Ancient skills: The Frontier Culture Museum threads the past into the present

Photo by Erika Howsare Photo by Erika Howsare

When I find Mary Kate Claytor, she’s cross-legged on the grass under a catalpa tree, working a deer hide over the sharp point of an awl made from deer bone, trying to poke a hole. The hide is wet: It recently came out of a freezer, where it’s been waiting since it was taken from a deer hunted last fall.

We’re at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, where recreated homeplaces from Europe, Africa, and North America tell the story of how many civilizations blended to create a new, American culture. This is the Native American portion of the museum’s sprawling outdoor grounds, and Claytor’s work as an interpreter involves demonstrating processes that people of Eastern Woodlands nations would have performed as part of daily life. Poking this hole is one of the first steps in tanning the deer hide to make buckskin.

The awl sits on its rounded handle, pointed straight up, and Claytor wiggles the hide down over it. Finally the awl breaks through. The hide is incredibly strong. It’s fur-side down right now, and we’re looking at a smooth surface with pinks, whites, and light browns swirling over it. To the touch, it’s rubbery and a little slimy.

In front of her on the ground is a wooden frame with dozens of handmade nails pounded into it at regular intervals. Having made holes all around the border of the hide, Claytor begins to thread jute twine through the openings, then winds and knots the twine around the nails on the frame. “When I get it stretched,” she explains, “as it dries it will contract and become more tight in the frame.” This should make the next step—scraping off the hair—easier.

But she’s not there yet; stretching the hide takes quite a while. Every time she threads another hole, she’s got to carefully pull the jute tight with one hand while massaging the hide outward with the other. Sometimes the jute snaps. It’s far more likely to break than the hide itself.

The strength of deer hide is part of what made it so useful to indigenous peoples. Claytor hands me a piece of finished buckskin, which is just like what she’ll have at the end of this tanning process. It’s seductively soft, velvety, thinner than I’d imagined. I immediately want to wrap myself in it, and it’s big enough to be at least the beginning of a garment. Moccasins and pouches can be made from buckskin, too.

As Claytor works her away around the hide, her colleague Misti Furr explains to some nearby museumgoers that deer hide also became an important export from the American colonies back to Europe, where buckskin was used to make gloves, and rawhide served as pulley cables. “These skins helped fuel the Industrial Revolution and make a lot of money for the mother country,” she says. “It’s one of the colonies’ most stable exports”—more reliable year-to-year than cash crops like tobacco.

That trade changed life for Native Americans; they acquired European goods, and hunted more deer to satisfy European demand. Furr weaves a tale of interlocking changes that stretches from the woods of eastern North America to the shores of West Africa and down to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. The usefulness of deer hides—their size, their pliability, their abundance and toughness—made them a valuable resource in the early global economy. But before that, they were a basic life material for people all over this continent.

“Brain tanning is a traditional method used by indigenous peoples across North America,” says Claytor. Native Americans processed many animals, including buffalo, using the technique that Claytor will be following with this hide: The animal’s own brain is made into a solution in which the skin gets soaked. Oils and fats in the brain tissue lubricate the fibers in the skin, making it soft and workable. Then the hide is smoked over a smoldering fire to preserve and waterproof it. It’ll take the better part of a week altogether.

Claytor’s approach to this project isn’t totally purist; it’s a mix of old and new. She made a deer leg bone into a scraper to remove the fur, for example—using a Dremel tool. And she’ll scrape the hide before removing it from the frame, while Native Americans would have been likely to do it with the hide laid over a log. Claytor and her colleagues do it that way sometimes, too.

“We’re in this weird place—non-Native people interpreting Native culture,” she acknowledges. Interpreters don’t always know exactly what the old ways looked like—they do a lot of experimentation to help figure it out—and of course the old ways changed over time and geography. They weren’t the same everywhere, and they evolved as all cultures do.

Finally the hide is fully stretched. Claytor stands the frame on end and flips it around so I can see the fur: dark brown along the spine, lighter on the flanks, white on the edges. The sun is behind her, and just for a moment it shines through the skin, lighting it up and making it glow.

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