or making hides into “trampolines” by holding onto the edges and tossing people into the air. The list is endless, further products made of buffalo skins include tipi covers, clothes, shields, boats, bags etc. A buffalo hide is a very versatile article.
Most hides tanned into robes by native women, were the skins of young cows killed at a certain time in the winter for the best fur. (starting November, according to James W. Schultz, who lived with the Blackfeet). In addition, Bulls of a young age were good for robes. On the other hand, Shepard Krech theorizes in his book “The Economical Indian”, that: “cow robes with the hair on were lusher than the thin haired bulls.” Unfortunately, most of what is available for tanning today are bull hides. Most of these animals are killed at an age of 18 months, and they make nice robes. In general, the older the animal, the harder the skin is to tan. Tanning is an art form. To choose the right animal for the right hide at the right time of the year for a given project was something native people learned to master.
I tried contacting local sources for hides, so that I could actually go to the ranch and look at the quality of the skins and ‘meet’ the buffalo but it worked out best for me to order them via UPS from the North American Bison Cooperative in North Dakota (701 947 2505). Currently they charge $135 plus $25 for shipping . I also recommend checking the web site www.bisoncentral.com for ranchers near you. These are salted hides, which are semi dry. The best time for getting them is wintertime to be sure they haven’t been stored for too long as that might affect the quality of the skin (the hair might start to slip). Some people do not like salted hides, but they work fine for me.
After getting a hide, it has to be re-hydrated and washed to remove the salt. Running water would be the best choice for this but a 40-gallon trash can works also. Tap water has the advantage of containing chlorine, which kills bacteria and so prevents premature hair slippage. Sometimes I wear rubber gloves to prevent infection, especially when my hands are bruised or cut. I soak my hides between 12 and 24 hours and change the water as often as possible. I wash the hair side of my skin with soap or shampoo to further clean the fur. A lot of dirt will also drop out of the hide while I work it. In addition, if the water does not taste salty anymore that might be an indicator that I have washed out as much salt as possible. I make sure the hide is thoroughly soaked and limber. The edges especially tend to curl up and stay dry, as well as areas with big chunks of meat on tend to absorb the water slower. An un-fleshed and soaked hide is not a lovely sight but it makes you realize the miracle of transformation that will take place through the work of your hands and nature’s master plan. A heavy cold and stinky piece of flesh turns into a, durable, warm and soft robe.
To be worked on, hides were either stacked out flat on the ground or put in a rack. I use a rack as I work in my basement that has a concrete floor. The rack is a square of 8 by 8 feet. I use 2 by 4-inch lumber with smaller pieces to be put across the corners for added stability. I check the lumber for cracks, as it will undergo quite some stress and if not reinforced, might start to break. A soaked hide might not look that big but once it is being worked on, it will stretch quite a bit. This 8 by 8 -size frame means I have to cut the hide in order to fit it, which is fine, as the hide is usually too big to be used as a robe when left whole. Of course, I could use a bigger frame if I wished to leave the hide untrimmed.
If the skin is trimmed, the front leg and neck scraps can be collected and the hair be twined into strong ropes. Marquis writes about the Crow: “The choice lariat (to round up horses) was one made of spun and plaited buffalo hair”. After trimming the hide, I cut holes all around the edge, maybe 5 inches apart, and lace it evenly into the frame. The hide is tough to cut so I use a board to support the skin and then push the knife through. It is not unlikely that I might have to clean some meat and fat away around the edges before being able to cut the holes. So after the hide has been framed, I support it on all four corners with chairs, bucket, or something to hold it high enough of the ground, to be able to hop onto it without touching the ground, as I will do later in the process.
Native people had a variety of fleshing and scraping tools that were very highly valued and passed on from one generation to the next. Grinnel writes : “One of the fleshers was given me by the wife of White bull, When she was 65 or 70 years of age . Its first known owner was Magpie Woman, when she grew old she gave it to her daughter, Sun Woman, when Sun Woman grew old she gave it to her daughter, Hole in the Nose, but Hole in the Nose fell sick and died, and Sun Woman kept it, and when she died it came to Bull Wool Woman, the wife of Frog. From her it passed to her daughter White Bull’s wife. Bull Woman had been dead nearly 50 years when the implement came into my hands, when it was perhaps 140 to 150 years old “. Sometimes the women would also cut a groove into the handle of their tool for each hide tanned. The other day, one of these implements, a completely intact elk horn handle flesher was auctioned off on Ebay for $1950!
