Brain Tanning a Deer Hide

brain tanning

by Mireille Evans
Immersion Student 2015-2016

This week we had the honor to be blessed by deer. It was the week where we got to dive into the magical transformational process of working with the hide of deer to make buckskin. The deer were purchased from a woman who has a relationship with hunters in her area. The hunters bring their deer to her; she skins them, and the hunters leave her with the hide. A fantastic trade!

For land-based cultures throughout the world, brain tanning animal hides was a practice done whenever an animal gave its life to feed the people. To honor the spirit and sacred giveaway of these animals, all parts of the animal were harvested and process for various uses: clothing, shelter, food, tools, and instruments. It was such an honor to spend three days to remember this ancient practice that today is done in huge factories with very toxic chemicals to make leathers and suede.

Our class gathered in the moss-covered forest on Linne Doran as the sun found its way around the clouds to warm our skin. Dan Corcoran was the guest instructor that took us through this process. Before the class started, he had taken several hides and soaked them in a 40-gallon bucket with some lye for three days. This helped to swell the various layers of the deer’s skin, and in turn easier for us to scrape.

tanning, brain tan

We gathered in groups of 3 or 4 and found the hide that called to us. My group offered prayers of gratitude to the deer, to the land, and ancestors of the land of where it lived his life, and to the ancestors of this land where we worked on tanning him.

We used scrapers and scraping beams and the various groups began the meditative process of scraping the hair and grain (first layer of skin) off. Once this was complete, we flipped the hide over and scraped off the membrane and any flesh that was still on the hide. Then we took the hides down to the outflow of the pond and laid them out in the flowing water to wash off the lye that was still in the hides.

The following day, we ventured to the outflow to take the hides out of the chilly water. We then gathered around to learn how to wring out the hides to ensure most of the water was squeezed out of the hides. This was really a humorous process as it involved the groups to get in acrobatic and yogic postures as we twisted the hide on two sticks.

The next part was to infuse the hide with brains. Each animal has the right amount of brains to tan its own hide, we, however, didn’t have the brains of these deer, so we used pig brains that were purchased. It was so smooth and soft to squish up the brains in warm water and massage the soupy mixture into the hide.

Once this step was complete, we repeated the aerobic forms to wring the excess brain liquid out.  Then the really labor-intensive process began. Some of us changed into bathing suits, shorts, or tank tops. We entered the inside of Cedar Lodge and it was as though we had just entered into a tropical country! The heat cranked up high, the woodstove had been lit and burning hard since early morning. The result was 15 Immersion students who were dripping sweat even before we started to work. Once the stretching of the hide commenced, we could not put down the hide until it was dry, or else we would have to do this process all over again. It is definitely worth putting the extra time and energy into making sure each step is done REALLY well so that the following steps are not more challenging.

stretching, community, teamwork, hide, tanning

We stretched and pulled the hide in every direction to break up the fibers and ensure that they didn’t dry glued together. This pulling went on for a few hours and was filled with much laughter, sharing of stories, and singing. Puddles formed on the floor beneath the working students as the hides began to transform from their cream rubbery feel, to a white soft, supple flannel feel. It was truly magical!

hide, tanning, community, west, north, teamwork

The final stage, once the hides were dry and soft, was to preserve them to ensure they wouldn’t go back to their rawhide state if they got wet. This was created by sewing up two hides and hanging them up above a metal bucket full of hot coals with dry punky wood smoking like crazy on top of them. This forced the smoke to penetrate every surface of the hide, gave it a golden brown color and a pungent aroma of smoke.

That completed this magical transformational process. We all left with gorgeous deer hides that had honored each of us with the privilege of working with its robe. The relationship we were given the opportunity to develop with the deer people was so special and transformed each of us in the process.  It was a labor of love, time, patience, and every bit worth it!

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