Tanning hides the traditional way
Wesley Dick can skin a deer in seven minutes.
He makes three cuts with a buck knife, in a T-shape across the belly and uses his hands to scrape out the innards.
Dick, whose Paiute name Kwassuba-tue means “someone who tans hides,” is an advocate for traditional practices and Indian rights. He can talk for a long time – and he cautions that he will – about how much has been taken away from the native peoples and how they need to respect the tribal elders and teach children their customs.
He’s the only one around who tans in the traditional way. It hurts him to think that many Indian boys these days don’t know how to skin a deer. There’s another Kwassuba-tue in the neighborhood, but there is no confusion, he said.
Dick looks young – his face is smooth – yet he speaks like a sage about the dying art of traditional buckskin tanning.
Dick’s talents have been recognized by the Nevada Arts Council. One of the ceremonial dance dresses he made for his daughter is on display at the Nevada State Museum’s Under One Sky exhibition.
Dick was awarded a grant earlier this month to teach his craft to another Fallon resident, Elizabeth Works, who is also his wife. He has apprenticed one other person before her, tribal elder Don Hicks.
You can catch the pungent scent of dead animals in the backyard of their Doi Dicutta Street home on the Stillwater Reservation. Dick said this week the smell is worse than usual because he left some skins in buckets of water out in the blistering heat all weekend. But this work is sacrificial, he said, like changing a baby’s diapers.
“You don’t like it, but you do it,” Dick said, wearing a wide-brimmed black hat decorated with two eagle feathers.
He does all his tanning work in the backyard, which looks like a desert. Back from the house comes the oasis of his backyard – grass takes over where the shadows of the hubbi, or willow shade, begin. Two buck skins hang from nails under the willow shade. They turn slightly in the wind. The hides are hard like cardboard.
He does any night work inside a wood shed in the corner of the property. Several cow skulls sit on the shed’s roof. They are there for luck and each skull looks in a different direction.
Works, 37, said buckskin tanning is a good skill to learn because few people can do it.
“He’s been tanning hides for a long time, so what better person to learn from than the one you are with?” she asked.
Works has four children: Cassie, 15, Docavie, 9, Alyssa, 5, and William, 2. They all dance with the Native American dance group Sage Spirit. Works is Shoshone and Hopi. She has lived on the Stillwater reservation all her life.
Works’ long black hair hangs down her back. She wears oval-rimmed glasses and a butterfly charm around her neck. The charm was a gift from her father. Her maiden name means butterfly.
“The way I learned was from the elders,” Dick said about tanning. “And from the people I hunted with as a young boy, just being around my own people and taking the time to talk to elders. People don’t do that anymore.”
Every Hide is Different
Tanning is labor intensive, and Dick doesn’t make much of a profit off his work. Many factors are involved in the process, such as the type and condition of the hide, the weather and the timing. Sometimes a hide will take four days, sometimes two months.
Dick held one of the hides hanging from his willow shade. After he took the fur off it the hide was really coarse. Dick said he applied the brains to it but it still didn’t get soft. The deer brains have to soak into the hide. He only uses natural materials on his hides. He hasn’t used cow brains recently because of the mad cow disease scare. Whoever skinned this deer didn’t do it properly. Holes and gash marks scar the skin. He’ll use that one for strings or for a drum.
After the hide is dried he’ll put it in a bucket of water to soften it and the fur will start to come off. Several hides soaked in tall barrels or small plastic tubs. Flies swarmed around the two tall barrels behind the willow shade.
Dick pulled out a slick hide from a small plastic tub out in the sun. This is an antelope hide. Water splashed on his cowboy boots, leaving dark brown spots. This hide is small, so he’ll either make infant moccasins or a cradleboard out of it. Dick likes to work with the antelope skin because it comes out really white when he begins to stretch it.
He placed the skin over a smooth-ended cottonwood post and stretched it like Saran Wrap. This is when he prays. He thanks his creator for the animal, for his health, for the world’s beauty. According to tradition, he can only think good thoughts while pushing all of the moisture out of the skin. He may get tired but he must finish the whole thing right then. He can’t stop to drink water.
The longer Dick worked, the whiter the skin became. He doesn’t know the reason for this, except that the “cells open up.” Dick will repeat the drying, soaking and stretching process again and again until he gets what he wants – until the art matches what’s in his mind’s eye. When he feels static electricity he knows it’s done.
He uses wood chips to smoke the hide to the desired color. Paiutes are known for their golden smoke-colored hides.
Works’ first assignment is to complete a buckskin dress for her daughter, Cassie. Cassie has a cloth dress now, but her parents want her to be one of the few children who have a genuine buckskin dress. Her apprenticeship program lasts a year, but Dick knows it won’t take his wife that long to do a dress.
“Elizabeth has to do everything herself,” he said about the project. “Now she has a chance to do it herself for her daughter.”
The Folklife Apprenticeship Program supports traditional artists by awarding up to 12 grants each year to master folk artists to teach their skills to dedicated apprentices from their own cultures, according to the Nevada Arts Council. Each folk art apprenticeship award includes $1,700 for the master artist and a budget up to $2,500 for supplies, tools, materials and related travel costs.
Iola Byers of Fallon was awarded a grant to teach Mildred Brigham and Amelia Smith, also both of Fallon, Shoshone willow cradleboard making and traditional cradleboard stories.