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 culture

Traditional Ways of Life

I shared a picture of a young Gwich’in woman, Quannah Potts, on the Athabascan Woman Blog Facebook page. Quannah Potts says, “This year, I was blessed with shooting my first caribou and our future generations should have the same privilege of being able to hunt and live their ways of life.”

Someone said, “Although using rifles and snowmobiles, ATVs and the like is hardly ‘traditional’…..”

I responded by thanking him for his comment… It brings to light one of the reason I write and share on my blog. The act of spending time on the land and providing for her family is traditional. The tradition of giving parts of the caribou from first catches to Elders or other families is traditional. Alaska Native would not have survived 10,000+ years if we were not adaptable. We moved around on the land with the seasons and the availability of plants, animals, currents, cycles and conditions. We were not static people living in one certain way. I would not expect people to be driving around by horse and buggy from a century+ ago. The only people who can critique Quannah on whether or not she is traditional is her mother, grandparents and community Elders.

I’ve had conversations about what is traditional and contemporary. I say living our ways of life is traditional whether or not we use contemporary tools.

When we give our first catch to Elders or other family members despite shooting with a rifle – that’s traditional.

When we sometimes sing and dance despite it being with a fiddle – that’s traditional.

When we celebrate a memorial potlatch despite it being in a school gym vs. a community hall – that’s traditional.

When we pick berries despite using an ATV or boat – that’s traditional.

When my family fishes despite using a commercial fish net vs. a fish trap – that’s traditional.

When I bead slipper tops on smoked moose skin despite being on hard bottom moccasins – that’s traditional.

When I use beads in my beadwork introduced in the past couple of centuries despite it not being quills – that’s traditional.

When I learn and share the Denaakk’e language despite being on a paper book, by video or audio recording – that’s traditional.

When I share stories despite it being on a blog vs. oratory – that’s traditional.

What would you add? We need to continue sharing our perspectives, stories, culture, language and ways of life. Enaa baasee’.

Alaska Native culture

Molly of Denali Has Arrived

Angela Gonzalez at a Molly of Denali premiere party. Photo by Lena Jacobs

It’s finally here! A groundbreaking PBS Kids cartoon, Molly of Denali, premiered across the country on July 15. I have been looking forward to the show since I heard about it a couple years ago. Producers, animators, storytellers and funders teamed up with Alaska Native writers and cultural advisors to make Molly come to life.

With the support of her family and friends, Vera Starbard hosted a Molly of Denali Premiere Party in Anchorage. It was great to hear some insights on episodes she and others wrote. From what I’ve heard from friends and colleagues who have worked on the show, much thought has gone into every single detail of the show. It was great to hear kids and adults singing along to the catchy theme song! Vera asked trivia questions for adults and children. It was a fun way to celebrate the huge accomplishment of the show’s debut.

Vera Starbard shares trivia about Molly of Denali at a premiere party she hosted. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

At a time when representation matters more than ever, it was great to hear words in the three cultures represented by Molly (Dena’ina Athabascan/Gwich’in/Koyukon Athabascan) in languages of Dena’ina, Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa and Denaakk’e. With repetition, kids across the nation will learn words in these Alaska Native languages. I also love listening to Molly’s voice, because I kept thinking she sounds like my relatives. I also loved seeing the mannerisms and sayings by the characters in the show, like when Aunt Midge said ‘real good’ just our Elders.

It is awesome people of color are represented. One of the reasons I do the Athabascan Woman Blog is to change the narrative by sharing stories and perspectives of Athabascan and Alaska Native people. The writers, creators and producers of Molly of Denali are truly changing the narrative at the very beginning by reaching kids. If my friends and relatives are any indication, the show is reaching kids, adults and Elders. I love all of the details, like multiple family pictures on the walls and the beadwork on the characters’ clothing.

Keenan watches Molly of Denali. Photo by Rona Vent

“My kids just watched the blueberry episode. My son Skyler said, ‘It’s cool they made a show about Natives.’ My daughter Skarlett and her friend Ava were singing along with the theme song. All three of them went to pick blueberries down the road from my house. They went 3X today. Also my son, Keenan, who’s 3 years old said he likes Molly and asked to watch Molly again. Thank goodness I recorded the series, so he can re-watch it.”Rona Vent (Koyukon Athabascan) of Huslia and Fairbanks

“My son is so excited and has been counting the days down daily. He’s so excited that it’s about Alaska.”Dena Sam (Iñupiaq/Koyukon Athabascan) of Alatna and Fairbanks

Episodes are packed with educational lessons reaching the hearts and minds of people. I watched a couple short episodes and it touched me to the core. I could probably go on all day about the things I love about every aspect of the show, but I want to share perspectives from my friends and relatives. Molly also vlogs during her show – super cute!

