I’ve brain-tanned my fair share of deer, squirrels, groundhogs, foxes and sundry other creatures unfortunate enough to cross Route 9 near our farm and school in West Virginia; but the farmers market seemed nervous about the prospect of giving us the skin when they slaughtered the next in their herd. Either way, we spent months calling, negotiating, anticipating and mostly, waiting.
American Natives weren’t the only early people to practice brain-tanning; it was a wide-spread practice whereby the brain of the animal provides the lecithin needed to naturally tan the hide. Today, modern tanneries use awful chemicals like chromium sulfate, but primitive humans used any source of tannins whether from lecithin in brains, or from certain barks or vegetables. Many American natives revered the buffalo and tanned its hide in a highly ritualistic manner. Buffalo skins provided homes, clothes and food for the Lakota and other people of the American interior.
As a kid, I remember traveling across the country with a plastic buffalo super glued to the dash board, anxiously peering out the window of the Dodge Caravan, waiting for my first glance of a real live buffalo. The feeling was exactly the same waiting for the call from the farmer’s market that we would be getting a hide.
Brain-Tanning is a Big Job
We knew it would be a big job. Brain-tanning a big deer can take 3 to 4 days for one person, so we definitely wanted help. We sent out an alert on the Facebook page letting our students and neighbors know that we would be trading brain-soaked, 25-degree-Fahrenheit, stooped-over labor for … well, apple cider.
When we picked up the hide at the butcher’s, we found out that the sow had been almost full-term with two calves. We dolefully loaded the 55-gallon barrel holding the bloody pelt along with the two unborn buffalo whom we wanted to honor. We weren’t quite sure what to do once we got the two perfectly formed little buffalo home, so we took them to the western end of the school, towards the setting sun and the land of the buffalo and buried them in a patch of lamb’s quarter. Maybe it was a silly gesture, but a part of me felt responsible for those two calves and the realities of our effects on other creatures is something I try to lean into instead of turning away. But now the hard work started. We decided to dry scrape the hide, which means building a rack. This was a big animal, so we got 16 foot 2-by-4s and built a square to stretch the hide out in. We sent out the alert. “Everybody who wants to tan a buffalo, be here tomorrow by 9 am, and stay all weekend!”
Tanning a Buffalo Hide in Winter
Sure it was 25 degrees and there was snow on the ground, but folks showed up and we scraped and scraped and scraped and scraped and warmed by the fire and then scraped some more. We scraped using traditional stone tools as well as ulu knives and plain old butter knives. The turkeys helped out too, picking scraps out of the grass.
Later we heated the brains with water and started rubbing them into the giant skin. Over 4 weeks, we brained the hide 6 or 7 times. We could tell the snow accumulation by how high up the buffalo rack the drifts were. Slowly, she dried and tightened, straining the wooden rack. I rendered the fat we pulled off of the hide into wonderful bison tallow, gifts back to our helpers on that first weekend.
We now have the bison hung in our main pavilion, and the 20 or so people who were a part of the hard work show her off to other students and stop by to touch the fur and admire their work. A huge part of what we do is build community that strives to live an authentic life, and this wonderful animal helped us along the way.