Skinning and Tanning the Indian Way
What Did You Say?
For the love of little furry beasts everywhere, I in no way condone the killing of animals solely for their skin, but I would be lying if I said I did not take advantage of opportunities where pelts could be harvested from pre-killed specimens. That's right. You heard me. You're reading an article written by a hobby taxidermist.
If you're brand new to taxidermy, skinning in particular, or are just plain curious about weird things, then boy are you in for a treat! Are you tired of all your big-shot hunting buddies talking about things you have no idea about? Have you ever gone to that dinner party and later on lamented wistfully, 'Gee, I sure do wish I knew more about dead animals!' Well look no further. Crazy ol' Shaddie is going to teach you a few things about a few things you never cared to know!
Since the dawn of man, animal skins have been used for a variety of practical and economic reasons. They have been used as clothing, shelter, warmth, protection, wealth, communication, and fashion. Though controversial to many groups, the fur trade remains a popular worldwide industry to this day, with over 80,000 trappers in Canada alone. Let's jump in and learn more, shaalllll we?
Types of Skinning
Now if you're like me, you came into the world of skinning knowing absolutely nothing. An animal pelt was an animal pelt, all equal, all the same! Right? Wrong! There are actually many styles of animal pelts out there, so let me talk about a few.
Cape skinning - This is where the head, neck, and shoulder skin are reserved for a head or "trophy mount", such is the case with most male deer shot by hunters. These are the kinds of skinnings that make up the deer heads in your creepy uncle's cabin.
Ventral cut skinning - Incisions are made down the underside from throat to tail (or shorter if it can be managed). This is a common skinning style, used most often when an animal is turned into a floor rug. Oftentimes the legs are cut ventrally as well.
Dorsal cut skinning - Similar to the ventral cut, except there is typically only one straight incision down the back, head to tail. This is a less common type of skinning, but is most often used in life-size mounted taxidermy (like the kind you would see at Cabella's, or the museum, or your creepy uncle's cabin).
Case skinning - Another popular type of skinning done today is the case skin, where ideally a single incision is made; back foot to back foot. The carcass is removed through this cut, leaving behind a 'tube' of the animal pelt.
Hide skinning - This is possibly the most popular type of skinning used in the history of fur trade. A common example of hide skinning are the rabbit pelts that you find at craft stores. Hide skins are simply flat skins cut ventrally, minus the legs and head.
Buckskin and leather - This style of animal skin is usually cut with the hide skinning method, the only difference being that the fur is completely removed from the surface of the skin, leaving behind only the leather. Soft, tanned leather is usually called buckskin, and it is usually yellowish or white in color.
Hide skinning and buckskin in particular were very common in the early days of animal tanning. Native Americans alone relied heavily on these types of skins, and used a variety of both different and interesting procedures to manufacture their goods. In fact, let's take a closer look.
Hide Skinning in Native America
Skinning and tanning procedures similar to these described on this page were used by most of the pre-contact Native groups in America. Tanning was done primarily by the Indian women, who were the world’s masters at processing animal skins into usable buckskins and furs. Their buckskins were much stronger than cloth, yet with these certain methods the hides were made as soft as the softest material. They were able to do this by using a small collection of tools, all made from the natural materials found in their environments; rock, wood, or animal bone. The tanned hides were made into tipis, clothing, and rugs. A family’s buckskins could get wet multiple times over and yet still dry to be as soft as ever because of the womens’ expertise in properly processing the skins.
American Indians developed brain tanning (we'll talk more about that later) before recorded history to process animal skins into usable material. But it was unfortunately considered by many early settlers as inferior to modern tanned leather. However, brain tanning is an ideal method for home tanners because the only tanning agent needed is…well, animal brains! No acids or hazardous chemicals required for these babies!
