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  • Ian Thompson

How to Braintan a Buffalo Robe

Wrapping up in a traditionally tanned buffalo robe on a cold evening is something special. The leather side is supple, almost like a fleece blanket. The wool is thick, bulky, and soft. Putting one of these on the bed can be as warm as adding two comforters. The heaviness is like a weighted blanket. The sweet, earthy scent of the wool and the gentle smoke of the leather are transporting. Drifting off under one of these, your dreams might take you to an era when robes like this were commonly worn by Native people across the American heartland, or perhaps to a hopeful future where buffalo again graze millions of acres of healthy American grasslands.

You can't buy a braintan buffalo robe at any box store. They are only made through an ancient and very hands-on traditional art. Our previous post documented the process of using stone tools to prepare two bison hides from Nan Awaya Farm to be softened into braintan robes. This post lays out the steps that were used to transform these same two hides into finished products. Buffalo robe tanning is a deep traditional art. A lot goes into it, and this is by far our longest post. The purpose of sharing this level of information here is to help make this little-known artform a little more visible and also to put one more resource out there for people who may be interested in learning how to braintan robes themselves. As always for this blog, this post is written from the perspective of Choctaw traditional culture.

The structure of a bison hide and the chemistry and mechanics of softening it dictate how the hide-tanning process works to a certain extent. However, within these parameters, different traditional tanners process bison hides in different ways that work best for them. To my knowledge, no accounts exist for exactly how Choctaw people tanned bison robes back in the old days. The process that I use includes materials and techniques that come from the traditional Choctaw method for tanning deer hides. My process also draws some bison-specific elements from the traditional methods used by other Tribes in the past and from other traditional tanners active today. These are filtered through the lens of my own trial and error and the materials and work spaces available to me. The result presented here is an effective recipe for braintanning high quality bison robes. I'm still and always will be learning more about traditional hide tanning and its many variables. Consider this post a living document, which I will return to update if and when I adapt new things into my process... Let's get started!

In the Choctaw language, the process of making traditional leather is called tvlhkochi. The primary step involves softening the hide, a job called hakshup lhopushkichi. Hides naturally have a strong, collagen-based glue in them. It causes the hide fibers to stick to each other as the hide dries to form stiff rawhide. Rawhide has many uses, but a robe is not one of them. Native American hide tanners across the continent softened hides through a process that centers around coating the hide fibers in a dressing solution which, combined with the right mechanical action as the hide is drying, prevents the fibers from gluing themselves together.

The active ingredient in this hide-dressing solution is emulsified oils (oils that can dissolve in water). Animal brains (lupi in the Choctaw language), were the predominant source of emulsified oils used by Native hide-workers in the past. The Choctaw name for bone marrow is foni lupi "bone brain". As this name implies, bone marrow is a second source of emulsified oils also traditionally used in the hide-softening process. The earliest recorded Choctaw hide-dressing recipe is based on a third source of emulsified oils, egg yolks.

In the past, I mostly used deer brains or pork brains to tan hides. One evening, well into a day of hide-working, I made a quick run to the grocery store to pick up more brain to make dressing solution for the next day. The lady working the register looked at me, as I strolled up in my hole-filled, hide-tanning clothes with my 10 cartons of pig brains for purchase. Does she know how hard I'm working that day to carry on an art form that's more than 10,000 years old? Does she know that the brains she's selling me will go to make beautiful buckskin from hides that hunters have discarded? Of course not, she just thinks I'm a nut. We were wordless until the purchase was made. I parted with the most pleasant "them is good eat'n," I could manage and walked out the store. In reality, I would never, ever eat brains. I can barely choke down scrambled eggs smothered in salsa.

Fun with grocery store workers aside, prion-based pathogens like mad cow and chronic wasting disease are on the rise and no laughing matter. For this reason, I don't use deer or pork brains in hidework anymore. When it comes to bison hides, I use the brains from the animals we raise in tanning their own hides. I also usually process the marrow from their long bones. I simply cut the bone in pieces and use a long, narrow knife to cut out the marrow. This raw marrow goes right into the dressing solution. For pretty much all other hidework, I now use egg yolks. As noted above, eggtan is part of Choctaw hide-working tradition. The process and the finished product are identical to braintan, except without any prion risk.

