Alaska Native culture

Steps to Tanning a Moose Skin

During a recent event in my hometown of Huslia, I got a chance to chat with my relative Tom Daton Huntington. Daton was his maternal grandfather’s name. They only had Denaakk’e in that time. Like me, he is originally from the Koyukuk River country. Tom was born at camp below the mouth of the Hogatza river and grew up at Huslia and Galena. He lives in Fairbanks and works in the petroleum industry – instrumentation technician of all things automated and process control. His hobbies include cooking, small engine repair, wood working, and hide and fur tanning.

In our conversation, Tom talked about tanning moose skins and shared some photos and videos of the process. It was very interesting learning a little bit about his process and he graciously agreed to share it on the Athabascan Woman blog! He shared his written story below.

Smoke and Brain Tanning a Moose Skin by Tom Daton Huntington

A moose skin dries in Tom Huntington’s back yard. Courtesy photo

Like a lot of things, there are as many ways to tan a moose skin as there are people doing it. There are some things that don’t change though. The hide still needs to be fleshed. The hide still needs to be dehaired. The hide still needs to be scrapped. Those are constants. After that, the ways of tanning differ slightly in the ways that one is taught.

When I discuss tanning a moose skin with people, the first thing I always hear is “lots of hard work”. Yes, there is nothing easy about tanning a moose skin. Historically, it has been mostly our grandmas who have tanned moose skin. My thought is always, “I’m sure glad that our grandmas were such kind and loving souls.” They all had to be so strong to have been able to have tanned a moose skin. But they were smart too. I’m sure working at a pace that they could sustain. And showing patience too. Most of them would do a little at a time, when time allowed. As they were always busy with the lives of their families.

Mostly it was early winter or winter harvested moose that were prepared for tanning. It made sense as it was during that time of year when the moose skin could freeze and be easier scrapped for tanning preparation. The skin after being scraped would then be hung up outside and let the weather and mother nature help prepare it further. Then, during the longer days of spring, the moose skin would be tanned. The braining, soaking, wringing, stretching, working, smoking.

Here’s how I tan moose skins. It includes smoking in preparation for tanning. It is believed that smoking it helps prep the skin to absorb the tanning solution more readily. However, you choose to tan the moose skin, you want to end up with a moose skin that passes the skin sewing test the first time (avoid step 14 😊). My first attempt failed that test.

I added up the actual hours that I spent tanning my moose skin. I came up with 106 hours of work, spread over a period of months. I figure, not too bad, for something that has a value of 2,500 to 3,000 if it were for sale. Our grandmas tanned their moose skin so that their families could have good clothes or to honor the memory of their loved ones during the potlatch. I think I will do the same.

Moose skin tanning by our Native people is becoming done less and less. It is a small but big part of the subsistence harvest that I believe is needlessly becoming history. In the old days of our people, survival depended on the tanning of all skins.

Not if, but when hard times come again, it is something that will help ensure the survival of those who know this subsistence knowledge. I truly hope there is a revival of this important part of who we are as Native people.

  1. Tools for tanning moose skin. Photo by Tom Huntington

    Flesh the hide, either on a beam, pole or while stretched on the frame.

  2. Dehair the hide, either soak for 6 days, then flesh the hair, while it’s over a post, or while its stretched on the frame.
  3. Once the hide is fleshed, dehaired and stretched on the frame, let it dry or freeze depending upon the season.
  4. Scrape the hair side until the epidermis is gone. Scrape the flesh side a lot to thin the hide to an even thickness. Buff it.
  5. Remove the hide and smoke the hair side for a half day.
  6. Brain tanning mix solution. Photo by Tom Huntington

    Apply the brain tanning mix solution (brains, soap, lecithin and oil) to the hair side and let sit for half a day. Then fold it up and store it for 2 days.