The methods described here are more or less the same as those used to create the buckskins and furs tanned by early Native Americans. Native skinning and tanning processes included at least the following basic steps:
1. Removing the Skin From the Animal
Naturally, to do anything with a hide one has to first remove it from the carcass. Indians would normally hide skin their animals. That is, they would cut around the ankles of the animal and straight across the insides of the legs to where, if a tail were present, they would cut along the underside of the vertebrae. They would then make incisions around the wrists and down the insides of the arms of the animal, severing the pelt at the neck. No, the head of the animal was not chopped off, only the skin was removed during this process. It was then customary to cut down the belly of the animal, leaving a flat pelt. If done correctly, blood was not an issue.
2. Removing Fat, Flesh and Membrane from the Skin
The excess fat and flesh were scraped off with a sharp, yet blunt bone or stone tool. The skin was pegged out flat on the ground or it was laid over a slanted log to provide a hard, stable surface with to work on. During this process, fur was also removed from many skins to produce 'buckskin,' though not all animal skins had the fur removed. Many animal skins were also used for decorational purposes.
3. Drying the Skin
Though most Native Americans would remove the fur by this time to make buckskin clothing, they sometimes kept the fur on for more "artistic" reasons such as to use as rugs or capes. To prevent the fur from slipping they would often dry the skin under the sun until it was stiff.
4. Braining the Skin
You heard right, braining. Native Indians would either soak the skin of the animal in brain solution, or the brains were made into a paste and rubbed directly onto the fur-less skin. They were kept overnight or for a few days in this state, depending on the size of the animal. Other organs such as the spinal chord, liver, or marrow, fat, and vegetable matter were sometimes used as well, but brains seemed to be the most important ingredient. The reason for this was to promote softness and pliability later on.
5. Breaking and Drying the Skin
This step involved stretching and working the skin in some manner until it was completely dry and soft. Depending on the size of the skin, it could have been rubbed over a stick, a log, or a particular rock. The brains and other softening materials were scraped and rubbed off during this process until the skin was velvety soft and flexible.
6. Smoking the Skin
All Indian tribes may not have universally practiced this step, but by smoking the skins they could be softened easier after washing or getting wet. As a bonus, insects were less likely to investigate a smoked skin. Smoking was accomplished by hanging the skin over a slowly smoldering fire in order to absorb the fumes. Sometimes the skins were hung up in buildings called smoke houses, which were designed especially for this process.
Once the smoking was completed, you had yourself a usable, posable, animal skin perfect for home or...wherever else you wanted to keep animal skins. Perhaps your creepy uncle would have appreciated some as a Christmas gift.
And There You Have It...
For any skeptics out there who feel this type of tanning is too difficult to reproduce, or does not need to be done in face of much more modern application, I simply must beg to differ. I have used these methods in my own home with considerable ease. It is possibly the cheapest way, since you don't have to use expensive chemicals. My first skinning project, done when I was in my senior year of highschool, happened to be on two unfortunate mice that my cats brought home, and though small, the project was a success.
Tips and Cautions
- Make sure all of your tools are ready and set out for easy access. Nothing is worse than being elbow-deep in animal carcass before you realize you need something that is just out of reach!
- When acquiring pre-killed specimens for skinning projects, be sure that the carcass is fresh. Bodies begin to degrade immediately after death, and after a day or so out in the open the skin becomes difficult to work with. Freeze any bodies in a freezer you find unless you are able to skin them immediately. Do not assume that because it's a little chilly in your garage the body will not erode there. Unless it is literally below freezing in your garage, pop that thang in the icebox.
- Children, pregnant wimmens, and people with compromised immune systems should probably not handle dead animals. Zoonotic diseases are fairly rare, but the possibility is still present to contract parasites and diseases shortly after an animal's death.
- Blood poisoning, or septicemia, is something that can happen when working with sharp tools in dirty places. It can be painful to experience, so be careful any time you're doing this kind of work.
- You can't be afraid to get dirty. Either you're going to get in there and do it, or you're not. Don't wear your favorite shirt. Do not wear your best shoes. And no, it is not practical to put on that fedora!
More on Skinning
- Ultimate Guide to Skinning and Tanning