The secret sauce in my dressing solution is smokey water. Right before I start softening a buffalo robe, I smoke some buckskin made from deer hides. The smoke gives the deer buckskin color and protection from moisture. I put the freshly smoked hides in a bucket and work them around in a couple gallons of water for a few minutes before removing, wringing, and drying the buckskin. This quick wash evens up the smoke color on the buckskin. As a byproduct, it dissolves enough smoke into the water to make it a dark amber-color. In our hot, humid environment, hide dressing solution can start to sour just soaking into a buffalo hide overnight. A soured dressing solution makes for an unpleasant tanning experience and could even put the robe in danger of losing patches of wool. Smoke contains natural formaldehyde. Adding some smokey water to the dressing solution inhibits bacterial growth; it will not go sour even sitting out in the Oklahoma summer for a couple of days. A hide dressed with it has a pleasant, smokey smell. Also, straight dressing solution is a fly magnet, but put a splash of this secret (well maybe not so secret) sauce in the solution, and the flies keep their distance. In the days before climate control, Native hide tanners in the humid Southeast must have used smokey water, or something equivalent to process buffalo robes without them rotting before they could dry. I store the smokey water in a big juice bottle, but this solution will only keep about a week before it starts to denature.

When I begin softening work, the bison hide is dry, thinned, and laced in the frame. A hide in this state is called hakshup hisha asha in the Choctaw language. I start a little before the sun goes down, by laying the hide frame on the ground with the hide's flesh-side up. In order for the dressing solution to penetrate to the inner fibers of the hide, the hide needs to be slightly damp when the solution is applied. I pour a bit of my smokey water into a bucket, dunk in a piece of cloth, and use the cloth to apply and rub it into the flesh side of the hide. The goal is to get the surface of the hide damp, but not completely saturated. I let this soak in as I prepare the dressing solution.

The recipe for the dressing solution that I used on these two hides was 1 pound of brain and 1 dozen egg yolks (2 pounds of brain, or 2 dozen egg yolks, or any combination of the two will work), 2 cups of neatsfoot oil (a substitute for bone marrow), 4 cups of smokey water, and a little less than 2 gallons of water. I put these ingredients into a big pot and warm it on top of the stove, stirring with my bare hand. The solution needs to be heated to fully dissolve the oil, and because a warm dressing solution applied to the hide soaks in much better than cool solution. I stir with my hand rather than a spoon to keep the solution from getting too hot. If it were to get much warmer than hot bath water, it would cook the eggs, making egg drop soup, rather than effective dressing solution (Note - Unlike eggs, a dressing solution made entirely of brains can boil without damaging it). Also, a thinned bison hide burns the same as human skin. If the dressing solution is applied at a temperature much greater than my bare hand can stand, it could ruin the hide.

When it reaches hot bath water temperature, I apply a thin coat of the dressing solution to the flesh side of the hide in the same way that I applied the smokey water. Next, I take old bath towels, soak them in warm water, and lay them out over the flesh side of the hide, so that no part of the hide is exposed to the air. I lay a dark-colored tarp over the towels and weigh down the edges with rocks. I let this sit overnight to allow the dressing solution to penetrate into the hide. The leftover dressing solution, protected by smoke, sits out in the pot.

Early the next morning, I take off the tarp and the towels. I use a curved needle and thread to sew up any holes that exist in the now-wet hide. Then, I prop up one side of the hide frame lifting half of the hide off of the ground. I take a round-ended trenching shovel and firmly push the blade along the surface of the hide. Dressing solution that has not absorbed into the hide will collect into the scoop of the shovel. I dispose of it. Pushing the shovel into the hide stretches it and opens up the fiber structure. Stretched portions of the hide will turn light-colored. Other areas will stay a darker amber color. I use my stone-bladed scraper to work them over. Then, I prop up the other side of the frame and go to work on the second half of the hide.