  7. Soak the hide in the brain tanning solution (brains, soap, lecithin, oil and water) for 3 days.
  8. The repeat for 2 days, then wring cycle to break the hide. Wring cycle is 4 directions (right, left, and from different sides) hold each wrung position for about 45 minutes, soak for 1 hr., wring it again in 4 directions. After each wringing, attach the holes on one side of the skin to a vertical pole or peg and pull on the remaining holes one at a time all the way around. This stretches the skin.
  9. Lightly wring the hide. Then, stretch it on the frame again, let it dry, scrape it and buff both sides.
  10. Smoke the hide for about half a day on each side.
  11. Soak the hide in a washing/tanning solution (downy, soap, lecithin, oil and water) for 2 days.
  12. The repeat for 2 days, then work cycle to tan the skin. Work the hide over a horizontal pole on both sides and different directions. Then, stretch the skin by hand by hooking the holes along one side of the skin on a vertical pole or peg and pulling the skin (total of 4 pulls), soak for 1 hour. Repeat 3 more times, soak it each night.
  13. Wring it lightly, stretch it on the frame, work it until its dry, and then cut it off the frame.
  14. Work and inspect the skin over the horizontal pole for quality. Repeat part of step 12 if necessary.
  15. Sew the hide into a bag for the final smoke on the hair side for color and waterproofing
Clinton and Malachi twist the moose skin. Photo by Tom Huntington

Note: To stretch the hide onto the stretching frame, cut holes along the edge every 6 inches. Then, use rope to lace it onto the frame. Either let it dry or freeze, depending upon the season. I prefer to freeze it as it seems to be easier to shave it like ice instead of scraping it while it’s dry.

Malachi scrapes a moose skin. Photo by Tom Huntington

**

Enaa baasee’ Tom for sharing your technique of tanning moose skins!

Alaska Native culture

Lessons from Beading 100 Pairs of Moccasins

I did it. Since late 2016, I beaded 100 pairs of hard bottom slippers/moccasins. It has been a great learning experience, healing, connection to culture, and more. I’ve written about it a few times, but wanted to mark this occasion with a few lessons I’ve learned along the way and some interesting places it has led me to.

Here’s an album where I’ve shared some of my beadwork on the Athabascan Woman Blog Facebook page.

It’s rewarding to work on beadwork, giving them to people and to teach people how to bead/sew. I love giving the slippers and teaching others. It almost feels better giving rather than receiving. I’m sharing a gift learned from my grandma, mom and aunties.

Over the past few months, people have mentioned how they learned a certain beading or sewing technique by watching my beading tutorial videos (playlist below). A lot of people may not have had an opportunity to learn when they were younger, or they are just getting interested in learning. It is great to be a resource to people.

Seattle Seahawks is the most wanted beaded design. I’ve made 12 pairs of moccasins. This is actually the design of the 100th pair!

Moccasins are the common name, but from where I’m from we call them slippers.

I appreciate a challenge of a new design requested, but I also love having free artistic reign on a design.

I’ve taught about five beading classes. It feels so good to teach someone learning for the first time. One Elder said she was scolded as a teenager by her mom when beading. As a result, she stopped beading. It touched my heart to share with her and give her the boost she needed to try again.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I keep going and keep learning. I’ve learned a lot along the way, and I’m still learning. I appreciate being able to call upon my mom, Eleanor, or my aunt, Dorothy, with any questions. My aunt Dorothy gives advice, like using a glover size 10 needle for sewing on hide. That makes a big difference! I wish I used those from the beginning. The more I learn, the more I realize what I don’t know. I look forward to the continued learning.

Beading is healing. It helps to do something with my hands if I’m not feeling well. It helps me to be grounded and centered. Everything else in my life may be chaotic, but I find peace and quiet in when I’m beading. I also feel connected to my culture and family.

Colors make a difference. I’m thankful for my daughter, Ermelina, for giving me advice on colors on most of my slippers. She has an eye for color, and that helps to make them stand out. Here’s a pair of slippers with blue colors, outlined by black and glow in the dark beads (at right).

