Two teens sit side by side in a rural cabin in Aldergrove, just outside of Vancouver. They reach elbow deep into separate buckets, rubbing the oily emulsion of brains into their raw deer-hides.
Twelve-year-old Talon Pascal and his cousin, Qwilqen Nelson, 14, are the youngest of an ethnically diverse group of people learning how to use brain matter to preserve and soften deer hides. The pair have travelled from Mount Currie, a community just north of Whistler. They have been watching YouTube videos and books, but this hands-on session is the next step in their learning.
“Tanning hides is basically just filling in like an empty gap,” said Pascal.
The boys want to learn their traditional Indigenous practices, the kinds of techniques that have been lost over the decades as a result of assimilation imposed by the Canadian government.
Now, they have a chance to learn, thanks to an unusual teacher: Meg Curr, the founder of Crow’s Nest Wild Craft. Curr, who is of European descent, has been practising for the past decade after being introduced to the skill on Haida Gwaii. Since then, she’s been trained by many others, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous tanners, and is now part of a growing movement to revitalize ancient tanning traditions.
She offers a three-day workshop for those interested in learning this ancient method of tanning. The immersive lesson includes a daily meal and a deer hide for a fee of $325, or $300 for Indigenous participants and Elders.
‘If we don’t start teaching, then it’s going to be lost’
Workshop participant Denali Youngwolfe has been waiting years to learn tanning, despite growing up with other traditions such as pow-wow dance, beadwork, and wild-harvested foods.
“It’s something that I’ve been feeling was missing,” said Youngwolfe, who is from Muskowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan.
Participant Carole Basil, a cultural revival facilitator from the Lower Nicola Indian Band, has also come to learn from Curr. She calls Curr a “knowledge keeper” and says this kind of knowledge sharing is important because there are only a few who still carry these types of skills.
“Who’s going to teach the next generation? Who’s going to teach when we’re gone? If we don’t start teaching them then it’s going to be lost,” Basil said.
Basil sees hide tanning as essential to her culture. As a cultural revitalization worker, she is learning where she can by actively gathering and sharing skills in order to bring the knowledge back to her community in the Nicola Valley.
It’s a practical skill
While brain tanning is about culture for some participants, there are those who simply want to learn new skills.
Sam Albrecht from Denman Island looks forward to using his buckskin — the name of the hide once the tanning is complete — for a shop belt or an upholstery project.
He came to learn a useful skill, but the workshop reminded him of his college days.
“What I found most enlightening was the exposure to the skills and perspectives that I wouldn’t have gotten in my own corner. Not that I used them but you all of the sudden realize that the perspective that you have sometimes has blinders on it,” he said.
Respect for culture
Curr’s workshop attracts diverse attendees with varying levels of understanding around cultural practices.
“If I teach a class to an audience of mostly white folks, we talk about what putting fringe on their clothing might mean,” she said. “We talk about what their buckskins will get used for. I specifically ask people not to make clothing that imitates Indigenous design.”
Curr has been invited to host workshops with Indigenous communities across B.C. She is careful that her practice remains within her own cultural scope. On her website, she writes:
“Meg is a settler on unceded Salish land and sea, who have been practicing tanning for millenia. She does not seek to further steal nor appropriate the aesthetics, customs and cultural regalia of this place or any other nation.”
Curr is cautious of cultural appropriation, so she uses her workshops as an opportunity to address that in hopes that everyone can behave with respect.
“Approaching this work in a really respectful way is not really up for me to decide,” she said.
“It’s up to other folks to decide if I’m doing it well or not. So I really seek feedback where I can.”
Carrying the knowledge forward
For Youngwolfe, learning this skill is about connecting with her culture.
“Yes, I can do something that my kookum could do, that my ancestors could do.”
That connection gives Youngwolfe a sense of cultural purpose.
“I can still have that sense of authenticity in doing this thing that before I couldn’t do,” she said.
For the youngest participants, Pascal and Nelson, brain tanning is one of many traditional skills they’re practicing. The two also shared stories of horseback archery and arrowhead making. Their enthusiasm for their roots is infectious to those around them.
“It makes me feel good because I have the knowledge,” Nelson said smilingly. “And I can do it at home, and tell others how to do it.”