Portage College is reviving hide tanning, a fading Native art form

Ruby Sweetman carries on the tradition of teaching hide tanning to students in Lac La Biche

Portage College students learning hide tanning

Stretch out: ‘Turning it into a hide so soft and delicate you can make baby garments with it is so gratifying’

From mukluks and moccasins to teepees and ceremonial headgear, moose skins are at the heart of many Indigenous traditions and ways of life. The labour-intensive process of preparing skins, called tanning, requires days of soaking, fleshing, scraping and smoking. It is one of the oldest Indigenous art forms in Canada­­—and it is also a dying one. Portage College in Lac La Biche, Alta., is working to bring it back to life.

Since 1978, the school has offered a three-week class in the tradition as part of the Native arts and culture (NAC) program. But the class has gained recognition after the school uploaded a video to YouTube from the 1980s featuring the original instructor, Metis elder Elsie Quintal, demonstrating the Woodland Cree process. It’s the school’s most popular video, with over 138,000 views.

Using hides donated by local hunters, instructor Ruby Sweetman takes students through the 13 steps of hide tanning at a site along Beaver Lake, about eight kilometres from campus. “During the fall, the entire area comes alive with beautiful colours, sounds of lake water fowl, [and other] wonderful wildlife,” says Sweetman. Students spend eight hours a day working the skins.

READ: Portage College | Lac La Biche, Alta. | Founded 1968

“Hide tanning is hard, yet rewarding work,” says 26-year-old Jessica Foy, a student in the NAC program who recently finished the course. Students work with their bare hands and callouses are a given. But “taking an animal and turning it to a hide so soft [and] delicate that you can make baby garments with it is so gratifying,” she says. “I found this such a unique and charming example of human collaboration with mother nature.”

Sweetman says the easy availability of commercial hides has made people less inclined to do the painstaking work. According to Foy, “Working simple tools on still fleshy, sometimes pungent animal hide, putting in hours of work amongst the elements, [ultimately] offers the satisfaction of the final product.”