Indigenous

Bringing back buckskin: Woman seeks out traditional Mi'kmaw moose hide tanning practices

Gesig Isaac, who lives in Toronto and Listuguj in Eastern Quebec, wants to bring back traditional ways of making buckskin in her community. It hasn’t been easy, with tanners few and far between across the Mi'kmaq nation.

'You really have to fill in a lot of gaps and experiment,' says Gesig Isaac

Gesig Isaac, 28, learned how to tan deer hides three years ago, and is now transferring that knowledge to moose hides in her father's backyard in Listuguj. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

If at first you don't succeed: Try, try, try again.

It's the motto Gesig Isaac has taken when it comes to revitalizing Mi'kmaw moose hide tanning practices.

The 28-year-old, who splits her time between Toronto and Listuguj in Eastern Quebec, wants to bring back traditional ways of making buckskin in her community. It hasn't been easy, with tanners few and far between across the Mi'kmaq nation. 

"There's a lot of things that need to be brought back and I feel like hide tanning is just a small part of that," said Isaac.

She said it's not common to see people tanning moose.

"I feel like there's this amazing opportunity in space to fill with a new generation of hide tanners."

Isaac learned how to tan deer hides three years ago from a non-Indigenous man. She also had the opportunity to participate in an urban moose hide tanning residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity with instruction led by elders from Stoney Nakoda and tanners from Dene Nahjo, a leadership collective in the Northwest Territories.

"It felt really good to be able to work with my hands, work really hard at something, and then have this amazing product at the end of it," she said.

Experimenting with tanning practices

The experience at Banff inspired her to transfer her tanning knowledge to research on her own nation's moose hide tanning practices.

"I feel like the work that I'm doing is important because I want to find out how we did it as a Mi'kmaw people," said Isaac.

Gesig Isaac with one of her tanning tools. (Submitted by Gesig Isaac)

She's focusing on limited historical written accounts of how Mi'kmaw people used to tan hides.

"I'm hoping that I can take what I know and my basic knowledge of hide tanning and apply it to those written documents," said Isaac.

"It doesn't give you start to finish, you know, so you really have to fill in a lot of gaps and experiment."

When CBC News visited Listuguj in October, Isaac had hides soaking in lye. It helps swell the hide so that it's easier to scrape away the grain layer and animal's hair in small sections at a time. The process ended up burning holes in the hide, however.

"That's a part of the process, our failures and successes," said Isaac.

'A dying art'

Clifford Paul is the moose management initiative co-ordinator at Unama'ki Institute of Natural Resources, Cape Breton's Mi'kmaw advocates on natural resources and environmental concerns.

He said moose harvesting, in general, was historically a family affair where every member of a family had roles when working with the meat and hides. He said on the East Coast, there are some families who blend traditional approaches with modern tools.

"It is a dying art. Those skills need to be revived," said Paul.

"The moose is a gift from the creator. The moose people offer their lives for us to survive. It is our responsibility to ensure that any animal that is harvested is respected."

Gesig Isaac made these beaded earrings with moose hide she helped tan while in Banff. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

For Isaac, it's not only about revitalizing cultural practices, but being proud of the work that went into the craft. She's made moccasins and jewellery with hides she's tanned.

"You can't compare it to conventionally tanned leather," said Isaac.

"They smell amazing and it's just really cool to have something that you can make things with [from] what you started from. It's like a mental game because you're looking at something that looks so far from a finished product."

About the Author

Jessica Deer

Journalist

Jessica Deer is Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawake. She works in CBC's Indigenous unit based in Montreal. Email her at jessica.deer@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter @Kanhehsiio.