The Indians of the Peace River Country, until the coming of the fur trader, depended on the skins of animals for clothing. You could not call the material leather which is produced by the action of chemicals on a raw hide. “Dressed skin” is more nearly correct in speaking of the Indian product. The Indian worked or processed the skins to get the desired results. In many ways, for the purposes they were put to, the buckskin and moose hide were far superior to the white man’s product. Specifically, Indian-dressed skins can be wet and dried over and over without becoming stiff and shrunken or subject to cracking.
Only recently has the leather industry achieved washable leathers. When you consider the perfection of their methods, the Indians had made very great progress in this manufacturing art long before they saw the white man, an art for which they are seldom given credit.
It is significant that during World War II it was found that no material or combination of materials made by white men exceeded the native parka for lightness, flexibility, wind resistance and warmth under Arctic conditions
Skins could be dressed with or without the fur. Fur being the animals’ natural insulation, it worked just as well for the human and so was often left intact. Sometimes it was worn inside sometimes outside, depending on the effect desired.
The art of dressing hides was not peculiar to the Beavers or any other tribe, so the account given by Mrs. Beaudry, a Cree in Dawson Creek will serve for all. Mrs. Beaudry was known around Moberly Lake for the quality of her work. She seemed to take some extra steps in producing it along with great pride in her product.
Mrs. Beaudry’s Method of Tanning Moose-hide:
1. Soak the skin in water for two days and nights.
2. Make holes all around the moose-hide, while making a frame from four sticks and stretching the hide on the frame.
3. Scrape the inside to take the meat off.
4. Half-dry the skin and scrape again to take off the thin “skin” under the meat, scrape the other side to take off the hair.
5. Make a fire and put on spruce bark to make smoke. Hold the hide over the fire, moving it around all the time until it is brown all over.
6. Grease the side with a little lard or bear fat, (bear fat is good.) Spread it all over and smoke it again until the lard disappears. (The grease goes right through the hide.)
7. Boil the brains with a little bit of water and rub all over the hide. (Apply like you would a beauty soap. Now the skin is soft.) Place on a large cloth
8. You then take it and fold it edge-to-edge in the centre, length-wise, bring the ends toward the centre of the rectangle, fold again to half the length so that the ends are tucked inside. Fold it up, and put it under a heavy weight for two nights. Then throw it in a tub and soak it until it is wet all over.
9. The hide then is put over a high stick, and twisted with another stick very tight; to get all the water out.
10. Two people have to pull the hide very tight. Pull, pull, pull. While pulling & moving the hide all around a fire (not very hot – just smoke) you are
continually getting the thin hard places out by pulling them out.
Mrs. Beaudry demonstrated by giving one end of the cloth to the interviewer, and while the two held one side taut, she rotated the other hands quickly, so that one could see that the smoke would be fanned underneath the skin. The fanning motion was repeated on the other side.
“You do this,” she continued, “until you can blow through the hide and feel the breath on the other side. Now it is dry.”
You tie the skin, like a tube, (or shift dress) you then put a stick inside to skin and hold it up over another smoky fire. (rotten spruce makes a good fire.)
When asked, “How did you sew moose hide?” Mrs. Beaudry’s answer was “With sinew. You roll it on your knee, after you have separated it. You roll one end small, to go through the needle. The needle was a bone of muskrat with a hole in it. “I do not use much sinew.”
The method can be summarized under five headings
1. Fleshing – to remove fat and flesh that could decay.
2. Removing hair (fur) if desired.
3. Softening with brains and oil.
4. Manipulating to break up fibres and render it pliable.
5. Smoking to colour and preserve it.
As well as its other characteristics, buckskin resisted tearing when moving through the bush. “Buckskin” reminds us of the fact that the skins of deer was favored for clothing because it was light and could be scraped so thin that it was almost like a thin cloth.
Hides of various animals were prepared with the fur on to be worn as blankets in cold weather. The beaver was often used in this way. Small animals skins such as rabbit and lynx were also left furred to be used for wrapping the feet under moccasins in winter and for wraps for the infant in the pack-board cradle.
