Hide Tanning at Albert Community School

FEBRUARY 24, 2022 -- Hide tanning is hard physical work involving a chemical process that alters the hide of an animal to create leather. This is Albert Community School’s winter project and the school is tanning a deer hide in the traditional way.

Hide tanning is a way to learn about Indigenous history, culture, biology, chemistry and traditional conservation. Through the tanning of the hide, students are participating in a different educational experience within the typical four-walled classroom. Students are connecting to the real world; this activity, and the knowledge that surrounds it, would have traditionally been taught and passed down to Indigenous children.

Even though the Albert students are not on the land or physically connecting to the land, the deer was. This must be acknowledged and, with the greatest respect, the learning opportunity the deer has given must be maximized. Students at Albert who are actively involved with the process are working collaboratively together to complete this physically demanding task. During this process, the students listen intently to the Indigenous knowledge being shared orally. The students listen and learn about the deer that gave up its life and learn to honour the deer through this process.

The first step was to build a frame (which is called a stretcher) that would be able to have the deer hide stretched across it. The building of the frame was done by Albert students along with Vice-Principal Greg Korpan. The next step was to soak the deer hide in water and ash for at least 24 hours. Then the hide was rinsed well to get all the ash off. The ash in the water creates a chemical reaction to help remove the hair from the hide. When this stage is complete, the hide is ready to be stretched.

Jeff Cappo (Coordinator of Indigenous Education) came to Albert School to assist with this process. With the help of three students, the hide was laid out on a classroom floor and flattened out. Jeff showed how to measure where a slit would be cut in the hide and explained that this is where the rope would be laced through the hide so it can be stretched on the frame. The hide was continually stretched until it couldn’t be stretched anymore. Jeff used his hand to measure his cuts. A correctly stretched hide will be tight and flat. The entire hide must be accessible to be worked on by the tanners.

The students then worked on fleshing the hide. When the hide is stretched, fleshing begins. Fleshing starts at the top of the hide and the flesh layer is removed. Traditionally, the tool would have been a metatarsal of an animal. Instead, Albert students used metal scrapers made by Mark Ganes, welding instructor at Campbell Collegiate.

Along with fleshing the deer hide, the students also dehaired the other side of the hide. This dehairing is very time consuming and somewhat messy. Students learned that the dehairing is easier if the hair and skin are wet. The students also found that staking small sections and pulling up with a slight twist enabled them to cleanly remove the hair without leaving half a hair shaft behind.

This is as far as students have come with this tanning process. Each class from Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 8 has had an opportunity to come learn, touch, feel and smell the tanning process. On one of those beautifully warm winter days in February, the hide was outside on the playground. As community members walked through the playground to take a shortcut, they stopped and asked what was going on. Visitors smiled and said they wished they had the opportunity to learn something like this and that it would have made school more interesting.

On this same day, three different classes came outside. There were children playing in the snow, running around having fun, and many of them came to the hide to discover whether they wanted to stay and work on the hide or play, and guess what? They did both. They helped dehair the deer and went and played to allow others to come and dehair the deer. Still other students sat in the sun to talk and watch, verbally supporting other students who came to dehair the deer and then shared the knowledge they gained.

One student asked, “Why are we learning this?” A student who asked this same question earlier was standing close by and replied, “We are learning what our ancestors knew and it is important we do not lose this knowledge.”

This hide tanning is still not complete and it will be a learning process for everyone at Albert Community School. The deer humbly gave up her life for a greater purpose. This purpose is clear; it was to turn students into teachers and teachers into students. In the most culturally respectful way through the deer as a school, everyone at Albert is collaboratively learning together as a community, just as Indigenous ancestors did to live collectively on this stunning and unforgiving land.

Submitted by Natalie Agecoutay-Sweet (Indigenous Advocate, Albert)