Ergonomics is key. Using pliers helps save my wrist, fingers and hands from being poked or repetition injuries. Working Hands hand cream repairs my dry and cracked fingers.

Beading hacks have helped carve down my beading and sewing time. On average, it takes about 6-10 hours for each pair of slippers. I must have spent about 800 hours beading and sewing over the past three years.

One of my favorite places to bead is near the Koyukuk River. I also enjoy beading with family and friends.

I’ve started collecting beads (hoarding)! LOL!

When I’m beading, I watch movies and TV shows, listen to audio books, listen to music playlists on my phone and on YouTube. I also watch YouTube and Facebook videos. I contemplate the day and think about life.

I enjoy beading humor, and have collected and reshared many memes. 🙂

I enjoy and appreciate the indigenous beading community. I am thankful to host @IndigenousBeads on Twitter occasionally. It’s great to share techniques, talk shop and connect with others. They are also a wealth of information.

I am grateful to family and friends who support my beading addiction in one way or another. I give mad props to the pro beaders who are skilled master artists. There are too many amazing artists to name, but I love following and supporting other indigenous beaders! I also want to give a shout out to the artists who use all traditional materials when making slippers.

Stories:

  • “When Gonzalez beads, she feels connection to her grandmother, who taught her how to bead. It was a gift that her grandmother gave her — which inspires Gonzalez to pay it forward. She calls it ‘beading bliss’.” Tune into a story by CBC Radio’s Unreserved show.
  • “I love the healing nature of beading. It connects me to my family, ancestors and culture.” Read Kindred Post’s Artist of the Week feature.
  • Making Beaded Slippers on the Athabascan Woman Blog.
  • How to Bead Moose Skin Slippers Tops on the Athabascan Woman Blog.
  • I share a lot of my process and beadwork on Instagram: @ayatlin. I also share some of my other kinds of beadwork.

Enaa baasee’ for reading about my beading journey! I would like to do a magnet giveaway drawing for two lucky people. The 4”x5.5” magnet features a photo of “Beadwork Supplies to Get Started”. Follow the instructions below for a chance to win it.

  1. Subscribe to the Athabascan Woman Blog email. There’s place to subscribe with your email address on this page, and you will receive an email when there’s a new post. If you’re already subscribed, comment to let me know.
  2. Comment on this page – What would you add to this supply list? Or what advice do you have for new beaders?

Two winners will be drawn randomly on Saturday, December 21, 2019 at 4 pm AKST.

Enaa baasee’ for following the Athabascan Woman Blog. Good luck!

Alaska Native culture

Tell Your Story

Koyukuk River north of Huslia. Photo by Angela Łot’oydaatlno Gonzalez

Since I’ve had the Athabascan Woman Blog, people have asked me how to start a blog. I want to share some tips about how to get started and other ways to share your story.

Expressing yourself and publishing your creative work has never been easier, thanks to the blog. Blogging can be an avenue for advocacy to speak out on important issues in your community. Some sample blogging platforms include Wordress, Blogger, Tumblr and Weebly. Most are user friendly.

I share my stories, interviews with Indigenous people, photography, ‘how to’ bead videos and tips, and more. But I’ve seen blogs dedicated to photography, vlogging and podcasting. Find out the medium that interests you and try it. Ask people for advice.

Benefits of Blogging

  • Platform for your voice
  • Networking and interacting with a wider audience
  • Build a reputation
  • Become a better writer (practice, practice, practice)
  • An opening for opportunities, like freelancing

Recipe for a Great Blog Post

    Basics – Who, What, When, Where, Why and How
    Good content is key – What is the juicy bit of what you’re sharing?Photos and other visual content boost your post
    Don’t hide important stuff at the bottom
    First paragraph is important to hook people
    Write good captions
    Keyword tags
    Headline – What will hook your readers?
    Length – What is the right length for your type of blog & audience?
    Proofread the updates for grammar and clarity? I am grateful for my sister, Tanya Yatlin, for being the editor of the Athabascan Woman Blog. Ask your family and friends to help.
    Is it shareable? Make it easy for people to click on a Facebook or Twitter icon to share your posts.