It is said that a blanket made of the leg-skins of lynx was the warmest of all, and that a man could lay such a blanket on snow, yet sleep comfortably, so good is the insulating effect. Even groundhog skins were used in the same way. Such a blanket costs an extremely high price for Arctic travelers, so great is the work involved in curing such fragile skins and piecing the patches together into a quilt. Sinew is favored over thread for sewing all skins even though it is a long, tedious job to prepare it. Tendons of the leg muscles of animals must first be separated into fibres then rolled on the thigh to make 2 or 3 or four-ply thread, piecing new fibres in from time to time to lengthen the strand smoothly.
Oddly enough, until we know the reason, early fur-traders would give an Indian a much higher price for an old, dirty beaver cloak or blanket (known as “castor gras”) than for fresh beaver skins of the same quantity. During wear, the coarse guard hairs would drop off, thus eliminating one of the processes the raw hides had to be put through by the manufacturers. Since only the soft, short wooly underfur or “duvet” entered into the felt for hat making, the Europeans had to scrape the inside of the beaver pelt until they exposed and loosened the roots of the coarse guard hairs and caused them to fall off. An old Indian blanket had already gone through that process.
Native dressed leather has never been surpassed for winter footwear or moccasins as long as the snow is not thawing or slushy. As we have said, it can be wet and dried repeatedly without cracking or stiffening. More important is its ability to keep the footwear dry from within because feet perspire even in very cold weather. Commercially tanned leather and more especially rubber and plastic keep the perspiration in causing the feet to get damp even in dry weather. Moose hide, native-tanned, is porous and lets the perspiration out. Unlike leather or plastic, native tanned leather “lets the skin breathe,” and keeps the wearer feeling dry and comfortable in all weather.
Moccasins were unsuitable for the voyageurs, though. The job demanded that the paddlers be often in the water, dragging heavy loads over sharp stones. Under those circumstances, moccasins wore out in as little as a day. References have been seen referring to the “hardening” of skins for soles of footwear, but as yet the method has not been explained where this writer can find it. It seems to have occurred only after the Indians obtained horses.
The woman naturally favored the “Hudson’s Bay blanket” and the woven cloth the trader offered because it took days, even weeks, to cure enough skins, separate and twist sinew and fashion a single garment. The skins had to be pierced, one tiny hole at a time, for sewing with sinew. On the other hand, cloth could be sewn quickly with thread and a steel needle, both obtainable from the fur-trader. Moreover, wool dried quickly in front of the campfire when wet. And of course, both men and women liked the bright colours.
Being freed from the necessity of fashioning all the clothing, and bedding from raw skins was the earliest and most extensive form of “women’s lib” on this continent.
PART II: Fashions in Clothing (with particular reference to the Beaver Indians)
It is hard to say what the Athapaskan-speaking peoples wore before the white traders came to North America. The Crees had been acting as middle-men for a considerable time in the one-hundred years between the establishing of the Hudson’s Bay posts on the great Bay in 1670, and the penetration of Peter Pond into the Peace River Country. Some trade goods must have found their way inland. The Indians had developed a desire for white man’s garments for we learn that Peter Pond traded even the clothes off his back for fine Athabasca area furs. One of the items of which there would be a plentiful supply would be old army uniforms — Britain and France had been at war at intervals for many years. The bright colours of that day, the brass buttons and gold braid made these “old clothes” extremely attractive to the natives. Generally, the most lavishly trimmed ones were used as gifts to chiefs, but any item was soon coveted by the tribes-men. The post managers and clerks wore garments as brightly decorated as today’s styles for young men.
More important than the gifts of the traders in modifying fashions was the peace which the white men enforced between tribes. This was for the traders’ own profit more than for self-protection because dead Indians couldn’t trap animals! As soon as the white man put up forts, there was more mingling and mixing among the tribes. The Beavers and most other Athapaskans were very quick to adopt what they liked from other cultures. Fashions in dress became more uniform in design.
In summer the northern natives were less likely than other southern tribes to go naked because of the voracious black flies and mosquitoes. Leather was the best protection. It is still popular for jackets.
Pictures taken in 1899 show that the Indians who signed Treaty #8 at Peace River, Dunvegan etc. were clothed like white people, except for the moccasins which most of them retained even to the present time.
When the anthropologist Dr. Pliny Earle Goddard visited Dunvegan in the early 1900’s, he was able to write about the original dress of the Beavers. With the help of John Bourassa, whose father had married a half-Beaver Indian woman, Goddard was able to make what he called “educated guesses” about pre-contact clothing.