I use one tool for fleshing and thinning which has a steel blade as sharp as I can get it. To flesh the skin, I hop onto the hide and start removing meat and fat. Beginning at the edges, I work my way towards the center. Sometimes I switch to a knife, especially in the hump area, that usually contains a lot of fat and meat The big fat chunks can be saved and rendered, for use in the tanning process or other projects like soap making or for fat lamp fuel. The fleshing is a lot of work and should be done before the hide starts drying out, best in one sitting but the hide can be covered overnight with wet towels and finished the next day. As the hide stretches, I go around and retighten it. It is worked the best when kept taut. This working step is about getting all meat and fat off, adhering bits off tissue and membrane will be cleared off in the following thinning process anyway. Also I will not be able to clean and thin (As described below) the hide nicely around the lacing holes, which is ok because the whole edge will be cut of later.
As a buffalo is a mighty beast its hide is too thick in many places to be able to tan soft without prior thinning, this means removing skin by shaving it off. James W. Schulz writes about the Blackfeet : “standing upon the hide, smooth side up, the tanner, with an elk horn-handled, steel-bladed instrument the shape of a hoe, chipped it to about one half of its original thickness” A razor sharp blade is what I need now for thinning. When I hop on and off my hide to thin it, I try to keep it clean as dirt and sand will dull my blade faster. I try to shave the hide to an even thickness so I end up with a uniform product. The highlighted areas in the drawing need the most attention, as they are the thickest. The little areas under the arms have a very tight skin structure and will probably never turn out soft anyway.
Take your time and make sure that the skin is as thin as you can get it without compromising its integrity. You will save yourself a lot of work later as a thin skin is much easier to tan than one that is left too thick. In general, if you see hair roots shine through, do not go any deeper. This is easier to see when the skin is still wet. If you scrape it when it is already drying, you need to gauge it differently: I usually feel in from the sides with my arms and hands and try to determinate thickness, or try to pinch the skin if it is loose enough. I go over the whole hide during this process. It is easy to punch holes at this time, especially when the scraper dulls and you try to force it. After it has been thinned properly, I take the skin out of the frame, cut the edge off, put new holes in it and re-lace it. This way you get a nice clean and thin edge.
The scrapings removed from the hide during the thinning process have a couple of uses. They can be boiled down into hide glue. Or as Grinnel states: “Many women saved the scrapings from the hides they tanned and put them in parfleches (rawhide containers) against a time of scarcity. Then they were boiled and made a palatable food.” Occasionally the whole green (un-tanned hide) would be eaten by the natives, cooked in a sort of pit bake according to Grinnell. (editor’s note: what you get when you cook hides is gelatin — the most easily assimilated natural protein — which is why you’re mother may have fed you Jell-O when you were sick as a kid).
Braining and Working the Hide in the Frame
Now it is time for the first braining. Brain-tanning is also referred to as “fat liquoring” and actually, a variety of tanning mixtures can be used. It seems that native people mainly used a mixture of all or some of the following: brains, bone marrow, liver, soapweed (according to Grinell) and grease. Today we can substitute ingredients if we wish and use eggs, lecithin, soap, castor oil etc. Probably every modern and old-time tanner has his own recipe he uses. All these substances are involved in complicated chemical reactions within the skin and help transform it from rawhide into leather. For details on skin structure and what chemical reactions occur during tanning, I refer to: “The Ancient Art of Tanning Buckskin” by S. Edholm and T. Wilder.