“Molly of Denali aired today on PBS!!!! A huge shout of thanks and appreciation to those of you who made this possible. Princess, you rock!!! Thanks for bringing this to AK and assembling the team you did.”Sonta Hamilton Roach (Deg Hit’an Athabascan) of Shageluk

April Henry of Fairbanks shared:
“A few months ago, we saw that Peter Pan had been brought out of the Disney vault. We popped some popcorn and bought it and sat down with our kids, eager to share with them a cartoon from our childhood. The movie had barely begun when John Darling reminded the other children, ‘Indians are cunning, but not intelligent.’

Our three-year-old Kai sat between us, eyes glued to the screen. My heart sank. My husband and I looked at each other and steadied ourselves for the tears we knew would erupt when we shut it off. But we knew that much bigger than the tears shed over a cartoon promised and taken away is the pain Indigenous children grow up with and carry into adulthood when they internalize the racism so prominent in depictions of Indigenous people in media. Kai saw children who fly, and a land where kids stay young forever, and fairy dust, and a very clear message – you are not intelligent. You are less than.

So when Kai first saw the preview for Molly of Denali, he said, ‘Hey! I think I know her. I think I’m in there!’ And he was really very excited. But I was moved to tears with gratitude. As an activist in these trying times, the victories are few and far between. But progress of this kind means so much.

In the opening scenes…they were going to a tribal hall, and told us that the grandpa had a necklace ‘like dad’s’. But shortly after that, he simply fell into this quintessential American experience that has been a staple to the majority and fully inaccessible to indigenous children until now – he watched a cartoon he could relate to.” 

An episode called, Grandpa’s Drum, tackles our boarding school story. I watched it three times already and cried each time. It’s a story of triumph, speaks to honoring our cultures and traditions, and a healing song is shared. When little is taught about boarding school history in the US, I’m glad it touches on the story in a positive way. I loved the song! When you watch the episodes, they also weave in real people and stories sharing singing, dancing, life in Alaska and making aqutaq, and more. Check out the episode below.

After seeing the amazing response to Grandpa’s Drum, Producer Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Neets’aii Gwich’in) shared a little bit more about working with Elder Reverend Luke Titus of Minto. “We came to Luke for his approval – that’s when we took this photo together. Dewey also teaches often in the Denaakk’e immersion classroom so that’s why he’s dressed in uniform 😊. Love to our language warriors! What goodness we are capable of when we work together & hold each other up. All this guided by our Ancestors,” says Princess Daazhraii Johnson.

“Oh man how amazing it is to see them identify with a cartoon show!!! They knew the grandpa song thanks to teacher Dewey. This is huge. They love it! So thankful this is now available to them.” – Kimberly Nicholas (Koyukon Athabascan) of Kaltag and Fairbanks

“We just watched two episodes, and tears fell. Our babies will never know a time without representation of their beautiful culture shown so lovingly on TV. So much love to our amazing fam working so hard for years to make this day a reality: Princess Daazhraii Johnson, Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman, Vera Starbard, Du Aaní Kawdinook Xh’unei, Rochelle Adams and everyone else involved. Quyanaqpak from this thankful mama and future ancestor.

I wish everyone would watch this, especially our elders and parents/aunties/uncles generation. I watched Grandpa’s Drum twice today and cried both times. Healing is happening through our storytelling in real time ❤ I love #MollyofDenali.” – Ayyu Qassataq (Iñupiaq) of Uŋalaqłiq/Unalakleet and Anchorage

I’m impressed with the excellent writing, production, animation, storytelling, education, singing, partnerships, actors, and so much more! Kudus to Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Neets’aii Gwich’in) and to all of the contributors to this show. I’m a #MollyofDenali fan. Enaa baasee’, Mahsi’ choo and Chin’an for this healthy dose of truth, racial healing and transformation.

The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center has an exhibit dedicated to Molly of Denali. Check it out if you have a chance!

There is a Molly of Denali exhibit at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. This image depicts the retelling of the truer history. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
There is a Molly of Denali exhibit at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Follow Molly of Denali on Facebook, Twitter, podcast, YouTube and online!