Working on it

Youth tanners learn from working on a hide during the Maamigin Knowledge Exchange/Food Sovereignty Gathering, 2022.

Jean Marshall is an Anishinaabe hide tanner and receives hides for her tanning business from trappers like John Kaplanis, an avid local trapper and fur trader. She says the whole trapping practice from harvesting the animal, utilizing its fur and consuming the meat is a tradition that is vital to the livelihood, wellness and most importantly, healing of Indigenous people — but it is at risk of vanishing.

Marshall says their elders are getting older and they’re “leaving,” and when they leave they take all this knowledge with them. She urges the youth to seek out their elders and ask them to share any knowledge they have.

“It’s a critical time right now,” she said, adding that trapping creates a culturally appropriate Indigenous space where they can feel safe. “It’s a really positive affirmation for Indigenous people and that’s why they are gravitating to it. I believe that this is the work that’s going to heal our community. Just in my small time doing this work, I see the love that comes in. We speak lovingly and kindly to the hide and to each other.”

Each hide is shown the utmost respect and as work progresses, they are always surrounded by children and elders.

“There are all ages and there’s something to do for everybody,” she said. “I think it’s really rare, it’s finding the love, . . . it’s teaching commitment, patience and determination.”

Trapping wild animals and working with the furs is also a way to remember relatives and ancestors and honouring them and the elders that are still here.

Marshall says both trapping and hide tanning have been an important part of the way of life of Indigenous people "since time immemorial.”

“Anishinaabe people have suffered great losses, which has resulted in a disconnection from our traditional ways,” she said. “We still have a lot of traditional knowledge in our community that hasn’t been lost. We have a lot of elders who carry the knowledge, the relationship of the land and how to navigate it. The answers are in the land.”

She says many skills for their people have become dormant due to the generational gaps created by the residential school era. There are ongoing effects on their communities, families and individuals.

“I’m learning that tradition of hide tanning as a way to reconnect to the community and what I’m finding is filling a void for me, it’s teaching me about the importance of relationships with the community. It’s not a race thing. It’s a people thing. Anyone who does things with the land does it with ultimate respect, and they give thanks.”

Marshall says she and Kaplanis have a mutual understanding because of what each of them do in the trapping industry.

“I have much respect for the work that trappers do,” she said. “John, who is an avid hunter and trapper, does the work that I don’t do. He goes out onto the land. He talks to the animals, builds a relationship with the land and understands where to go hunting.”

She says spending time making leather not only strengthens people in the community but the leather from the animal is also put to good use for clothing, it could become a big drum or rattles and shakers for ceremonies for healing people. The bones can be used to make tools for tanning or games for children to play and learn with. Tendons and muscles are dried and used for sinew, a tough fibrous thread used for sewing.

“There’s no waste in anything that we’re doing,” she said.

Meanwhile, Marshall encourages people to learn more about the importance of trapping before condemning the process. She asks those opposed to the practice to have compassion toward the losses of Anishinaabe people who find comfort in this work that the young people are picking up again.

“It’s us building relationships with ourselves,” she said.

She added hide tanning is a positive outlet in many Indigenous communities. It opens a space for intergenerational knowledge exchange to reclaim and revitalize their cultural practices.