The Indians Tanned hides in several ways and by different substances according to the tribe. It is always well to keep in mind that Indian tribes were different and that many of them had their own style of doing things. Indian buckskin is NOT tanned at all. It is just worked soft. A fresh skin is immediately soaked in water for several days, usually from 3 to 6. Sometimes the hair is cut off, or at least as much as possible. A lye made of wood ashes is used for removing the hair from the pelts of elk & moose (not necessary on deer) In some cases the ashes are sprinkled on the hair, rubbed in, and then the moist hide is rolled up to await the loosening effect of the lye. If this is done you will have to pee on the skin side.
The next step is to take the skin from the water and put it over a graining log. This is a log from which the bark has been removed. Note: Cottonwood is the best and should be cut during the winter. It should be 8′ long by 10 – 12″ in diameter, seasoned for 6 months before removing bark and cut to a finished length of 6′. One end is on the ground and the other end is propped up to waist height. It is stuck obliquely into the ground so that its upper end is waist high. Once draped over this beam the particles of flesh, fat and sinew are scraped off. An implement specially designed for this purpose is used. In olden days it was a heavy handle of elk horn with an end like a small hoe. To this a flint scraper was tied, but in later times a steel blade was substituted, a lawnmower blade sharpened on one side to a 90-degree angle with the ends taped so it won’t cut you. When this had been done the skin was reversed and the hair removed with a beaming tool. This was once made from the cannon bone of a deer, and it had two sharp edges. When the stone and bone age vanished, as the settlers came in, this tool was made of wood and a long iron blade. When the hair stuck, it was wet with moist ashes which loosened it so that in a short time it could be removed. Most skin workers took the hair off and then turned the hide over for the fleshing process but whichever way used, great care was taken not to work a thin spot in the skin.
A good skin is of uniform thickness, though perhaps we should say thinness, for soft skins were considered the best. When the skin is thoroughly scraped, de-haired and clean, it is washed in clear water, wrung out and then stretched on a wooden frame, being laced to it by leather thongs or bark cords. The skin should be almost as tight as a drum head. Now comes the trick of mixing brains with this tanning business,–and the old Indian actually thought it took brains to do it right. A batter of brains is now rubbed into the skin until it is thoroughly saturated. If the skin has been worked and twisted before “framed” the process does not take long. <note: Each animal’s brain is just enough to tan the hide. Brain paste is prepared by splitting the skull, removing its contents and then dissolving them in warm water. Sometimes the water is quite hot, but at all events the mass is crushed in the fingers and worked into a fluid paste. If brains are lacking, liver paste is added; the two go well together. When there is too much of this solution the brains are mixed with moss and dried near a fire. The moss is formed into cakes and kept for future use. To make ready for use the moss was wet and rubbed on the skin in the ordinary way. Once the brains were in the skin and the hide was removed from the frame, it was soaked again and wrung out.
The wringing process is IMPORTANT, and it consists of twisting the skin length wise and then looping it about a tree only to twist it again by means of a stick thrust through the loop. When dry it is stretched out, pulled in all directions thrown back in the water, wrung again, twisted again, pulled again, only to be thrown in more water to have the process repeated. (Note: do this SEVERAL times!!) The work applied to the skin is necessary for removing the cellular filling, and to produce a clean sheet of pelt fiber. When this is achieved, and the skin is soft, pliable and white, it is seamed up in the form of an irregular bag with crossed sticks thrust in the mouth to keep it open.
A smoke pit is now dug and in it a fire is built. Rotten wood, punk, cobs, chips of oak, beech or corn cobs are thrown in upon the coals and a smudge is started. The bag is now inverted over this A cord holds the bottom of the bag to a limb or a pole. Care must now be taken that the fire underneath does NOT blaze, and that the smoke fills the bag evenly. To guard against an uneven flow of smoke, ALL holes must be sewn up. Inspection must be constant, and when the pelt is of the right color, –yellow, tan or brown, it is taken from the smudge and laid away, the smoked surface being folded upon itself.
A few days of this sets the color and finishes. This is the so-called “Indian Tan”, though more properly it is simply “Indian Worked”, as no tanning solution such as is used in leather making having been employed. Buckskin is warm and pleasant to wear, and it outlasts any cloth ever made. It is the ideal material in the wilderness for it does not tear or allow thorns to puncture it. Its one drawback is that it wets easily, but even so it is soon dried and with a little rubbing, is restored completely.
The only drawback to these instructions is that it takes SEVERAL days to complete a hide, but if you follow them, you will have a beautiful piece of buckskin that will look great and it takes nearly a week & a half to do it right. The more the hide is work the better.
Good luck and stay warm.