How Often Should I post?

  • What works for your schedule? I do my blog on nights and weekends, and as a result don’t have as much time to post more than once a month.
  • What does your audience expect?
  • Brainstorm topics and be open for current events. Get ideas from friends & family. What are some topics, perspectives or opinions important to you? Put a star on what’s most important to you to help prioritize.
  • Drafting/revision/dealing with comments (time management/keeping on schedule)
  • Editorial calendar for consistency and planning – calendar, Google spreadsheets, Post-its

Networking tips

  • Introduce yourself to others and get to know others – connect to LinkedIn profile
  • Bloggers/People – read, comment and discuss across platforms
  • Identify champions and get to know them
  • Extend the life of your best blog posts – share it with people, bloggers and media. Ask if they are willing to republish, like Tea & Bannock. Submit your writing to calls for writing opportunities, like Yellow Medicine Review.
  • Making requests and asking questions

Resources and Blog Examples

Here are some of my tips for ways to tell your story:

The most important thing to remember is that there is no perfect time to start a blog or book, etc. You just have to do it and learn along the way. Give yourself grace and allow yourself to make mistakes. Trust that people are hungry to hear your story. We especially need more stories and perspectives from Indigenous people to be told.

The true Yukon gold – salmon strips made by Barney Attla and Ragine Pilot. I enjoyed this treat while boating along Dulbi Slough south of Huslia off the Koyukuk River. Photo by Angela Łot’oydaatlno Gonzalez
Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Athabascan Medical Laboratory Scientist

Starr Zottola

My cousin, Starr Zottola (Koyukon Athabascan), is a medical laboratory scientist who  analyzes blood and other bodily fluids to aid in the diagnosis of medical conditions. I asked her to share about her profession and what it took to get there. Starr’s parents are Gary Attla and Maureen Mayo. Enaa baasee’, Starr, for sharing on the Athabascan Woman Blog!

 

Starr’s Story:

I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science degree majoring in Medical Laboratory Science. I analyze blood and body fluids to aid in the diagnosis of medical conditions. Anytime a person goes to the doctor and gets their blood drawn or has body fluid collected, it is sent to a laboratory to be tested. I am the person who analyzes it and provides information to the doctor to help diagnose what might be causing a patient illness.

 

I graduated from UAA in 2017 and the process was incredibly difficult. I am married with three children. We moved from Fairbanks to Anchorage in 2013, so it was a sacrifice for all of us. Attending university took time away from my family and I spent a lot of nights awake studying. Learning a technical subject was intense and there were times of self-doubt and wanting to quit.


Quitting would have been easy, but I’m glad I didn’t. I was determined to finish, because I was ready for the next part of my life to start. I learned a lot in school, but I also learned a lot about myself from working in the field. I learned self-confidence and self-acceptance, which wasn’t easy. What I have learned about self-confidence is that without it I do not trust myself or my decisions and it causes self-doubt, which causes confusion and errors. In my profession, there is no room for mistakes.
There comes a time when I have to trust myself and my education and follow what I feel is right.


Unfortunately, mistakes do happen, because I’m a human and by nature mistakes will be made. That is where I learn self-acceptance, I have to accept the mistakes that I make and learn from them. It easy to be hard on myself for making an error and replaying it in my mind. But it is not good for a person to be that way to themselves. It is better for the soul to be accepting; being flawed is being human. I am not perfect and cannot hold myself to those standards or I will always let myself down. The most I can do is think about a better way to navigate the situation if it arises again.

My advice for anybody who has a goal is to be fierce and defend it. There will be non-believers, people who think they know more about you and your situation and do not think you can achieve your aim. Do not surround yourself with those people. Find support in people who believe in you. There will be stumbling and falling; reaching a goal is not easy. Just get up, brush yourself off and walk with your back straight and head held high. Don’t give up. I couldn’t give up. The thought of going through life and not finishing was too much too much of a burden. For anyone who has a goal, be brave and follow it and have faith in your intuition. Forget self-doubt, be passionate about what you’re learning and be ready to spend a lot of time on it.

