'Magical ingredient': Hunters learn to tan hides using animal brains in Winnipeg
Manitoba Buckskin owner passes on traditional First Nations hide tanning knowledge through workshop
The smartest way to produce unique and durable traditional leather products is to treat the hide with smoke and animal brains, a Winnipeg hide-tanning expert says.
"We're basically tanning hides the way they were done thousands of years ago using the same methods and same natural materials," said Carl Froese, owner of Manitoba Buckskin.
Froese held a tanning tutorial at his workshop in Winnipeg Saturday. Each fall, Froese holds courses where he provides an overview of how to tan deer, moose, elk, bison and caribou hides using all-natural, "organic" methods. Due to an increase in demand recently, he decided to hold additional courses this spring.
"[We're] trying to bring the art back in a big way, because [there] are not many people doing it as once were," he said.
"The more I learned, the more different people came at me with their stories and then they also wanted to know the practical, hands-on process," he said. "Knowing something in theory is an entirely different game than knowing something with your hands."
The process goes like this: the skin is first scraped of flesh and stretched. Then, the hide is put through a treatment of animal brains and smoke.
"The brain is the magical ingredient … that makes everything happen," Froese said.
[They've] taught me a lot of things regarding the hides, most important being patience.- Carl Froese
When a game animal is killed by a hunter, rigor mortis sets in, making the hide tight and rigid and hard to work with.
Fluids from the brains of ungulates can be used to help soften the stiff raw animal hides to a point where they are pliable and can be worked into leather products. As opposed to certain chemical tanning methods, the brain and smoke combination leaves the skin structure intact and durable, Froese said.
"In general terms, the brain creates an enzymatic reaction that breaks down the glue inside the hide that holds the hide together, that holds the fibres together," he said, adding the addition of smoke helps the process along.
There is a reason the traditional craft has given way to other methods. It can be "very arduous, very labour-intensive," Froese said, but the time and effort pays off.
"The leather we end up with is very strong, very soft and has qualities that are unique among any kind of leather," he said.
The camp-owner and former hunting guide has a bear hide at home she wants to turn into clothes by first tanning the leather the traditional way.
"I want to do it from start to finish," she said. "I want to know how to skin and flesh every type of animal."
Passing on traditions
"We really like having the younger kids in the shop, because they bring enthusiasm with them and they are the first ones to get their hands on, the first ones to ask questions and they're really into it," he said.
Over the years, Froese said he's learned to respect the method, in part, from his interactions with many "interesting, smart, strong, wise women" practising the art.
"[They've] taught me a lot of things regarding the hides, most important being patience," Froese said.
Not only does the product stand out among other commercial leathers, the brain method is also rooted in a tradition that needs to be passed on or it could disappear, he said.
"The more people who get into it, the better it is for the animals, the better it is for the place where we live. It's a valuable knowledge that needs to be fostered," he said.
"If I can encourage people to use those animals, to respect those animals and to use the practice of the place we live, it's better for everyone."
Froese and Manitoba Buckskin are holding a second brain tanning course next Saturday.
With files from CBC Radio-Canada's Camille Gris Roy