Traditional moose hide tanning skills passed down in the Whitehorse workshop

Moosehide tanning is one of the fundamental practices of the Aboriginal peoples of the Yukon. They have been doing it for thousands of years and passing their skills down from generation to generation.

It is an important tradition to maintain the culture, but only a few know how to do it.

That’s why Margaret Douville, originally from Teslin, Yukon, wants to share her knowledge with others.

« I always like to pass on my knowledge because I won’t be around forever, » she said.

Douville learned this traditional practice from his grandparents when he was 13 years old.

She remembers when her grandfather called her Tlingit name, Watsi, which means little doll, from across the family home and asked her to sit down and watch.

« I thought I was in trouble, » she said.

Douville said the best way to learn is to watch and do.

Cynthia Asp, one of the trainees, says the moosehide tanning training was the opportunity of a lifetime. (Sissi De Flaviis/CBC)

« It’s not like reading a book, because who is going to read a book and then run back and forth? You cut that many and then you come running back. By the time you finish reading that book, your moose hide will dry out. » she says.

Several years later, she now teaches others how to do it – a role her elders hoped for her.

« I was thinking about my grandfather, he was like, ‘Maybe one day you’ll be a big shot.’ What he was trying to tell me was, ‘You’re going to be the next teacher. ‘ And that really hit me, » Douville said.

Douville said her first moosehide tanning took her 17 days and it felt like a fishing net from all the holes she punched in the hide. His grandparents welcomed him as a learning opportunity.

« Gunałchéesh [thank you] grandfather, grandmother and all my ancestors for teaching me. For teaching me and passing on your knowledge to me. »

Douville, also known as Moosehide Margaret, taught and learned the traditional practice in several northern Aboriginal communities.

A section of moose hide is stretched so that it can be tanned.
Douville uses the skin to make a multitude of objects, from rope to moccasins, stockings, and more. After tanning, she cuts the edges with holes, sews the edging and smokes the part. (Sissi De Flaviis/CBC)

Last week, she led a week-long moosehide tanning workshop at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Center (KDCC).

Cynthia Aspe, who is Tutchone from both North and South, said attending this workshop was a dream come true.

« When will I have a week to participate in ancient culture? Our people have been doing this since time immemorial. And learning from a master like Margaret is an honor. It’s amazing, » she said.

Asp said moose hide tanning should be a mandatory cultural training for people who want to come to the territory.

« Want to work in our government? Come do moose hide tanning. Come learn. Come be part of the culture, » she said.

Asp, left, and Kailen Gingell rubbing poles against skin creating fluffy texture. This is one of the stages in the tanning of hides. (Sissi De Flaviis/CBC)

Kailen Gingell, head of cultural programs at KDCC, said the center wanted to make more cultural programs available to people walking through the building, including tourists.

« A lot of people are really interested in knowing how it’s done and why this work is so important, » he said.

Gingell also participated in the week-long workshop, a rewarding experience, she says.

« You really feel your cultural knowledge growing and it heals too. »

« It’s something I didn’t do growing up, but it’s something important to reconnect with yourself, culturally, and learn that skill that has been so important to Yukoners and yours for thousands of years,” he said.

Gingell said the center will try to introduce another moosehide tanning facility next spring.


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