With the hide fibers stretched, and the hide damp but drying, it's the perfect time to apply a second coat of dressing solution. I re-heat my pot of solution and use the cloth to rub it into the hide. Then, I towel and tarp the hide again. If the sun is out, I set the tarped hide in it. In the sun, the dark-colored tarp can heat the damp hide up to the temperature of warm bath water, helping the solution penetrate. At this point, do not expose the flesh side of the hide to direct sunlight for more than a few minutes, as the dark-colored areas can absorb too much heat and grease burn the hide.

I let the tarped hide sit in the sun for a couple of hours and then repeat the entire process of stretching it with the shovel, scraping any dark areas, letting it dry a bit, and then apply a third coat of the dressing solution. This pretty well finishes off the first pot of the solution.

At this point, we clean the wool in such a way that it helps to draw the dressing solution further into the hide. I get Amy's help to flip the hide frame over, laying the damp flesh side down on concrete or on another clean, even surface. We run a garden hose over the hair side of the hide, fully saturating the wool with water. Then, we take about 3/4 of a bottle of baby shampoo and rub it into the wool. We get on the hide with our bare feet and knees and really use our fingers to work the shampoo down into the base of the wool and onto the outer layer of hide (epidermis). We work out any cockle burs, sand burs, and tangles. When that's done, we use the garden hose to rinse out the soap and dissolved dirt. One of us runs the hose and the other uses their bare feet to squeegee the water off of the hide. It helps for the hide to be on a slight slope. We use our driveway. Playing in the water and soapy wool can be fun in the warm summer sun. We stop rinsing when the water being squeegeed out is completely clear.

Now, I cut the hide off the frame, proceeding from one lacing hole to the next. Earlier, during the thinning process, it's very difficult to scrape and thin the hide all the way to the edge. Discarding a half-inch wide band around the hide now at this stage and cutting new lacing holes allows you to end up with a finished robe that is soft all the way to the ends.

When the hide is laced back in the frame, we let it lay there in the afternoon sun with the skin-side-down and put a couple of fans on the wool. The skin side of the hide is still saturated with dressing solution. As the wool dries in the wind and sun, it wicks the dressing solution from underneath upward, causing it to penetrate deeper into the hide. After 2 hours, when the wool is mostly dry, we flip the hide frame over, move it to the shade, and I start working the skin side of the hide with the shovel again.

The goal at this point is to get the hide to turn completely white before it dries - or actually a light tan color since it has the color from the smokey water absorbed into it. Small places on the hide will remain stubbornly dark and translucent. This may be because they are still too wet - hit them again with the shovel a little later. It may be because the dressing solution is gummed up on the surface of the hide - hit them gently with the scraper. It may be due to strips of membrane having been left on some areas of the hide after thinning (particularly on both sides of the hump where the hide is very thin and on the elbows) -hit these more vigorously with the scraper, being careful not to damage the thin hide. If some strips of membrane, no more than 1/4 inch wide, remain on the thinnest areas of the hide after the first softening, its alright.

On the first softening, I don't work the hide very intensively. The goal is not to soften it, but just to open up the hide fibers so that the dressing solution will penetrate deeper on its next application. When portions of the hide get dry to the point that they stop easily stretching, I stop working them for the day. I leave the hide in our garage overnight, with two fans blowing on it and a dehumidifier. I want to be sure that it gets completely dried out in order to prevent hair slippage. With having washed the wool, fully drying it back out can take all night. The mane will be the last area to dry.

To prepare for a second round of softening, I dampen the dried out hide with smokey water as I mix up another batch of dressing solution. I apply the solution to the hide being careful not to let it run over the edges and onto the clean wool. I let it soak into the hide all night with the towels in the manner described above. The next morning, I work the hide over with the shovel and let it dry a bit. If any parts are not fully saturated and stretchy, I remove the hide from the frame and pull the flesh side back and forth over a vertically suspended cable (see below). This motion helps to open up the hide fibers, helps to get the epidermis moving, and also helps to shred off remaining small strips of membrane from the flesh side of the hide. I return the hide to the frame and reapply the dressing solution. All portions of the hide should now freely soak it up. I sew up any new holes that may have appeared in the hide.

