What I Did with my Summer Vacation: Brain Tanning a Bison Robe

Imagine you have rabbits in your permaculture setup. They provide services to you such as efficient conversion of weeds into human-favored protein, manure, and body heat. They can also provide you warmth in the winter in the form of hides:

 
 

After 8 days in 90+-degree-heat, I have a semi-authentic Lakota buffalo robe!

Using hand tools approximating that used by the Lakota 100 years ago, we framed, fleshed, scraped, brained and stretched a buffalo calf hide using a dry-scrape brain-tan method.

  • The hides came salted from a bison coop in New Rockford – the organizers had soaked them overnight before we came. The afternoon of the first day, we assembled a 10×10 frame of 2×6″ boards, then laid out the hide skin side up within it. I learned that you can easily cut holes in the hide for lacing onto that frame by placing a scrap piece of 2×4 underneath; setting the tip of a narrow blade into the hide, above that 2×4; then pulling the hide up against the cutting edge of the blade. Much much easier than trying to cut a hole from the top. We laced them and washed the manure off the fur. We then covered the hides with towel scraps to keep them moist overnight.
  • The next day we had to scrape the leftover fat and flesh off the hide. It looked almost like beef jerky! The hand tool used for this  was a pipe sliced diagonally, with notches cut into the protruding end. I sliced nicely into my thumb and managed not to get infected! Woo! The faster the flesh came off,  the lighter in color the hides dried.
  • The next 2.5 days we spent scraping the hides to an overall even thickness, using an elk antler wahintka. The teacher can do it in 4 hours. I learned that 1/3 of the necessary force applied 3 times in no way equals 100% of the force applied once. The teacher had to help most people get through the thick membrane over the spine. After this, we rewetted the hides.
The hide scrapings look disturbingly like katsuobonito. From Brain-Tan
  • Next day is brain time! We used pork brains from the supermarket. First we put them through a blender to help with even penetration. Several people swore off strawberry milkshakes for life. We then cooked them to avoid interesting prion diseases; and applied them to the hides with paintbrushes. They should sit long enough for the brains to soak in and break down the glycerins in the hide, enabling it to stretch and become supple.
A brain-covered hide ready for stretching
Why one should not cover brained hides with dark blue sheets, This is supposed to be pinky-beige.
  • We then squeegeed off whatever brains had not soaked in; then used crescent-bladed shovels to stretch the hide. The color of the hide lightened as the grain stretched open; it was amazing seeing the color change progress ahead of your blade as you leaned it in. It really did not smell at all, until a couple people wandered off leaving brains applied for an extra day in 95-degree weather. Brains will spoil overnight in a refrigerator.
  • After repeating this once more, it’s time for hard work again – you need to keep working and stretching the hide until it’s completely dry – this is what makes the hide soft and pleasant to use. With only one person and 1.5 days, I got a few spots really nice and soft but the thick spine and rump areas weren’t dry till a few days later and now make a crinkly noise when stretched.


The teacher’s sharp edge for breaking the drying hides

Some of the dust that came off the hide during the stretching process. This will need some vacuuming.
If you’re in the North Dakota area and would like to tan your own buffalo hide to take home, keep an eye on the Sitting Bull College website. They do two workshops every summer, in different places every year, for free.

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