 

I’m an indigenous woman of science and what I love about my profession is that I am able to help my community through healing. I work at Alaska Native Medical Center and I have probably released hundreds of medical results that have come to the lab. I feel good about that, but what is also important is that I represent the Native community in my profession. I want to be a role model for other Native people in the sciences.

Starr Zottola

I think science is awesome, because it supports ideas and helps people understand how things work. 


When I was a kid, in fish camp my Uncle Randy Mayo told me that Natives would suck on willow branches for pain relief. I took a chemistry class at UAF and learned that willows and aspirin have the same chemical compound. I thought that was the coolest thing and to this day I get excited about that story.
I’ve also learned that science can explain a lot, but so can Elders. Who can argue with thousands of years of knowledge that is inherited through storytelling. History is important.


I love science, but I have recently gotten into photography. I am a beginner and I am having so much fun learning. I think I am driving my family crazy with all the pictures, but I do not care. I cannot wait until I am good at it. Someone told me the first year I will be taking crappy picture, so I am being patient with myself.



What an inspirational story of an Athascan woman in science. I’m proud of my cousin. Baasee’ Starr!

Alaska life, Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Harvesting Old Man’s Beard with Pat Frank

Pat Frank (Deg Hit’an Athabascan). Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I got a chance to tag along with Pat Frank (Deg Hit’an Athabascan) from Holy Cross and Anchorage as he harvested Old Man’s Beard for the first time. People in Alaska have harvested from the lands and waters for thousands of years. More and more people are relearning harvesting plants for medicinal purposes.

Pat has been learning about traditional plants medicines and healing for quite a few years. I was fortunate to spend an afternoon with him, his wife, Linda, and a couple family friends north of Anchorage on the Park’s Highway. He was harvesting usnea, also known as Old Man’s Beard. It’s a lichen that grows on trees and shrubs. We saw them growing on spruce trees and some other trees. It really looks like an old man’s beard.

Pat believes it has similar medicinal properties to spruce pitch. He makes spruce pitch salve and uses it to heal cuts on himself and it has even helped with cuts on dogs. He learned about spruce pitch medicine from friends in Fort Yukon.

Pat shared stories and advice about how to approach harvesting with respect. Every area has gatekeepers and spirit keepers of the land. Before he goes into the land he always asks permission, and also asks the animals to enter their domain. When he harvests any plants, he always offers something like rock sage as a form of respect to the land. When he offers it, he says, “This is for the healing for our people. Thank you for giving up your medicine for our people.”

What Pat learned from his mentor is that you also have to have the right positive frame of mind when you are harvesting the plant, while you’re preparing it, even when you’re using it. He even prays the day before to make sure it’s going to be a good experience.
According to Pat, sometimes the plants speak to you or call to you. When you are called to a plant, he recommends doing research to learn more it. If you can’t find it in a book or online, then reach out to Elders to get the oral history. When exploring new plants, he quiets his mind and asks, “Can you show me the best medicine that’s going to heal my body?” It’s like saying a prayer.
“If you have more respect for the plants and animals they’ll in turn be more abundant to you.” – Pat Frank (Deg Hit’an Athabascan)
It was great to learn a little bit about how to approach harvesting. I enjoy learning more from Elders, because they have so much to share and teach. Elders always have great advice with multiple meanings. I learned that we should be careful, have good intentions, learn as much as you can before harvesting, and only take what you need – which is great advice that can be applied to many other things in life.
As he was researching Old Man’s Beard, he saw a video of a guy demonstrating how it really looks like a beard. We had a good laugh as he demonstrated it. Gotta love our Elders sense of humor! We joked about him being Santa Claus.
Pat Frank having fun showing his Old Man’s Beard. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Enaa baasee’ to Pat Frank for sharing his wisdom and teachings about harvesting plants from the land!