Once the solution is fully soaked in and the hide is beginning to dry, the real work of softening begins. Depending on the nature of the hide, its moisture level, and the progress that has been made on softening to that point, I use three different softening methods. Early on, while the hide is pretty damp, I use body weight to give it a good general stretching. I'll prop one side of the hide frame up, and use my knees or bare feet to really push into and stretch the part of the hide that is up off of the ground. Then, I reposition the frame and work my way around it. As a hide dries, it gets more brittle and prone to tearing. I move from using body weight to using a round-bladed shovel to push and slide against the hide. As the hide gets drier and more softened, I take it off of the frame, and pull it back and forth around the vertically suspended cable.

Sufficient thinning is the first key in traditional bison robe tanning. The second key is matching work to the hide's moisture stage. In the same way that the hide has to be at the right moisture level to absorb the dressing solution, it also has to be at the right moisture level for softening work to be effective. Softening the hide while it is too wet wastes energy and puts unnecessary wear and tear on it. Working while the hide is too dry also wastes energy and can crack the epidermis or tear the hide. You want to concentrate softening efforts on the portions of the hide that are just starting to dry and stiffen. This happens multiple times on each spot of the hide: when the surface fibers on the flesh side of the hide start to dry, later when the interior fibers of the hide are drying, and finally as the epidermis is drying. Any given spot of hide must be worked at each of these moisture stages in order for it to come out soft. The first sign that a portion of the hide is in need of focused work is that it will pucker when you run the shovel or cable over it (an indication that it is not stretching as much as the rest of the hide). Concentrate work on that area. As an area starts to get drier / stiffer, it will start to make a crinkly noise when you bend it.

Remember the movie Princess Bride? At the beginning of the film, the self-proclaimed "genius" kidnaps the princess. At first, he and his crew see a little speck far off on the horizon behind them. It turns out to be the hero Wesley, pursuing and ultimately overtaking them with seemingly superhuman abilities. In softening a bison hide that is too thick, or that doesn't have enough penetration from the dressing solution, the hide tanner is like the fleeing "genius", and hide stiffness is like Wesley in pursuit. It doesn't matter how soft the hide feels when it's wet, or what lengths you go to to try keep ahead of stiffness as the hide dries, stiffness is going to overtake you. When that happens, re-dress the hide for another round of softening.

If I think I'm putting dressing solution on the hide for the final time, I cut back on the oil in the recipe in order to prevent the finished robe from feeling greasy. If the tanning solution has pure brains in it, I use no oil. If the solution is egg-based, I use a few table spoons.

If you've done everything right, there will eventually come a point in softening where the skin feels dry, lightweight, and really soft. Tired from hours of hard work, you start to tell yourself that this hide is done; your efforts have paid off, and now you can get some rest! You come back in the morning to find that the same hide you've worked so hard to soften has gotten a bit stiff and makes crinkly noises when you touch it. INCONCEIVABLE!

The reason otherwise soft bison robes stiffen up right at the end is due to the epidermis drying out. This happens long after the surface of the skin starts feeling dry to the touch. To achieve a soft finished product, it's essential to be working the hide on the cable or similar apparatus that forces it to roll and bend while the epidermis is drying. The epidermis dries first in the thin areas on both sides of the hump; and last in the hips. Late in the softening process. I concentrate work just on the areas that still need it and allow the hide to rest with two fans and a dehumidifier on it when it is not being worked.

How do you know when a hide is fully dry? The way that I tell is when it sits for an hour between softening sessions, with the aforementioned fans and dehumidifier, and the hide does not become the slightest bit stiff or crinkly anywhere. On a properly thinned hide, I usually finish softening as the sun is coming up, after having worked all day and all night. Accounts from Native buffalo robe tanners of the past talk about tag-teaming the softening process. That's not a bad idea.

When I started learning the art of braintanning a buffalo robe, I didn't have any modern examples to compare my work with, so I wondered just how soft should I shoot for? Can a buffalo robe get crazy soft like braintan buckskin? I've since learned that, although the epidermis always prevents a finished bison robe from being stretchy like deer buckskin, a buffalo hide processed in the manner described above can indeed be made just about as soft as a deer buckskin, even squishy and lofty.

