The stench of rotting flesh filled my nostrils as I rounded the corner of McPherson House in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories. My nose found the moosehide tanning workshop at the community’s annual Open Sky Festival seconds before my eyeballs did. This weekend festival brings together artists to share such skills as making birch bark baskets, decorative quillwork using colourfully dyed porcupine quills, painting and moose hair tufting.
Kathy Mouse, her daughter Elizabeth and Maryann Bertrand were sitting around a five-foot tall post with a hide draped over it. Holding a sharpened flesher made of bone, they scraped raw flesh off the hide in a downward motion toward a blue plastic tarp on the ground.
Mouse, a Dene woman from Hay River, learned moose hide tanning from her mother. Now she was giving a multi-day workshop to share her skills. “I just want to pass on what my mother passed on to me,” she said as she sat back on her heels. Then she resumed fleshing the hide that was hanging in front of her.
Once the flesh has been removed, the hair is scraped off with a knife and the hide is stretched out. It will be rubbed in spinal fluid, soaked in moose brains or Ivory Soap. The hide will be softened using a tool made of bone, wrung out and hung out to dry again while continuing to stretch it. The hide is soaked again before being smoked over rotten spruce chips.
A few feet away from Mouse, another hide was stretched out and tied down in a wooden frame resting against the side of the house. David Bourke was leaning over, scraping off the last remnants of hair. Around the corner from him, Ethel Lamothe was standing before another frame, a scraper in hand. She was trying to remove tufts of hair from a hide. “Do you want to try it?” she asked me. Mouse wanted to teach me, too.
Moments later, I slipped my tiny hands into a pair of bright yellow rubber gloves and watched as Bertrand gave me a lesson in how to flesh a hide. By then, my nose was starting to get accustomed to the smell. I bunched up a piece of hide lengthwise in my left hand and grabbed the bone flesher with my right. I took a few downward stabs at pulling off the flesh, but I was struggling to grasp the right arm position to be effective.
Bertrand gently and patiently repositioned my hand a few times until I got the hang of it. It didn’t take long for me to feel the tension in the muscles of my wrist. My initial squeamishness, undoubtedly acquired during years of being raised in a large city, quickly disappeared as I reminded myself that Aboriginal people have been engaging in this sustainable practice for centuries.
People here don’t hunt to put trophies on their walls and furry rugs on their floors. The hide we were fleshing and scraping could become a pair of moccasins or a moosehide vest adorned with beautiful beadwork. The meat will feed a family and perhaps elders in the community who can no longer hunt for traditional food. The bones could become tools, and tufts of hair could be used to create delicate flowers on velvet – an art called moosehair tufting.
As we worked, Bertrand told me about the time she shot a large moose while she was sitting in a canoe. The animal was too big to be safely tied to the back of her canoe and towed home, so it was cut in half. In a moment where traditional hunting meets contemporary conveniences, her son arrived with a four-wheeler (what northerners call an all-terrain vehicle) and drove her harvest home.
After trying my hand at fleshing, I wandered over to see Lamothe. She handed me a scraper, and she and Louisa Moreau explained my new assignment. They pointed to bits of hair still clinging to the hide. My job was to scrape them off using a downward motion. I was gentle at first, worried about damaging the hide. Moreau told me to put more elbow grease into it. No need to worry, the hide was strong, she assured me. “She’s good,” she told Lamothe proudly as I worked away.
Seconds later, the three of us had a bit of a rhythm going as we each worked on sections of the same hide. The two women bantered away, alternating between English and Slavey. I didn’t worry about not being able to join in the conversation. I was just happy that they were willing to share a slice of their traditional skills.
Toward the end of the afternoon, after several hours of scraping, the flesh was finally removed from the hide. Mouse stood over it to inspect the work. Then she turned to me. “If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, you could help me carry it over there and stretch it out to dry.”
I grabbed a side of the slippery hide and we draped it over a frame in the sun to dry under Mother Nature’s warmth. Then we took another hide that was stretched out on the grass and folded it up. I held it down while Mouse tied it. I had gained a fresh appreciation for the amount of work that this traditional practice involves – and an admiration for the strong women who are passing it on to others.
All photos © Héléna Katz. All Rights Reserved.
Tanning a Moosehide – The Fleshing Team
Tanning a Moosehide – Hair Pulling
Tanning a Hide – Final Check