Moose hide tanners learn art from elders and each other in Banff residency

Students are tanning moose hides this month in the mountain town of Banff, Alta., as part of a new program launched to help the traditional Indigenous practice grow and thrive.

New program aims to grow traditional Indigenous practice

Residency participants came from many Indigenous nations to practise hide tanning and share their knowledge with others. The residency is one of several the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity is offering in Indigenous arts. (Nelly Alberola/Radio-Canada)

Students are tanning moose hides this month in the mountain town of Banff, Alta., as part of a new program launched to help the traditional Indigenous practice grow.

Sarah Jean Dickie, a master's of business administration student from northern B.C., said she knew she wanted to develop her tanning skills after hunting a moose with her cousin. She turned to her grandmother to tan the hide.

"I just want to be a part of it, from start to finish," Dickie said.

Learning how to do that is difficult. Traditional hide tanning is seeing a resurgence, but practitioners sometimes have few opportunities to learn from master tanners or share knowledge with others.

As part of a series of residencies to help Indigenous arts thrive, the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity launched its urban moose hide tanning residency on Aug. 28. It runs until Sept. 12 with a dozen students from across Canada and the United States.

Sarah Jean Dickie is pursuing her master's of business administration but for the next few days she will be practising hide tanning. (Nelly Alberola/Radio-Canada)

The participants all have tanning experience and will learn from each other and several faculty members, including elders considered master tanners.

The program focuses on teaching two methods of tanning, one with a frame and the other with a knife. There are others, as tanning varies community to community, which are explored as students share their experiences.

"It's amazing," Dickie said. "There's so many different teachings here."

Moose hide tanning faculty members have set up a camp in Banff, Alta. (Nelly Alberola/Radio-Canada)

Tanning a hide is very physically demanding, said faculty member Mandee McDonald, who came to teach at the course from Yellowknife.

The students work on four moose and two deer hides, hunted in the north for the residency. Using handmade tools, they learn, in one method, to scrape and flesh the hides before removing the hair, then drying the hides and covering them in a paste made from the moose's brain, soap and water. The hides are then smoked for a few days.

Sarah Jean Dickie says she's learning she has more to learn about tanning hides. (Nelly Alberola/Radio-Canada)

"When you're working on a hide, you're doing it out of respect and reverence for the land and the animals. Then there isn't really an issue with smells or flesh or hair or bugs or anything like that," McDonald said. "The hide is very heavy, scraping the hide is really repetitive, and it requires a lot of strength and endurance and skill."

Years of practice to come, student says

Student Alyssa Gagnon brought her two children, aged eight months and five years, to the Banff Centre as she's learning to tan moose hide, a tradition she hopes her children will one day continue.

Alyssa Gagnon says she hopes to pass on what she learns to her children, and also share her new skill with her mother in Ontario. (Nelly Alberola/Radio-Canada)

As a woman from Taykwa Tagamou First Nation in northern Ontario, her family historically tanned moose hide but the practice was lost to more recent generations, including to her mother and grandmother. Her grandfather was a residential school survivor, so many ways of living were lost in her family, she said.

"My grandmother is the only fluent speaker in Cree, so I think it's important that I bring these things back to my community and I practise this stuff with my children to keep the traditions going," Gagnon said.

Alyssa Gagnon collected rotten spruce, which is perfect for smoking hides. (Nelly Alberola/Radio-Canada)

Now living in Toronto, where she's studying midwifery, she said it's hard to practise. In Banff, she can walk in the woods to collect rotten spruce for smoking.

An elder taught her to thin hide with a knife. It was tricky to get the right angle with the knife and avoid making a hole in the hide, she said.

"It's a really challenging practice, and I'm hoping that when I go home, I can reproduce the same things," Gagnon said. "But it's going to take years to really get good at it."

Tania Larsson is an instructor at the residency in Banff, Alta. She demonstrated how to smoke hides. (Nelly Alberola/Radio-Canada)

Faculty members are trying to be as true to tradition as possible, instructor Tania Larsson said, but some have been altered as the group is working within Banff Centre and various policies that come in a town and national park.

"There's lots of things to think about and lots of hoops to jump through to be able to hold a hide tanning camp in an urban centre," Larsson said.

For example, the fires can't be left overnight and require a permit to be lit, Dickie said. That's a bit different from smoking in your own rural backyard.

"You see all the work that goes into it. I don't think people really value or understand how much," she said.

Tanners from Dene Nahjo, a leadership collective, and Fort Good Hope in the Northwest Territories are instructing, along with elders from nearby Stoney Nakoda. Participants come from nations including Dene, Cree, Mi'kmaq, Stoney Nakoda, Tlingit and Anishinaabe.

The new year-round Indigenous Arts program is launching on Monday with a public showcase of the hide tanning residency's work, as well as a panel discussion.

With files from Radio-Canada's Nelly Alberola, Elizabeth Withey and the Calgary Eyeopener.


Rachel Ward


Rachel Ward is a journalist with The Fifth Estate. You can reach her with questions or story ideas at