Let's take a step back now to the first key to making a good bison robe - thinning the hide. 18 months ago, I softened a bull hide that I had thinned as much as I thought I possibly could without tearing it. Finishing that hide took seven full days of applying dressing solution and softening. Softening a thick hide is fun at first, you can even trampoline on it in the frame, but after you've been softening for 14 hours straight on a stubborn hide for multiple days, it's just not as much fun anymore. On the final, ferocious day of softening the above-mentioned hide, I cabled the behemoth for 29 hours. Lifting a 40 lb damp hide up shoulder level and pulling its resistant mass back-and-forth on a cable is really hard work. It cost me an annoying case of tennis elbow that lasted for more than a year. The finished hide is pliable and doesn't make crinkly noises when you move it, but despite the level of effort put into it, it is not as soft as a finished buffalo robe can be.

For the bison cow hide - the co-subject of the past two posts - I used my stone scraper to thin it down even more. It was so thin that I didn't dare trampoline on it in the softening process because it probably would have ripped. It was a little lighter to lift, and a little less resistant to the cable than the previous hide. The work was not quite as hard. This hide ultimately took five days to soften. The finished product came out buttery soft.

With my stone scraper, I thinned this year's bull hide down even thinner than the cow. Not only was this hide too thin to trampoline on, it was so thin the shovel went through it early on the second day of softening. So, I removed the hide from the frame and cabled it for the rest of the day. After just 12 hours of cabling, it was fully dry, beautiful, and quite soft. Of course, every individual hide has its own quirks and softening times, but you can see the general correlation between thinness, less days of softening, and a softer finished product.

Thin hides are definitely the way to go for buffalo robe-tanning beauty, but there are a few tradeoffs. One is that the more that you thin a hide, the more delicate it becomes. It's not just punching through with a scraper during thinning, holes can also rip through during the softening process and later during use. Mended holes are common on the old robes, and within reason, they aren't nearly as big of deal as they might seem (see below). Thicker hides do have their uses too. The 7-day hide described above is great for bedding. The thickness of the leather makes it really hold in the warmth, and its 20 lbs of weight is nice to sleep under. The thinner hides are superior for wearing as robes.

After softening is complete, I smoke my buffalo robes. Smoking gives the skin side a nice color, provides some protection against insect damage, and prevents the hide from getting stiff were it to get wet in the future. The old robes I've seen have dark color, as though they'd been smoked, but I'm not aware of any old accounts that mention intentionally smoking them. Perhaps it happened incidentally as a result of people living in smokey houses.

The physics of fire and smoke are neat topics. I may get into the finer points of smoking a hide in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that I dig a pit about 1ft deep and 9 inches wide. Over this, I build a fire of dry oak sticks. As the fire burns down, it fills the bottom half of the pit with burning coals. I use dry, rotten wood from non-coniferous trees for smoking material. If the rotten wood is damp, as is often the case, I crumble it up and lay the crumbles out in the sun to dry before starting the smoking fire. I fold the hide in half along the spine, and lace a rope through the lacing holes on three sides of the hide to create a tube that is closed at the top. I use clothes pins to attach a smoking skirt to the bottom, which will direct smoke from the smoking pit into the hide tube. When everything is ready, I put a layer of dry rotten wood crumbles on the hot coals in the smoking pit, which produces smoke. I suspend the hide tube over the smoking pit, pull the smoking skirt around the edges of the pit, slide small, dry sticks inside to prop the hide sack open, and then watch it like a hawk. A large flame up could ruin a robe in a second. I constantly reach under the smoking skirt to feel for hot spots in the coals. If something feels hot, I add more rotten wood. I reposition the sticks propping the hide sack open from time to time. The hide smokes for about an hour and a half, and then I spin it around 180 degrees and continue the smoking to help ensure an even color. Then, I take the finished hide off the smoke, unlace it, and let it air out on the clothesline.

