Instructors teach tanning skills, pass on Tłı̨chǫ culture to children in Behchokǫ̀, N.W.T.

Behind the Chief Jimmy Bruneau School in Behchokǫ̀ is the Elder's cabin where instructors teach traditional tanning skills to children.

Children learn how to dehair, scrape and prepare hides for babiche

Students and instructors work on caribou hides, cutting off the fur and then scraping them. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

In the elder's cabin behind Chief Jimmy Bruneau School in Behchokǫ̀, 11-year-old Chase Sanguez is cutting the fur off a caribou hide while his friend, Grant Lafferty uses a caribou bone to flesh another hide.

Both boys are part of a group of students learning traditional tanning skills from their instructor, Doreen Apples.

Chase Sanguez, 11, cuts the hair off a caribou hide, the first step in making the hide available to make clothes, blankets, drums and many other things. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

"First, we start, we remove all the hair and then we put it in the water and then we take it out and wring it out," explains Doreen Apples, one of three instructors teaching the students.

"It's the sound [it makes] that you have to listen to," explains Apples. "You have to force really hard."

In Tłı̨chǫ, Apples explains to the students in what they are going to do that day, what their grandparents used to do with the hides and what they can be used for.

She told them their grandparents would work on a couple of hides for maybe six to eight hours a day. Those hides are for making clothes, blankets, pillows, purses, jackets and babiche.

Drum making

On this day, the students and instructors are making and repairing drums.

"No kids complain when they're coming here," said Apples. "They love it. You know, they love to be here with us, and we've been nice to them too. That's how we've been teaching those kids."

Alice J. Mantla shows Grant Lafferty how to weave babiche, a string made from caribou hide, through a hide to make a drum. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

Lafferty is using the hide he has scraped to make a drum.

With Apples' help, he's looking to make holes to pass the babiche — a string also made from the hide — through it.

"[It's] so I can make the tuning of the drum with the babiche for drums, to make a tune," he explains.

He said you don't want to make the drum sound too low or too soft.

James Lafferty, another instructor, said learning tanning skills helps the kids learn part of their culture.

"[It's] really tough work, but you've got to be strong like two people," he said.

Alice J. Mantla uses a scraper to smooth a caribou hide. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

Alice J. Mantla, a third instructor, as she makes babiche, explains that nothing is wasted from the caribou when an animal is killed. 

She said they use the hair they cut off the hide to make dog harnesses.

After the hair is removed and the hide has been scraped, they hang it to dry.

'Powerful to our ancestors'

In the Elder's cabin, the students are learning how to use babiche for the drum. 

"I made a whole bunch in the past, with the youth. They can hang it in their room," she said. 

"Once everything is done, they can even do the back handle for the drum, with babiche. That's where all the magic beat comes from for winning the hand game or drum dance. It's powerful, really powerful to our ancestors."