Whatever solution you use, the hide should be semi-dried – if the hide is somewhat moist, the solution is more easily absorbed, unlike a dry hide whose fiber structure is too tight to readily absorb the mixture. To start with, I use a fairly thin mixture and heat it up hot enough so I can just stand to put my hand in it. I apply it to small areas at a time so the solution does not cool down too fast on the skin. While the liquor is soaking in, I help it along by pushing and stretching the skin with a tool that has a blunt, rounded edge. (such as a paddle, an ax handle or a scraper with a dull blade). This work process will help force the solution deeper into the hide. Afterwards I add another thin coat, cover the hide with hot wet towels and leave it over night. The next day I use the blunt tool again and also walk on the skin barefoot to further move and stretch it. While the skin is drying, I can leisurely repeat the walking and pushing process. If I work inside, I use a heater and a fan to help speed up drying time. If you do not want to finish the tanning process in one setting, this would be the point to take a break.
Boller writes about the tribes of the upper Missouri : ” it (the skin) is then left to dry, when it is taken down and put away until wanted, for during the busy hunting season it is as much as a squaw can do”. According to many tanners, partially finished hides with at least one coating of brains dried into them will be easier to tan soft, as the enzymes of the tanning agent are at work during the storage time (editor’s note: I have heard this said too, but don’t buy it).
Braining and Pulling the Hide
To continue the tanning process, I take my dried hide out of storage and cut it in half along the spine. These so-called “split robes” were common among native people. Again Boller writes, that after the tanning: “the two sides are then sewed together with sinew and the robe is ready to be traded.” This splitting technique came either from the way they skinned the animal or for the ease of tanning smaller sections because a big hide might have to be handled by more people. Marquis writes about the Crow: “In the original butchering of the animal, after one side was skinned, the hump was cut of. This was necessary in order to roll the carcass for skinning the other side”, (as a shot buffalo usually died on its belly). According to Harold E. Briggs’ “Frontiers of the Northwest”: “one squaw was capable of preparing ten (buffalo) robes in a season. Although two or more worked together on heavier ones.” This tailoring process of cutting hides in halves also helps reduce the size of the finished product. (editor’s note: it also gets rid of the hump and backbone sections of the hide….the hardest areas to get soft. Native people were smart!).
Of course whole hides were used as well and were in high esteem. Marquis writes : “A head and tail buffalo robe, that is an entire robe of one piece and in good order, had a standard price of five dollars in goods. An extra good article would be higher.A split robe, one made up by the sewing of segments, was salable at a valuation lower than that of the full head and tail robe.” One reason to keep the hide whole (leaving legs, tail and head attached) was, that the skin was seen as inheriting the spirit of the animal in its completeness.
Tanner Jim Miller for example does not cut his robes and does his entire tanning with the hide laced in the frame for the entire process. Other tailoring methods include attaching the skin of the front legs to the neck of the main body to maximize size or taking out sections of the head and hump area to make the hide lie flat. For images of robes displaying these techniques I refer to “Robes of Splendor -North American Painted Buffalo Hides” by New York Press .
Having cut the hide in half, (I now work one half at a time) I spread another application of tanning solution onto it and then fold it up flesh side on flesh side and cover it with a plywood board. Then I put a weight on it (Once I saw tanner Randy Breeuwsma drive his truck onto the “sandwiched” hide he was working on.) This really presses the solution into the hide and allows no air to circulate. I leave it like this overnight. The next morning I unfold it and scrape off all the solution that has not soaked in. Then I hang it out to dry. When the hide is partially dry, I start “pulling” it, as described below.
I use a heavy-duty metal strap, about 6 feet long and 2 inches wide. I nail the top and bottom of it to the walls of my house creating a nice stable D-curve to pass the skin through. I sit down while working. I lean back and pull the hide back and forth along the strap.
For this purpose, Natives would pull the skin around an upright pole; or fix to a tree a twisted cord of rawhide, or a buffalo shoulder blade bone with a hole in the center. Besides the pulling, I stretch the hide over my knees and shake it out every once in a while to help it regain its original shape. Then I put it up to dry some more. After a while, I repeat the pulling and stretching process. While it is hanging to dry, I stretch it with my hands in all directions a little.
