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Horse Lake students learn how to tan hides traditionally

Lisa Pugh said this is the latest in a long list of hands-on projects she has done with her classes over the years.

Over the last few weeks members of Horse Lake Elementary School's Grade 7 class have been learning how to brain-tan deer hides. 

Lisa Pugh, Horse Lake's Grade 7 teacher, said this is the latest in a long list of hands-on projects she has done with her class. Pugh chose the traditional tanning project because the Knowing Networks and Inquiry in Indigenous Education gave them a grant to purchase eight deer hides and one moose hide to turn into rawhide and experiment with brain tanning. She also combined it with their math lessons, having her students figure out how much brain matter it would take to cover a particular hide based on its surface area. 

"It was a lot of work. Taking the hair off and getting down to the grain we used different tools, both traditional and non-traditional. We had ulus, different types of scrapers and it took us two weeks longer than we thought it would take," Pugh recalled. "We had hair flying everywhere and we saved it for fly tying."

Many of the students who took part in the project, including Celeste Milwain, Seeger Hollett and Kolby Robin, had prior experience working with animal hides from either hunting or farm work. However, this was their first time making leather. 

"This was my first time doing a deer but my parents and I do pigs every year. So I've seen skinning before so I kind of already knew what to do at the beginning during the fleshing part," Milwain remarked. "It's been a really enjoyable process and I'd love to do it again." 

To start off Milwain said they soaked the hides, supplied by local hunters, in a lime solution made from crushed seashells to help soften and break them down. Following the soak they began to deflesh the hides using a series of knives including ulus. 

Robins remarked he preferred using the ulus and paint scrapers rather than the dollar store knives as they were a little too "easy to break." He added the ulus were great for scraping the meat and flesh off the hides while the paint scrapers worked really well at getting the hair off the hides. 

Milwain said they did four hides first for practice so that if students accidentally made a hole it wasn't a big deal. For the final five hides, however, they did their best to scrape and tan them perfectly. She noted that scraping the hair off was one of the hardest parts of the project especially when they got down to the silver hair. 

To soften the hides Pugh and her class stretched the hides over steel cables, had kids sit in them and even used them to throw smaller students up in the air. Both Milwain and Robins enjoyed this part of the process, with Robins noting "those hides are a lot tougher than you would think when you look at them." 

"We had a group of people around the edges and they would put one lighter person on and they would throw them up a couple of inches in the air," Milwain chuckled. 

Joining Pugh's students for one day were Grade 6 and 7 students from Eliza Archie Memorial School and Tsq̓éscen̓ First Nation member Adrian Archie. Pugh said she also consulted with elder Maddie Boyce before the project and got advice from indigenous and non-indigenous community members on how to proceed. 

Robins and Hollett both agreed it was fun to have Archie and the students from Eliza Archie join them for a day. While there wasn't quite enough hide for everyone, they were still able to socialize and get some traditional insight into the process. 

"It was cool to learn how to tan and see what kind of stuff you use," Hollett said. "We tried a bunch of different techniques like the ulus and paint scrapers but then also a pressure washer." 

Pugh said her students had fun working with their hands, especially at the beginning, though they began running out of steam near the end. 

"By the third week, we were getting tired. They enjoyed it but I think they really got an idea of what hard work is towards the end," Pugh explained. "Kids need to use their hands and work with real materials in order to truly internalize and learn." 

The actual tanning of the rawhides themselves was something of a mixed bag. Milwain explained that they used a mixture of rendered fat and egg yolks to mimic brains but that solution didn't quite cure the hides properly. 

Pugh said they didn't use brains due to a concern about chronic wasting disease from ungulates in the South Cariboo. Eggs have similar properties to brains and while it wasn't fully successful she remarked it was still a learning experience. 

"I'm probably going to re-soak and use a commercial tanner on them. If I could do it all over again I would just use brains," Pugh remarked. "The egg yolks just weren't strong enough to brain tan." 

Pugh said that her class will be using the rawhide they've produced to make lacing and will be using the remainder to create traditional hand drums to ensure nothing goes to waste. Despite the mixed outcome, her students said they all enjoyed the project and would like to do it again one day, given the chance. 

"I really enjoyed the project. I think it was really cool to see where leather comes from," Milwain said. 

Patrick Davies

About the Author: Patrick Davies

An avid lover of theatre, media, and the arts in all its forms, I've enjoyed building my professional reputation in 100 Mile House.
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