Using Brains to Tan a Buffalo Hide

A story about perseverance


I had longed to tan a hide ever since my fourth grade students at Key School in Annapolis read a children’s book together. The story centered on a Native American girl who used arrowheads to skin an elk and tan the hide.

So, one summer when my husband and I were in North Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation offered a six-day course on how to tan a buffalo hide, and I signed up right away. My bird research group would have to work without me that week.

I knew that it was impossible to create and use the hide as a blanket in three hours, as the girl in the book did, and I was about to find out just how impossible that feat really was.

The morning Ray and I arrived at the Cannonball pow-wow grounds, we found ourselves the only non-Indians in the group. The instructor looked at us, seniors in our 70s, and said, “I see you two elders have come to observe.”

“No, we have come to tan a hide,” I said with enthusiasm.

“This is hard work. You need young friends to help you,” he said curtly.

I smiled, “We have no young friends, and our old friends all think we are crazy to try this.”

He reached into the back of his pick up truck and pulled out a pile of hides. The buffaloes had been butchered in South Dakota during the winter, when their pelts were thick and woolly. The hides were bundled up, barely thawed out, and smelly. I wasn’t deterred.

The Lakota believe the magnificent buffaloes are holy beings, and the instructor told us that prayers to the Wakan Tanka (Great Spirit) were said by the medicine man prior to the butchering. The instructor handed out hides one after another to tribal members in the class. He chose a particularly small bundle to give to Ray and me. I wondered if it was intentional because we were old, or maybe because we were “wasichu,” which literally means fat eaters. This is what they call non-Indians.

It looked like everyone else had come with their entire family to help out. Ray and I were the only ones without family there. We sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. Once all fourteen members of the group were introduced, a new family came in and joined us. The instructor asked us all to reintroduce ourselves. Eager to show off, which is one of my worst traits, I said, “Let me try.” I had been working on my newly acquired skill of remembering names and was eager to test it.

Indeed, I named all the participants correctly. However, in doing so, I sealed my fate. The instructor, who hadn’t yet made up his mind about me, decided at that moment that he hated me. I had forgotten that one of the virtues the Lakota Sioux value most is humility. I blew it. Big time.

Ray built a frame for the hide using four-by-sixes, each 10 feet long. We punched holes in the edges of the hide to string it to the frame. Then we wet it down, stretching it tightly. Then we rewet the hide and stretched it even tighter.

When we stood the frame up, we could see that the fur side was beautiful. The inside, however, had uneven thicknesses of muscle and fat all over it, which we needed to scrape off without creating holes in the hide. The tool for this was a sharpened elk antler called a wahinka. Before scraping, though, the instructor said we needed to wait about an hour or so to allow the hide to dry. Exactly an hour later, everyone was still sitting around talking among themselves, but I wanted to get started scraping. Impatiently, I marched over to the instructor to ask if I could begin.

His response was, “The hide is not dry yet.”

”But you said it would be dry in an hour.”

He glared at me and walked away. I had forgotten that the Sioux consider the concept of clocks and units of time as a white man’s creation and not useful. They went on “Indian time,” which meant whatever time they felt like was the right time. Humility and patience, it was time for me to learn them.

Finally, the instructor declared the hides were dry enough to scrape. We all got to work. I learned right away, after puncturing the first hole in my hide, that it was tricky to scrape just hard enough to get to the skin without tearing it.

The work was exhausting, and we noticed that within each family, members took turns, and sat and rested in between theirs. For Ray and me, however, there were no breaks and we worked continuously. We were sweating profusely, had blisters popping up on our hands, but we persevered until 4 PM. After the first day, though, Ray decided he had had enough of the scraping and quit. He urged me to quit, too, but I refused. This project was too important to me, and I loved the idea that I would own a real holy buffalo hide that I had tanned myself.

All week, I worked like a dog. Occasionally, one of my bird research assistants would pop over, or one of the instructor’s assistants would take pity on me, and help me scrape. It was the hardest physical labor I’d ever done. I scraped from 8 AM until 4 PM, every day, with only a short break for lunch.

After five agonizing days, the hide was clean and we were ready to brain tan it. Traditionally, buffalo brain was used, but in order to get to the brain, the skull had to be cracked. However, the skulls were considered holy, highly valued, and used in ceremonies, so pig brains were often used instead, which is what we used. We cooked the brains and added some soap. To soften the hides, we spread them on the grass and used large rocks to press the globby brain porridge into them. I brained my hide three times those last two days.

By the end of the workshop, the instructor and I had made peace. I stopped bugging him about whether it was time to do this or that, and I learned to wait. He noticed my industriousness, and even volunteered, “It’s not too bad,” at the end. I found this to be a great compliment, and he was right. Although my hide was not nearly as soft as some others, it was my hide, I had done my best, and I loved it.

At the end of the week, I rolled it up and took it back to our North Dakota home. A month later, it was time to return to Maryland. We put it in the car with us, but the odor of the freshly tanned hide was unbearable. After driving for about 4 hours, Ray said, “Katherine, I know you love your buffalo hide, but I am going to leave it on the side of the road. The smell is overwhelming.” I didn’t say anything. I didn’t dare beg to keep it. Ray knew how hard I worked and how proud I was of it. He had been sure I could never get it soft enough to roll up and I had proved him wrong. I sat there quietly, completely miserable.

Ray, bless his heart, ultimately kept driving, and he drove all four days til we got to Maryland. Now in our house, it no longer smells, and it’s beautiful. I walk on it daily, quietly meditating, praying, or thinking of my happy days on the beautiful rez in North Dakota.

Katherine Haas taught at Key School in Annapolis for 42 years. She now spends her time enjoying the arts with her husband, learning Spanish while her Arabic teacher is in China, teaching Chinese, working part-time at Key as Scientist in Residence and engaging in progressive activism.

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