The first smoke has just begun. Several caribou hides, scraped clean of hair and fat, hang inside a small tipi. An oil-drum fire fed with rotten wood chips smolders below, filling the air with a rich, earthy scent.
Standing outside with a coffee mug in hand, Phoebe Rabesca directs two young bush hands as they wrap the tipi with a tarp to keep the smoke contained. It’s a bright spring morning in Behchokǫ̀, a Tłı̨chǫ hamlet 110-kilometres northwest of Yellowknife. The community is hosting a hide-tanning camp, with a modest collection of wall-tents and tipis set up next to Frank Channel, an inlet of Great Slave Lake.
After offering a warm greeting, Rabesca—the camp’s organizer with the Tłı̨chǫ Government—quickly catches me up to speed. The hides stay in the tipi for the next several hours, she explains, before they’re taken out and scraped again with hand-crafted tools made of bone and metal. This is when the hides start to become soft and velvety; the more you scrape, the softer they become.
In all, a caribou hide takes about five days to complete from start to finish. It’s time-consuming and physically demanding work, but it can’t be rushed. Done with care, the final product will be strong and durable for decades.
“It’s really important not to give up,” Rabesca says. “You’ve got to have a strong mindset.”
Fortunately, she adds, the 15 participants at this year’s camp have shown the fortitude and determination needed to get the job done. They’ve come with a range of experience. “There’s some people that kind of know how to do it, but don’t know all the steps, so they are here to learn the rest,” Rabesca says.
Then she points to a wall-tent where three young women, looking to be in their early 20s, sit astride wooden benches. They are still busy scraping pink flesh from their caribou hides. “These girls? It’s their first time.”
We observe for a moment or two. The women laugh amongst themselves, only stopping their work occasionally to compare results or ask one of the Elders a question. “Wow, I like this one. It’s nice and brown,” says Shelly Eyakfwo, one of the three women. She gestures to a hide mentor Eva Mantla is working on.
“Don’t worry, yours will get there,” Mantla assures her.
There’s an easy camaraderie in their interactions, a shared excitement for the task at hand.
Rabesca’s eyes twinkle with pride. “I’m so happy with those girls,” she says. “If they don’t know something, they all communicate or talk to each other. If they get stuck on something, they run to the Elders.
“They’ve been steady, showing up every day, because they want to learn our ancestors’ techniques—and the knowledge that goes with it—so much.”
Hide tanning is experiencing a nationwide resurgence.
Simply log onto Instagram and you’ll see a number of camps, organizations, and artists dedicated to the practice across Canada, documented in posts and photos. Major institutions like the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and Toronto’s Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival have begun to incorporate tanning workshops into their programming. In the North, hide camps are now a regular occurrence, with communities from Fort Smith and Délı̨nę in the NWT to Whitehorse and Ross River in the Yukon reclaiming local hide-tanning processes.
The community of Łutsel Kʼe, NWT hosts one of the longest-standing annual hide camps in the North. In 2014 (its first year), there were only 10 local attendees. At the camp held this past June, there were 80 from across the territory. Everyone is keen to learn.
Melaw Nakehk’o, a Dehcho Dene and Dënësųłinë́ land-based educator, has spent the last decade immersed in the world of hide tanning. A founding member of Dene Nahjo, an Indigenous innovation and arts collective that organizes hide camps throughout the NWT, she can personally attest to the growing scene.
“It’s beautiful to see,” she says. “I love seeing it on social media. I love messages that I’m getting from people about how excited they are to be doing the work. I love seeing all of the beautiful things they’re making with their hides. It’s empowering, and
When Nakehk’o set out to learn tanning herself, it wasn’t so easy. She initially took it up in 2008 so she would have more moosehide for her sewing and beadwork. Despite attending nearly every workshop she could find at the time, it wasn’t long before her learning stalled.
“I had started a lot of different hides, and they were all at various stages, but I was never able to get past the softening stage,” Nakehk’o says. “I just didn’t have enough time at a camp or with an Elder.”
So instead of waiting for an opportunity that might not come, Nakehk’o devised her own plan. She applied for funding from the Canada Council for the Arts and asked her aunt Margaret Jumbo if she could host a small group at her house in Sambaa K’e, NWT, inviting fellow amateur hide-tanners Tania Larsson, Mandee McDonald and Jasmine Netsena to join. She dubbed this the Golo-Dheh Project—golo dheh translates to “moosehide tanning”—and kept an online blog detailing the experience.
