The art of transforming the cold, slimy skin of a freshly butchered animal into a soft, warm, wonderful-smelling traditional leather is nothing short of magic. This magic was perfected and passed down by 500+ generations of Native American people. The hands-on exertion of the traditional hide-tanning process connects the tanner with the animal in a way that little else could. The finished product is the strongest leather around, extremely warm, potentially very soft, and even edible, unlike commercial leather which is tanned with toxic chemicals. Traditional arts are all about process and this is particularly true for hidework. Here is the process for a wool-on bison robe. Here is an article explaining the Indigenous Choctaw method for making buckskin.
As a sophomore in high school, I had the unusual honor of serving as a technical consultant for an anthropology masters thesis on traditional hidework. I had experience in the techniques they were studying, and didn't mention my age to them. Since then, I've braintanned and egg tanned about 130 hides of different species ranging from red squirrel to elk and from stone-scraped bison to fur on black bear. The vast majority of hides I've tanned, however are simple buckskin made from whitetail deer. I've had fun experimenting to liven them up with a number of different traditional hide dyes and paints.
No traditional art better says "bison" than the very rare one known as incised parfleche. Parfleches are travel cases made by Tribes living on the Great Plains mostly from bison hides. Most were painted, but some of the earliest surviving ones were incised. Bison shed most of their wool in the spring as a physiological adjustment for hotter temperatures. The bare skin tans a dark color in the summer sun. Incised parfleche was made by slipping the hair off of a bison summer hide then cutting designs through the suntanned out layer of skin to expose the light-colored dermis underneath. The light color was enhanced by stretching the hide as it dried. Parfleche is not a Choctaw artform. I stopped making them in my early-20s, and began focusing exclusively on art forms that are connected with my own ancestors and community. With respect for the communities to whom the traditions of parfleche do belong, I'm showing a few of my old pieces in this gallery, because they are such a cool way to honor this amazing animal that we raise.
With other responsibilities, I don't tan as may hides per year as I once did, but I still tan the hides that come from the bison and whitetail deer that are harvested on Nan Awaya Farm. I've taught a few traditional hide-tanning classes for Choctaw Nation, including the one that produced the hides for the clothing in the Cultural Center exhibits. I've handed along the moccasin-making classes that I started for the Tribe to an able artist and teacher.
Use the right arrow on the image below to peruse some of my hidework through the years. Double click if you're browsing on a cell phone.