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. Then, 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. Then, 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 life

November 30 Earthquake

Scott Waterman's clock fell and stopped when the earthquake hit at 8:29 am on November 30th.
Scott Waterman’s clock fell and stopped when the earthquake hit at 8:29 am on November 30th. Photo by Scott Waterman

The 7.0 earthquake on November 30 near Anchorage was terrifying. I took the day off, so I was beading when it hit. Our dog, Danny Boy, ran downstairs right away. It kept going and was shaking hard, so walked over to the balcony door. I put my hands on the door to hold myself up and prayed. It kept going and going and I heard the house shaking and things falling.

It finally stopped. I was shaking and started sending messages to check on my husband and girls. I went outside when the aftershock hit. Danny Boy and I just waited outside. I saw the neighbors outside too and asked if they were okay. One neighbor’s dog ran away when the earthquake hit, so I tried helping to them to catch her. I went back in the house and surveyed the damage. It was dark, scary and surreal.

My husband is a driver and was making deliveries. His big work truck moves a lot already, so he didn’t feel the earthquake. However, he saw trees swaying and a street light shaking hard. He also saw a flash of light toward the airport. It must have been when the electricity went out. When he went to make a delivery, he noticed lots of people evacuated from the building. That’s when he figured out something happened. When he got to a transportation company to do a pick up, the people there told him they were glad he was alive. People were scared and panicked when the aftershock hit. That time, he felt his truck moving side to side, which was scary. Then, it took him about two hours (usually 10-minute drive) to get home. Traffic was slow due to more people on the roads and traffic lights being out.

My oldest daughter works at a daycare. They had all of the kids go under tables. There were about 15 kids there. One child was really scared and clinging to her. In her scared voice, the girl asked, “What’s happening?!” And kept crying. Many parents came to pick up the kids right away, then they closed the center. It also took her a while to drive home because of the traffic.

My youngest daughter was at school. After the main earthquake, the alarm started going off. They evacuated the school. There was a lot of damage. Many of the long fluorescent lights were broken and hanging for the ceilings. It was really dusty in the school. Lots of kids were crying.

The streetlights were out and the traffic was slow near East High School after the 7.0 earthquake hit in Anchorage on November 30. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
The streetlights were out and the traffic was slow near East High School after the 7.0 earthquake hit in Anchorage on November 30. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

She said, “The main earthquake was during passing period, so people were still coming into class and people were in the bathrooms. At first, no one was taking it serious until the teacher yelled at us to get under the desks. There were people yelling and screaming in the hallways when the power went out. The power came back on and the alarm turned on. The teacher yelled at us to leave the school. There was dust everywhere in the classroom and the parts of the ceiling fell. I noticed that some of the lights had been hanging from the ceiling and everyone was rushing out of the building. Then, everyone was moved to the commons shortly after waiting outside for a little while. We were only able to go in from two doors and they had all the hallway doors closed. They were trying to shush everyone and had us all sit down. One of the principals was talking into a bullhorn, but no one could really hear. An aftershock happened, and many people stood up. Many people were talking and over the announcements they said the same message every couple of minutes that parents could pick their kids up on the northern lights side.”

Broken bathtub tiles in my home. Thankfully, we did not sustain major damage. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Broken bathtub tiles in my home. Thankfully, we did not sustain major damage. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

The power was out, and my car was in the garage. I had to walk over to pick her up, which thankfully is just down the street. Not having a car worked out though, because it would have taken longer if I drove. The street lights were out, and the traffic was really slow. The line to pick up kids was long and slow.

I was so thankful my family was okay and am grateful for the bonding with my neighbors, friends and family since then. A few things broke when they fell off shelves. Our house has some cracks in the drywall and bathtub tile but is thankfully okay overall. Some friends had much more extensive damage.

My friend, Ayyu Qassataq’s home, received much more damage and was recently declared a total loss. People have asked how they can help, and there are many ways to help with local non-profit agencies who are helping in the earthquake recovery. A Go Fund Me page has been set up to support Ayyu and her family.

Organizer Lena Jacobs, said “Our dear friend Ayyu and her children’s home was severely damaged during the 7.0 earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska on November 30, and was recently declared a total loss – the cost to tear down and rebuild is less than repairs would be. She is continuing to work with her home insurance company, but it will be quite a process – with deductibles of $45k for damage repairs and $9k for living expenses, donated funds will be used to help with immediate and long-term costs associated with moving and rebuilding.”

Ayyu’s friends are hosting a fundraiser dinner, dance and silent auction on Sunday, December 15 – “Ayyu Qassataq + Family Earthquake Relief Fundraiser Dinner/Dance“. They are seeking monetary, food and silent auction donations and volunteers. Check out the Facebook event page to get all of the latest details.

A fundraiser will be held for Ayyu Qassataq and her family on Sunday, December 16.
A fundraiser will be held for Ayyu Qassataq and her family on Sunday, December 16.

I asked my friends to share their reflections of the earthquake. My cousin, Rhonda Pitka, was at the 11th floor of the Hilton Hotel. She decided she’s not staying at anything higher than 3rd floor from now on.