She also got close friend and filmmaker Lesley Johnson to capture everything on camera. “Because I was having such a hard time finding somebody to teach me, I wanted to be able to make a resource, or something for people to watch and see how it’s done,” Nakehk’o says. (Johnson would go on to produce a documentary about Nakehk’o’s story called Revolution Moosehide, released in 2019.)
From Jumbo’s home in Sambaa K’e, a Dehcho community of less than 100 people, Nakehk’o, her friends, and a few local Elders scraped, soaked, softened, and smoked their moose hides for nearly two weeks.
Nakehk’o then traveled to Jean Marie River, Łutsel Kʼe, Fort Simpson (her hometown), and Fort Nelson First Nation in B.C. to connect with, and learn from, more Elders. Along the way, she and her teachers shared their personal tanning journeys. Four months later, Nakehk’o finished her very first moosehide. “It was amazing,” she says.
Then she tears up. “Through this whole process, the people that I worked with knew my grandmothers, and they would tell me stories about them while I was working. And traditionally, I would have learned from them or other close relatives.”
Both Nakehk’o’s grandmothers had passed before she took up the practice, and many of her other aunts and uncles, former residential school students, never had the chance to learn. “That’s a generational gap within my family,” Nakehk’o says. “It was important [for me] to fill that gap with the knowledge that we should be carrying.”
It’s a story that’s heartbreakingly common throughout Indigenous communities in Canada today. For centuries, governmental, educational and religious policies actively sought to disconnect Indigenous peoples from their lands, languages, and each other, leaving entire generations without practical knowledge like traditional hide tanning.
Hides were used as shelter and clothing, and tanning was a part of everyday life. Children would have been introduced to the process at a young age and become proficient by the time they were adults.
Trying to regain these skills now can be frustrating, a reminder of the injustices that robbed communities of that knowledge in the first place. There are also many barriers to entry for the average person. Hide tanning requires an open space on the land (preferably with access to water, where hides can be soaked), proper tools (scrapers and knives that have been cleaned and sharpened), and ample amounts of time.
Most importantly, newcomers need the gentle, hands-on tutelage of a skilled teacher.
“It would be really hard to work on a hide alone,” says Kyla LeSage. An aspiring tanner herself, she currently works as an outreach coordinator for the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning—known colloquially as the NWT’s “bush university”—in Yellowknife.
“You think you know if you read a book, but then you have your hide, and you finish it, and you’re feeling it and you’re like, ‘Is this right?’ It’s nice to have an Elder there who can feel it and say, ‘Oh, you need to work this a bit more. This part is really tough.’”
This is where hide camps come in. Acting as incubators, the camps not only provide learners with the tools they need, but they also connect students with expert Elders, facilitating an intergenerational transfer of knowledge.
In the past two years, Dechinta has added a hide camp to the roster of land-based activities it organizes each year, hosting the second iteration this past June at a Yellowknives Dene First Nation’s gathering site near Wiìliìdeh (Yellowknife River). It welcomed twelve university students from across the country to earn credits towards their post-secondary degrees, as well as kids from the Kaw Tay Whee School in Dettah and residents from communities nearby.
For three weeks, amongst groves of spruce, the group worked on muskox, moose, and caribou hides under the careful guidance of Madeline Judas from Wekweètì and Paul Mackenzie from Dettah. The hope, LeSage says, is that the students will pick up these skills, eventually become self-sufficient with the practice, and then help keep it going.
Each of Judas and Mackenzie’s techniques were unique, the product of their own experiences and familial traditions. Mackenzie lathers the hide with crushed caribou brains (commonly used in traditional tanning) to soften it, while Judas uses the brains to make a soup in which the hides can soak. Mackenzie stretches hides across frames for scraping; Judas uses a palm scraper after affixing the hides on a tree.
Although their methods varied, many of the deeper lessons were the same. The Elders preached the importance of mindfulness while working, of being respectful to the hunter for the hide and the animal for its sacrifice, and being thankful to the land for providing. Everything—the land, the animals, the people—is interconnected.
“When we’re working on a hide, the spirit of the hide is working on us,” LeSage says, remembering a teaching. “It comes full circle.”
This is emblematic of a sentiment shared by many in the hide-tanning world today. The true value of the practice, they argue, extends far beyond the technical skills of bringing a hide from raw flesh to a stage where it can be used for moccasins. It’s about reconnecting with the land and community.
“By tanning hides together, we’re building relationships with each other,” says Mandee McDonald, a Maskîkow (Swampy Cree) tanner and managing director of Dene Nahjo.
