Why Tan Buffalo Hides: Part 1 of our “Tanning Buffalo Hides” Series

remember as a kid, waking up on a buffalo hide and feeling like I had the best sleep ever. Buffalo hides have been passed down from generation to generation and their usefulness never retires. To me and many others, feeling the fur of a buffalo is calming, sentimental, and a reminder of home. We’ve listened to our membership and heard there is a want for training materials on tanning hides. Our hope is that through this Hide Tanning Blog Series, you may be better equipped in this topic so you may enjoy the many uses of buffalo hides and possibly even reconnect with a past time of your own.

Tanned buffalo hides have proven useful in any era. Thousands of years ago, our indigenous ancestors learned to work the skin of an animal and fashion it into various products that helped us survive. They transformed hides into sinew (rawhide rope and cord), robes, gloves, moccasins, bags, quivers, blankets, material for shelter, and more. Over time, the hide evolved into something much more than clothing and tools; the hide became a way of life, not just about survival.

Long Soldier, Hunkpapa Lakota, Fort Yates, ND, 1902 – National Museum of American Indian

In some cultures, a winter calendar would be kept for each band by a chosen individual. This person was determined to be record-keeper when he was six by the group of men-elders who made many decisions for the band. He was responsible for illustrating significant events that occurred within his band and generation through pictograms in a circular pattern. The painted hide would be passed down to the next chosen record-keeper, and so on. Today people can refer to these winter calendars and can calculate the timing of major events in history.

Robes were also unique to individuals, representing their personality and experiences. Men and women would decorate the tanned side of the hide with adornments, often symmetrically. Men’s robes included star designs and a picture of a major event that characterized their life. Women’s robes had box and border designs and young women would have beaded red strips down the center of their robe, indicating their maidenhood. The fur-facing side would be wrapped around a person for warmth and the decorated tan would show outwards, so others could identify and understand each other, or even admire. In Lakota stories I’ve heard about those days, in which unmarried males and females would show respect by not directly looking into the eyes of the other sex or speaking to them directly. Often, a young woman was escorted out of her family’s teepee by a close female. Sometimes highly sought-after young women would have a line of young men waiting to speak to her, all with their heads down in respect and a buffalo robe over their head. Today robes still play a strong role in courtship, but usually not until marriage. Many modern couples are gifted a robe when they join as one.

Today hides continue to perform in all of these aspects either as tools, apparel, and, or cultural belongings. The return of hides in your community may restore some of the relationship we have with each other and with buffalo. Having a hide in the home, in the classroom, or the office is a reminder of our past. It can be an educational tool for younger generations, and it can rekindle memories for others. Not only can the hide fulfill personal and cultural needs, it can provide a trade for inspiring individuals and revenue for the community. The hide is a prime example of how life can be transformed into something beautiful and useful, even after it has passed on.

Tanning is an acquired skill and fortunately, people before us have carried on the practice so we may learn from them. Through this tanning blog series, we will be providing a process overview of the different parts of tanning, including skinning, fleshing, preserving, tanning, finishing, and marketing buffalo hides. These resources will hopefully allow you, your buffalo program, and community to benefit from the many benefits of buffalo tanning.

Pilamaya!

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