In the very early times the basic garments were hide leggings, were not constructed into trousers, but having a tab at the top to tuck over a leather belt around the waist. Over this, a tunic or simple smock was worn, formed of two skins fastened at the shoulders. This shirt fell below the hips on men and to the ankles on women. Any surplus leather beyond the seams of both leggings and tunic was not cut off close to the seam but was slashed into fringes. This was as much for utility as for ornament because the fringed edges made the garment more flexible as the wearer moved.
The sleeves were made separately and either tied onto the body of the garment or e fastened by a strip of leather which passed across the back, and probably the breast of the wearer. The fringed yoke seen on most Indian jackets even today may be a traditional adaptation of the old style.
A hood was sewn onto the tunic. Other writers mentioned that a cap was fashioned from the head skin of an animal. A “hood” sounds more modern, but perhaps was borrowed from the Eskimos who were in contact with the northern Athapaskans. It might even have been an adaptation of the voyageurs’ “capote.”
The voyageur’s coat seems to have influenced the design of Indian clothing in another way. The tunic became open in the front, and fastened by strings or “loops and toggles” and held around the waist by a belt. The early winter coats or jackets were made of moose-hide with the hair outside and must have been heavy and burden-some.
The Beavers did not wear the breechcloth in earliest times, for in one of his tales, Bourassa referred to a time “before we wore the breechcloth.” This garment was a piece of soft-tanned deer skin, passed between the legs, with its ends tucked under, and then folded over the belt which held the leggings up. Mittens were fashioned with thumbs to enable the wearer to handle tools and weapons.
Beaver moccasins had one distinguishing feature, a length-wise seam from the instep about help-way to the ankle, over the tee and for a short distance under the foot. This large, main piece was also sewn up the back of the heel. Around the sides and back a strip of soft leather was sewn to wrap around the ankle, over the lower edge of the leggings. In the beginning, probably a little tab of leather was sewn over the top end of the front seam to reinforce it against bursting open. Later the little tab became a U-shaped insert on which a design could be worked with porcupine quills or later beads or still later, silk thread supplied by the trader. Goddard described the floral design on the insert, another indication that the Beavers imitated the Crees, for Beaver designs were traditionally geometric in shape. A distinguishing trimming was the silk-wrapped cord of stiff hair around the vamp insert. A long thong of tanned leather passed through two slits near the top of the heel and another two on the instep. When pulled tightly and criss-crossed around the leg, the string held the moccasin firmly on the foot. The string would have cut into the ankle if a “tongue” of stiff leather were not sewn on the top of the vamp to extend up the front of the leg under the overlapping band around the top of the sole and upper combined. This form of moccasin involved the least amount of sewing. It is still made today, and now commands a good price when sold as native craftwork. Some people prefer the smooth appearance to the design in which excess material is puckered or gathered around the oval end of the vamp. In simplicity and utility, the Beaver moccasin was a triumph of design.
One Athapaskan tribe got its name from a peculiarity observed in their tunics or shirts. They tanned caribou hides to come to a pointed shape. When made into a garment the points hung down, front and back. Other Indians called them “pointed skins” or “Chipewyans.”
The ornaments and trimmings on garments seem to have had traditional or religious meanings. Probably it is too late now to learn what the prehistoric decorations were like. In the severe conditions where these people lived a nomadic life, it is likely that much time was spent in executing them.
Of one thing we are certain, the Beavers did not use the elaborate feather headdress of eagle feathers. Headbands and probably necklaces were made of dyed porcupine quills, woven on looms, or sewn onto thin leather bands. Whatever decorations they did make, the Beavers executed with great care and skill, judging from exhibits now seen in museums.
It is difficult after so many years to know how much one Athapaskan-speaking tribe imitated the ways of another. Where there was no hostility, it is likely that there was a great deal of exchange between kindred-speaking peoples.
Remembering the hostility between the Sekani and the Beavers extending as late as 1915, although they were akin in language, it is not wise to assume that Father Morice’s books, or even the British Columbia Heritage Series is complete or wholly factual, for all the Athapaskan speakers. Apparently the Chipewyans originally called themselves Dine’ – the People. Some writers later seem to have extended the title Dine (or Dene) to all of the Athapaskans.
Goddard did examine the Beavers albeit long after they had been in contact with the white men and other Indians. He was one of the few researchers who actually had a Beaver interpreter whose knowledge of folklore extended back beyond the time they first wore the breechcloth.