“We’re strengthening our relationships to the land, to the animals. We’re connecting with hunters and learning about what they saw on the land. We’re learning about climate change, because that’s what the hide tells us. We’re working together, and talking, and it’s fun, and it’s healthy, and it feels good.”
Dene Nahjo has been organizing hide camps throughout the NWT since 2012. It held an annual urban camp in Yellowknife until 2019, and the collective continues to partner with other communities at least once a year. This August, it teamed up with the Dehcho First Nations and Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation to host a hide camp in Fort Simpson.
Dechinta also has plans to grow its hide programming and expand throughout the NWT. The university is hosting a camp in Tuktoyaktuk this fall, bringing in Inuvialuit and Gwich’in knowledge-keepers from across the Beaufort Delta area to teach.
“It’s crazy to think that we’ve only been doing this for two years—it feels like we’ve been doing this for so long because it’s so natural,” LeSage laughs. “And it’s incredible to see that it’s growing and that all different regions are doing it, and that Dechinta is only one of the small players in it.”
Nakehk’o herself has facilitated at least 30 camps throughout the country, some as far afield as Ontario and New Brunswick. She did seven in the year leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic alone. Though she still regularly tans hides on her own—with anywhere between three to nine caribou and moose hides on the go—it’s the time she spends teaching that feels
“I had a student in her sixties, and she was going to finish smoking her first caribou hide she had worked on,” Nakehk’o says, thinking back to one recent experience. “She was in there with her grandson, who was four years old, and she looked at him and she was like, ‘I was four years old the last time I saw anybody do this. I was watching my grandmother, and that was the last time I saw anybody do any hide tanning.’ And she just started weeping.”
That memory still sticks with Nakehk’o today. It’s why she’s so passionate about what she does. “It was so good to make a safe space for her to reclaim this knowledge for herself and her family and her community. Almost every day, I’m completely honoured to be a part of somebody’s journey in this way.”
But this work is not without challenges. Hide camps are often expensive and logistics can get complicated. Organizers need to consider food, supplies, firewood, transportation, accommodations, and adequate compensation for the Elders, bush hands, and cooks who dedicate their time. All told, a single camp can take up $50,000 to run.
McDonald says when it comes to navigating all the different grant applications and staying on top of the necessary paperwork, the learning curve can be just as steep as actually tanning hides.
McDonald is currently working on a PhD with the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Native Studies. She spent the summer interviewing members of the Dene Nahjo collective, and researching the ways hide camps offer new perspectives on Indigenous governance, community-building, and connection.
“I know for a lot of people already doing hide tanning and running camps, this will be intuitive for them—but for policymakers and funders, I don’t think that’s the case,” McDonald says. “So I’m hoping I can produce something that can be used to leverage more funding for land-based programming in the North.”
Because, she says, tanning hides is more than creating materials for clothing and art. It is filling a need for reconnection, healing, and pride of place, family and heritage.
“It’s going to bring our communities together,” LeSage says. “All of this is going to show us that Indigenous people are still here, we’re still practicing. And the only way to keep practicing is to continue to return to your community and your Elders.”
Nakehk’o seconds this. “We are working so hard to bring back a lot of these teachings, and to bring back this sense of belonging and self. Any piece of our culture or language or stories or teachings we get is so powerful and meaningful.
“Even just a little bit of it is good.”
Back in Behchokǫ̀, Rabesca has started work on her own caribou hide. She’s scraping it as it hangs across a clothesline drying. She plans to use it to make moccasins and vests for her family.
“Being out in the land is healing,” she tells me as she works. “When you’re sewing, or if you’re doing caribou hides, or you’re out there harvesting berries, harvesting wood, anything—you’re in a healing process. It feels
It’s not hard to see what Rabesca means. At first, the small camp thrums with activity. There’s something happening everywhere I look. An older woman filets fresh inconnu, caught in the channel earlier that morning. A bush hand chops wood and throws it on a fire pit outside. Several Elders sit at a nearby picnic table and jovially chat in Tłı̨chǫ.
Then, a pocket of quiet as everyone settles into their work and a focused stillness takes hold. Sun bounces off Frank Channel, and a gentle breeze rustles the nearby trees.
Before I leave, Rabesca calls me back over. There’s one more thing she’d like to add—a punctuation mark to our earlier conversations: “This is a really crucial time for as much knowledge to be passed on as possible, because we have only a few Elders left.”
There’s an urgency in her voice.
“We need to pass on as much as we can: the language, culture, way of life. It’s so important to have it alive. So, no matter what you do or what you’re going through, pass it on. Now’s the time.”