What is Smoked Moose Hide?
One of the most coveted materials for indigenous peoples to make moccasins and mukluks is smoked moose hide. It is coveted because it is soft, durable and gorgeous. What exactly is smoked moose hide? How do you make one? Making a smoked moose hide is like telling a tale that takes you deep into indigenous culture and that special connection to the natural world.
First a hunter who is familiar with the land and where to find the animals, has to track and kill a moose. This can take anywhere from a day to a week or even longer. In the past, the hunter had no option but to keep searching until they found and killed a moose, as their family’s well being depended on it.
After the kill, the moose is gutted and skinned and a prayer is said to honour the animal. It is a common belief through many indigenous peoples that the animal is a brother, who has offered themselves to the hunters in order to help the hunter and his family survive. This sacrifice has to be honoured through ceremony as well as utilizing all parts of the animal. Many indigenous peoples also view the liver as a very important part of the animal and it is often offered right away to a person in the hunting group as a sign of respect.
After the hunter has returned from the kill, they then divide up the meat to the families in the community. The hide preparation then begins with a good soaking of the hide in water for approximately 3 days to loosen the flesh and hair. Following the soaking the hide is scraped free of all the residual flesh.
The hide is then strung up on a large pole stretcher and left to dry for a few days. Then the labour intensive task of scraping begins. The scraping down of both sides of the hide takes approximately two days of work. This messy job is often done outside. Be ready for some really ripe rotten smells and friendly flies drawn by the smell. This job is completed when there all hair and flesh is gone, and there is a uniform thickness across the hide. The more scraping and working of the hide results in a softer hide in the end.
The Brain Tan:
Following the scraping, a mixture of moose brain mash is massaged into the hide and let to sit in the mixture for three days. Brain is used because it has just the right amount of fat in it to soften the hide and in combination with the scraping alter the protein structure of the skin so that it can never again return to its rawhide state.
The soaking, stretching and soaking routine is done a few times till, the hide is soft, fuzzy and felt-like.
Smoking the Hide:
Once it is felt to be soft enough, you then sew the hide into a cone shape with the top open. A fire is built from dead dry wood, and the hide is put over the smoke in a tepee like structure and it is left there to dry and smoke. This is done on both sides of the hide, and is completed when there is a uniform colour and softness.
Once the hide is tanned and smoked, it is given to a mukluk artist. They then cut, sew and bead this hard worked hide into a beautiful piece of wearable art. Many people mistake this as a craft, however the skill to do each step, is an art form in itself. The skill to tan and smoke a hide and to sew and bead mukluks takes many years of practice and effort.
So the next time, you wonder why an artist is charging a lot for their work, take a sniff and see if it is smoked and you will have an idea of work it takes to make it. The survival of an art form stems first from the love of the artist who masters it. It also depends on the economic income it brings to the artist and their family. Getting a fair price allows them to be working artists and to focus on their skill and making the art they love.
If after all this, you still find it out of your price range, then by all means learn the skills and take up making mukluks. The more people making them, the better!