After this work session and when the hide is almost completely dry, I take it down put another coat of brains on and leave it folded up again over night. The next morning I start sewing up the holes, that may have been created during the skinning or the earlier thinning process. I sew them up using sinew and a baseball stitch, entering the needle into the hair side. Usually they hold up during the softening process, although an occasional hole might have to be re-sewn. Now I repeat the whole stretching and pulling process as mentioned previously. At this time, I will be able to see where I left the hide too thick and where it is too thin. Where the fibers have started separating, I work around them. Now the hide should turn out nice and soft. If it does not, the braining and pulling as described above can be repeated, but in thin areas, the risk of the skin fibers separating and creating holes becomes greater.
After both halves have been softened, I cut a section off from each half along the spine. This helps me to control the size of the finished product and also takes away the somewhat uneven and not completely tanned edge. Then I sew the two halves together to make the finished robe. The leftover pieces of hide can be used for various smaller projects. Boller for example writes of these segments: “When a sufficient number accumulates, these pieces are sewed together and used as beds”. The lacing/stake holes around the skin can be cut off but I leave them intact. On some hides, native people cut the somewhat un-tanned edges at intervals to maximize flexibility. This method can be seen on many paintings of Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, who during his travels in 1833/4, made drawings of tribes people. These are among the most detailed and accurate representations available for study.
Smoking the hide
As with any brain-tanned product, the hide should be smoked. This process keeps it from becoming stiff should the robe get wet and will also help to keep dermis-eating bugs out of it. A lot of the hides in museums do not seem to be smoked as tanner Wes Housler also observed. (Editor’s note: but native people’s lived around camp-fires and no doubt their hides got functionally smoked in the regular process of daily life, as it doesn’t take all that much smoke to effect the change). Check out his article on tanning bison hides at Braintan.com.
I lace up my hide like a sleeping bag through the lacing holes, hair side out. Then I suspend it from a tree, hanging about 1 1/2 feet above a smoldering fire and tie a cloth around the bottom to funnel the smoke into it. To keep the sides of the hide from touching I arrange sticks in the interior, so that the smoke can circulate freely. I smoke the hide from 6 to 8 hours. For more detail on the smoking of brain-tanned hides, see “The Ancient Art of Tanning Buckskin” by Steve Edholm and Tamara Wilder. The smoking is the final step in the tanning process, so once that has been finished, the item is ready for use.
If, after prolonged use, it seems necessary to clean the robe, various sources state that moist white clay was used for this purpose. It was rubbed into the flesh side of the robe to absorb dirt and grease and was then shaken out after the clay had dried. To clean the hair side, Jim Miller for example simply leaves his robes out in a light rain. The finished product is a great “keep me warm” item for the house (if you do not object to the somewhat “wild natural” smell) or for camping trips. Unfortunately, the hides are somewhat too bulky for backpacking, unless you find someone to carry them for you.
For additional information, comments or inquiries about my robes, please contact me, Markus Klek at: firstname.lastname@example.org
In addition, I would especially like to thank Jim Miller for introducing me to the art of tanning buffalo hides, my friend Travis Dietz for his patience with the editing, and my wife Tamara for putting up with my “hobbies”. Thanks also to all the other people that helped me in creating this article.
References and books of interest:
– “Braintan Buffalo Robes Skins and Pelts” by Jim Miller
– “Among the Indians” by Henry A. Boller
– “Memories of a White Crow Indian” told by Thomas B. Marquis
– “The Cheyenne Indians Vol. 1” by George Bird Grinnell
– “The Ancient Art of Tanning Buckskin” by Steven Edholm and Tamara Wilder
– “Leather” by Lotha Rahme
– “The Ecological Indian” by Shepard Krech
– “Karl Bodmers America” by University of Nebraska Press
– “Robes of Splendor” by New York Press
– “Seeing the White Buffalo” by Robert B. Pickering
– “Buckskin and Buffalo” by Colin F. Taylor
– “The Cheyenne in Plains Indians Trade Relations” by Joseph Jablow
– “Buffalo Nation” by Valarius Geist
– “Sacred Buffalo” by Sycamore Island Books
– “Blackfeet and Buffalo” by James W. Schultz
– “Andele, the Mexican-Kiowa captive” by J.J. Methvin
– “The Sacred Pipe” by Joseph Epes Brown
– “Women of the Earth Lodges” by Virginia Peters