The Use of Skins

In every pueblo the hunt brought in a good many buckskins and some of the tougher hides of antelope. These were used for clothing. Mountain lion, mountain sheep, wildcat, and coyote skins served for bags, caps, and extra foot wrappings. The soft, furry skin of the red fox was worn whole in ceremonials, as it is today. Usually a few buffalo hides or portions of hide were brought in from the yearly hunt or from trade. These made the best possible bedding for lying on a cold earthen floor, and as they wore out they were cut up piecemeal for moccasin soles, bowguards, and anything else that required heavy skin.

Hopi throwing sticks

Plate V-4. Hopi throwing sticks.

The men did the skin work, both hide dressing and sewing. On the Plains, from which they learned much of their leathercraft in later years, such work was left to the women. But Plains women did not have to grind corn. Pueblo men had done the leather work in former days, when it meant only tying a few skins crudely together, and they kept on, even though they had to sew the elaborate knee-length moccasins worn by the women. In fact, in many pueblos, making moccasins for the girl he was to marry came to be the sign of a young man's competence, and it is still.

Dehairing a buckskin

Plate V-5. Dehairing a buckskin.

Dressing Buckskin

Buckskin was the one they worked with oftenest, and many old men still know how to treat it in the old way. First the skin was soaked in water for a week to soften it. If the worker could, he soaked it in some outdoor pool. Otherwise he dampened the hide and buried it in the ground, which kept the moisture just as well.

When the hide was thoroughly soft, he laid it over a tree trunk for scraping. There were several such scraping boards in every pueblo, made of a thick section of Cottonwood trunk, five or six feet long, peeled and smoothed. One end was cut slanting so that it would lean at an angle against the wall. The other was cut to fit the ground and perhaps it had branches, cut off short to serve as legs. (Plate V-5)

The skin scraper, in very old days, was probably a long flat piece of some flinty stone, chipped along one edge. The scraper which pueblo people remember now was a drawknife of iron, which they made cleverly for themselves, perhaps after seeing the Spanish tools. They took any thin flat piece of iron they could find, sharpened one edge on a piece of sandstone and set it into a semi-circular handle. This was made of a slender oak rod, steamed in the fire to a half moon shape, about six inches across, with straight ends extending out at the sides as handles. (Plate V-5)

With this tool, and perhaps others of various sizes, the worker removed all scraps of flesh from the skin, then turned it over and removed the hair and the grain (the layer of skin under the hair). Modern leatherworkers often leave the grain, but for a genuine buckskin tan, say pueblo people, it must be scraped off.

Any skinworker already had deer brains boiled and put away. These were removed as soon as an animal was killed, boiled a short time, then wrapped in cornhusk so they would keep. The worker soaked the skin again so it would be soft. If the time were winter, he would take it out early in the morning so it would freeze and then thaw-a specially convenient way of softening. Then he stretched it out to work on. He might tie it to one of the racks of poles which stood outside pueblo houses to hold wood or drying vegetables. He might peg it out on the ground with wooden pegs, though in that case, it would need to be turned during the work. When it was firmly stretched, he began rubbing the oily brains into it on both sides, keeping on until the brains were used up. All the Southwest Indians tanned skins with this sort of oiling and did not smoke them, nor did they use tan bark before the white people came. The skins treated with brains are beautifully soft but not waterproof. When wet they turn stiff and have to be pulled and stretched for re-softening. Pueblo tanners are now experimenting with neatsfoot oil and other modem products but they find that old colorings do not take so well without the oil of animal brains.

After the oiling, the extra moisture had to be taken out of the skin. The worker doubled it around a smooth, upright post, twisted a stick in the hanging ends of the skin for a handle and then wrung it violently as women wring clothes in their hands after washing. The skin was finally dry but out of shape and full of wrinkles. Then the worker rubbed it in both hands to bring back its flexibility. Finally he laid it over his knee and rubbed it patiently with a piece of sandstone, to take off any little roughnesses.

After the Spaniards came, pueblo people learned a vegetable taining method, but they suited it to their own conditions and to the plans they could find. The European way was to boil powdered oak bark, and soak the skins in vats of this liquid for two or three weeks. Pueblo people who could not often get oak, used white fir (Abies concolor), canyaigre (Rumex hy-menosepalus), or Mormon tea (Ephedra nevadensis). They dried the bark of the trees or whole stems of the plants in the sun, then boiled and pounded them to powder. They mixed two parts of this liquid with one part of water and soaked a skin in a pot or other clean container which had no metal about it, airing the skin each day so that the acid would not eat into it. Finally it was rinsed in clear water and hung up to dry.


A buckskin finished by this process came out white and, to whiten it further, the skinworker rubbed it with a thin wash of white clay of the same kind his wife used for painting her pots. This was generally done after the skin had been made into a garment. Occasionally he might rub parts of a shirt or leggings with yellow clay, red clay, or the copper sulphate which make turquoise blue. The most usual color for skin garments, especially men's moccasins, was a brownish red, a shade which is still worn. If possible, this was a dye made with mountain mahogany. The skin was laid with the side where the hair had been, uppermost, and wood ashes, generally juniper, were sprinkled over it and rubbed in with a corncob. Roots of mountain mahogany (Cerocarpus montanus) were cut up and boiled and the liquid spread over the skin. Then dry pieces of alder bark (Alnus incana) were scattered on it. Without these, the skinworkers say, the mahogany dye would lie in patches and would not soak through the skin. The skin was folded up, hair side in, and left all night. The side treated had a fast, red dye.

The Zuni used another recipe. They boiled the root (Holodiscus dum-osus) with a little Indian paint brush (Castillea integra) and dipped the skin in this. Then they added ground up alder bark and dipped it a third time. After this, they rubbed it with wood ashes and then with a corncob to work the red well in.

For black, the Zuni boiled sumac stems and leaves, and when the liquid was cool dipped the buckskin in it. They emptied the bowl twice and filled it with fresh dye. In the third clean bowlful they put a handful of iron-bearing clay which can be picked up in the desert. The skin was dipped six times in the dye mixed with iron.

After dyeing in any of these ways, the skin had to be twisted to dry it, then softened again. Burying it in the earth was the usual softening method. After being dug up, it was pulled, rubbed and stretched in the hands until it was soft and flexible. This rubbing treatment had to be repeated every time the skin got wet. No wonder the skin clothing was not washed much! Antelope hide, tougher and smaller than buckskin, was dressed in the same way.