My friend, Freddie R. Olin IV, said “What at first sounded like a steamroller going down Ambassador Drive on ANMC campus turned into a bit of a shaker – I coolly and calmly stooped under my desk, coffee in hand. I was not letting that mofo go. Nope. No can do.” Lol! I saw some memes about Alaskans and their coffee. Check out the social media images and memes are being collected by the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson. My friend, Beka, noticed how many people went home to check on their jarred fish. Alaskans have their priorities. 🙂

“It was beautiful to pray with my children and dog on our front lawn and reflect that Mother Earth was in charge that day. I think we all thanked Her for a week off of school and were spared any larger devastation like so many others have encountered. I was especially thankful our dog didn’t run away and to actually feel the earth move under my feet and witness nearby lamp posts and trees swish around for that brief time. I’m glad we all got to hug and enjoy the moment together prior to going to school and I’m kind of glad I didn’t have my phone nearby, so I could fully appreciate the experience.” – Donna Bach (Yup’ik)

“Angela, this is an event I will never want to repeat.” – Lina Mariscal

“A lady in Wasilla said ‘now that every shelf is cleared, it’s a good time to clean the house’.” – Linda Demientieff (Koyukon Athabascan)

“I was on the 12th floor of Westmark with Tina and Ernest. Bro and I were out on the balcony when it started. I screamed so hard and long that my voice is still not back to 100%. Thank God for my sister, she pulled me in and made me leave the building, running down all 12 flights of stairs. It’s been three days since my last nightmare. I am trying my best to get over it and not let it keep me from going back to Anchorage, but I must say-it will be awhile until then.” – Vanessa Edwards (Koyukon Athabascan)

“Many things broke in our house, and I don’t plan to replace any of it. I cut my hands cleaning up all the glass, from items fallen off of shelves, flying out of cupboards, and picture frames from walls. It was very loud from the noise of everything breaking, the dogs hid under the snow machine trailer for an hour. We heard the transformers behind our house blow, I’ve never heard electricity, but I immediately knew what it was. Then the noise of ambulance sirens. I will remember the sounds from that day above everything else. Although it was scary, it also made me feel really alive, made me reflect on life, and the earth… and all these crazy tectonic plates we live on. I didn’t have my glasses or contacts on that morning. I’m blind as a bat (-7.00), so it makes sense that the sounds are what stood out the most!!” – Jamie Kleas

“Extremely lucky today. I’m so glad I was not at home which really took a hit and I probably would have been screaming: couldn’t get in the front door, actual shelves flew off, glass shattered all over the living room, kitchen, and bath; drawers flew open and are filled with shattered glass from glasses falling out of cabinets. And my babies… books….all over the place! The lion my son brought back from Afghanistan lost his leg. It’s amazing the items unharmed….jar of salmon on top of fridge landed in the living room….on the other side of a bookshelf, intact!…. my pic of Grandma Holden in a Waterford frame flew off the entertainment center….not a scratch on her. A glass ornament I blew at a glass factory in Corning, NY right after 911 took a dive off the top shelf and only the top hook part broke off. Mother and Child that Grandma Marilyn Moody gave me dove off a shelf and landed underneath one….without a scratch on them. All those bookshelves had things all over the top of them, and look at them now. 🙁 going to be a long weekend.” – Marie Jeno

Books fell in Marie Jeno's home during the November 30th earthquake. Photo by Marie Jeno
Books fell in Marie Jeno’s home during the November 30th earthquake. Photo by Marie Jeno

My friend,, said, “Reflecting back: so glad I picked up my Bipsy Boo from school and brought her to her mom yesterday morning. Regret: drove across town (O’Malley to Muldoon) to check on my house and belongings instead of staying put with my sis and niece. My nerves were so shook that I barely did anything except stay still, and stay alert, lol. After putting a backpack and back up in the car together I basically cleaned up a small mess and just sat on my couch with my coat and purse on. So thankful for today. So thankful everyone is OK. So much love to everyone who experienced this earthquake. This is all the more reason why we must always respect our lands and waters. Recycle if you can, use less if you can, consume less if you can, and utilize water and food wisely (no wasting). #PartLandPartWater #AlwaysNative” – Ella Sassuuk Tonuchuk (Yup’ik)

Enaa baasee’ to my friends and family who have shared their stories and to those assisting with the fundraiser for Ayyu Qassataq and her family. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has a list of resources available. Don’t be afraid to seek help as you are coping after the natural disaster. Doing things I love, like beading, has helped me to stay calm since the earthquake. I’m relieved the aftershocks seem to be subsiding.

Wigi Tozzi shared this photo of earthquake damage near Jewel Lake and Raspberry. The land there subsided about four feet. Photo by Wigi Tozzi
Wigi Tozzi shared this photo of earthquake damage near Jewel Lake and Raspberry. The land there subsided about four feet. Photo by Wigi Tozzi
Alaska life

Fishing on the Koyukuk River

Pulling fish out of the net. Photo courtesy of Vivian Henry
Pulling fish out of the net. Photo courtesy of Vivian Henry

My relatives from Huslia, Vivian Henry and Shandara Swatling, shared their stories of net fishing along the Koyukuk River. They have generously agreed to share their stories and a few pictures on the Athabascan Woman Blog.

Shandara Swatling’s story:
Well my first year of fishing on the Koyukuk River has come to an end. It was a pretty slow season for fish, but I was able to learn how to set the net, check the net, knock out fish, stab pike, make geeahga (SP), cut fish, hang fish, smoke fish, and watch fish dry just enough. Thanks Viv and family for teaching us how to do it. Continue reading “Fishing on the Koyukuk River”