Most holes can be greatly reduced in appearance on finished bison robes without much trouble. The first key is to make sure that the leather lies flat around them. To this end, they need to be sewn up during the softening process so that the hide stretches flat. After smoking, I cut out the mendings that I've made with thread. When we butcher, we save the tendons from either side of the spine and up the backs of the legs. We clean them of meat and dry them out like jerky. I hand-shred the back tendons (called chashwa in the Choctaw language) into individual floss-like fibers, thread them on a regular sewing needle, and sew up the holes in the robes. Different stitches were used by different communities in the past for this. I use a continuous subcantaneous stitch.

The second key to making a hole disappear is to make sure the dark-colored wool all ends up on the wool-side of the hide as the hole is being sewn together. The tendon fibers (sinew) are about the same color as the hide. When the stitches pull into the nap of the hide they all but disappear. In places where the hole is straight, and the hide lies flat, a hole can be mended to where you can't see if from 2ft away. Repaired holes in the hump and mane will be a bit more visible. Putting a painted design on a hide gives the eye a lot more to look at than the subtle lines left from mended holes to the point that you don't see the mends at all, unless you look hard. This technique was definitely used by Native robe-makers of the past (more on this in a future post).

The end result of the work that has been laid out in these posts is yvnnvshi hakshup, a buffalo robe. Traditionally tanned buffalo robes are a lot of work, but the effort in itself is part of what makes them special. I've already talked about how comfortable, pleasant-smelling, and warm they are. If protected from insects, water, and dogs, and if not used too roughly, a robe you tan could last for your great-great-grandchildren to see. Traditional buffalo robes are more than their physical makeup; they also embody deep connections. The traditional tanning process connects you with the animal and honors its sacrifice. The animals whose hides I processed in this post were a part of the land we live on at Nan Awaya Farm and a part of our efforts to rebuild a healthy native landscape. Some buffalo robe connections run really deep...

Dateline - a gray winter morning near the present-day Oklahoma panhandle 11,200 BC. Laughter tumbles down the hillside and bounces off the boulders in the draw below. Cousins playfully razz each other as they work to thin drying buffalo hides staked out on the ground. A distant sound, and the girls become instantly silent. A family of woolly mammoths is walking up the draw...

A hot fall afternoon, present-day Indiana 3,700 BC: The flames explode through the dry prairie grass with a terrifying roar. On the run, there was no escape with an infant in-hand. She laid him down and threw a buffalo robe over him; it's insulative power kept the boy safe as the flames swept over him...

Present-day Alabama AD 1200: The Miko of Moundville stands atop an earth mound in full view of his large farming community, who have assembled to witness an historic event. On behalf of the community, he accepts a prestigious gift that a delegation from far to the west has carried with them. This is the first exchange in a promising new trade alliance. The gift is a buffalo robe.

An utterly frigid, clear, winter night in present-day North Dakota AD 1750. Inside their earth lodge, he snuggles down under a soft, warm robe. Watching the gentle glow of the hearth's embers reflecting on his young wife's hair as she sleeps, he silently expresses his gratefulness for the cozy home she's made for the family.

The kind of robes in these scenes are the same kind of robes that these blog posts have been about - Hides from animals living on a vibrant native landscape, processed with stone tools, hand-softened with the aid of a traditional dressing solution. When you wrap up in a hide like these, it's not just soft and warm; it's a connection with every farmer's field across the American heartland where stone hide scraper blades lie silently among the furrows. It's a connection with every person through the millennia who wrapped up in a buffalo robe and took solace in its warmth on a dark night on some lonely hillside away from home. Ultimately, wrapping up in a traditional buffalo robe connects you with 600 generations of human stories that come from living on the American landscape indigenously. The braintan buffalo robe is a deep and still-living heritage for many modern Native communities, including the Choctaw people.

Here are sources that have been useful in learning how to braintan buffalo robes and also in learning how they were worn and used by people in the past: online, in books (here and here), and video (here and here).

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You are awesome people. You do the work and then you share. I wish my husband could have known you. He would have worked with you to complete the knowledge for the Choctaw people. Thank you so much for your hard work and effort to increase the peoples knowledge. God Bless You both.

Nancy B

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