BROWNING — Members of the Blackfeet Tribe are re-teaching century-old traditions by introducing hide tanning back into the community.
“We just thought it would be important to really bring back a traditional group activity and give access to the kids here was really a big goal,” said Kenneth Cook (Thae A●Gho Weñs), the hide tanning instructor.
Bison were extremely important to tribes in the past. One bison had enough meat to last an entire family through the winter while the hide of the bison would be used for clothing, blankets, and even housing. Everything from the intestines down to the teeth, were used and nothing was wasted.
“A big funny term I always heard was that the bison were a walking whole store, you know. You could get everything that you need from the bison.”
It’s no lie that some modern Indigenous people have lost touch with many traditions that were held by the old tribes. Even language is starting to become less frequent as less and fewer tribal members know it. To be able to reteach and hang on to some of these traditions like the techniques of traditional hide tanning, is important.
“This is our culture. This is what we need to teach because if we don’t, we will have nothing left”
Bison were nearly extinct at one point in time. In the early 1800s, there were an estimated number of 60 million bison across the United States. Just a century later, that number dropped down to only 500 in the entire nation. Since then, tribes such as the Blackfeet have been working hard in building that population back up, and in the United States today, that number has grown to roughly 400,000.
The techniques taught in the workshop are traditional Blackfeet methods. For example, bison bones are used to scrape away the fat to leave a beautiful white pelt behind.
“You go from that ugly fleshy, stink stage and then you start seeing this beautiful white hide coming out. It’s amazing that this is what’s under there. You still learn something new all the time, that’s for sure,” Cook said.
These traditional methods are preferred over modern ways.
“I could have came in with a pressure washer and a bunch of tools and we could have shown them how to do it real quick. I feel it’s important to not use chemicals in your hides because the chemicals can leach into your skin," Cook explained. "You wouldn’t want to make your baby moccasins where the hide was soaked and processed in harmful chemicals. I’m really a big advocate against that, I prefer to show people how to use traditional materials.”
Overall, the experience is a positive one for kids who want to learn and are interested in the history of their culture.
“We are hoping that people learn so that they can teach other people. If you can teach 20 kids and one of them walks away and decides they really like it then that is the goal.”