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!

Beading on smoked moose hide. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Alaska Native culture

Smell of Smoked Moose Hide

Eleanor Yatlin scrapes moose hair off a moose hide. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
My mother, Eleanor Yatlin, scrapes moose hair off a moose hide. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

My aunt Rosie asked me to bead some glove and slipper tops for a potlatch. As I’m beading some glove tops, and I keep getting a whiff of smoked moose hide. The balcony door is open. It’s a crisp and fresh morning. The birds are singing. I can almost imagine being at fish camp, smelling wood smoke from our camp fire and beading while taking a break from chores.

Smoked moose hide is ideal for doing beadwork on because it doesn’t unravel and holds its form. My ancestors and family have been using it for clothing for centuries. It was used for survival along with other hides and furs. Our people were resourceful and didn’t waste.

Nowadays, we use them for mittens, vests, dresses, jewelry, slippers, picture frames and much more. If you’ve followed me, you know I love beading slippers. I bead on smoked moose hide slipper tops.

Resource: The Alaska Department of Fish & Game shared an article on Turning a Moose Hide Into Buckskin Brain-Tanning Alaska Big-Game Animal Skins at Home

People mostly buy them from places where they are commercially tanned. However, some people are starting to relearn how to process and tan them. It is a lot of work and you have to scrape it a lot. My late grandmothers used to work on them with help of family. Here my great aunt, Rose Ambrose, shares a short story on how people used to process smoked moose hide.

Youth work on cleaning a moose hide at the 2017 First Alaskans Institute Elders & Youth Conference. Melissa Shaginoff hosted this workshop. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Youth work on cleaning a moose hide at the 2017 First Alaskans Institute Elders & Youth Conference. Melissa Shaginoff hosted this workshop. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Artist Melissa Shaginoff (Athabascan/Paiute) has been demonstrating and teaching people how to tan moose hide. Check out Melissa’s website or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

I appreciate the hard work that goes into making smoked moose hide. If you understand the process and hundreds of hours that go into tanning moose hide, you will also understand the value of being able to use it but also the expense.

When preparing for Athabascan traditional memorial potlatches, families usually save up to buy a moose skin and distribute parts of it at the giveaway. The giveaway is a way for families to thank people who have helped them through the grieving process and who are special to the lost loved one. It is a precious gift to receive.

My mother, Eleanor Yatlin, holds a smoked moose hide at a potlatch. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
My mother, Eleanor Yatlin, holds a smoked moose hide at a potlatch. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
My relatives are cutting a moose hide at a potlatch during the giveaway. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
My relatives are cutting a moose hide at a potlatch during the giveaway. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

My friend, Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman, has a smoked moose hide vest. He wore it to the Smokehouse Gala and there was one woman who was sniffing his shoulder. He said, people do that all the time. I love the smoked smell. It brings back many great memories.

I attended the First Alaskan Institute's Smokehouse Gala in 2015. L-R: Me, Karla Booth, Tiffany Flowers and Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
I attended the First Alaskan Institute’s Smokehouse Gala in 2015. L-R: Me, Karla Gatgyedm Hana’ax Booth, Tiffany Flowers and Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman. Photo by Angela Gonzalez