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Buffalo hide workshop shares traditional teachings in-person and online

Buffalo hide workshop shares cultural teachings in Regina
WATCH: As part of annual Treaty 4 celebrations, the Buffalo People’s Arts Institute is providing free and inclusive cultural education in-person and online.

Joely BigEagle-Kequahtooway is taking her buffalo hide teachings online, livestreaming the process over the course of four days.

On Tuesday, BigEagle-Kequahtooway and a small group of helpers began stretching the hide of a three-year-old male buffalo in the courtyard of the Neil Balkwill Centre.

“This isn’t something I’ve grown up with, but it’s been something I’ve grown to love,” said BigEagle-Kequahtooway, who first worked on a hide in April 2014 .

“I never in my life thought I would I want to be around a hide that was bloody, fatty and meaty. And here, sometimes I salivate anticipating beginning to do the work.”

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BigEagle-Kequahtooway runs the Buffalo People’s Arts Institute, a non-profit organization that shares traditional Indigenous teaching and knowledge.

“Our work at the Buffalo People’s Art Institute is about bringing the buffalo back mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally,” she said, noting bison is another common name for the animal.

This time last year, BigEagle-Kequahtooway hosted a buffalo hide workshop in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley, where thousands gathered for Treaty 4 celebrations to mark the anniversary of its signing on Sept. 15, 1874.

Around 700 children came by during that time to experience working with a hide. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, BigEagle-Kequahtooway turned to social media — livestreaming this year’s teachings through the organization’s Facebook page.

Joely BigEagle-Kequahtooway sets up a cellphone camera to livestream her buffalo hide workshop on Facebook
Joely BigEagle-Kequahtooway sets up a cellphone camera to livestream her buffalo hide workshop on Facebook. Daniella Ponticelli / Global News

People are invited to attend the Regina workshop in person as well, but space is limited. There are 10 spots available for participants to book, along with 10 other spaces to accommodate volunteers.

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Nancy Jordan was among the helpers Tuesday, doing the hard physical work of stretching the hide around a wooden frame.

“It is strenuous … I’ve never strung a hide or anything like that, so it’s something new,” Jordan said.

The Regina resident said she recently learned about the workshop, and wanted to be there in person to learn.

“Not just thinking, or thinking you know, what it is, but just ask questions and talk to people,” she said.

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BigEagle-Kequahtooway’s husband, Lorne, said that’s exactly why the Buffalo People’s Arts Institute opens their workshops to everyone.

“We do this to share the experience with people who haven’t done it, and maybe [the] people who have seen it being done,” he said.

“For me, it’s a spiritual ceremony because even though the animal has passed on, the spirit of the buffalo is still existing in this hide. That’s why we smudge before getting into this work.”

The tools used to scrape the hide are also smudged — cleansed with burning sage — before use. Those include a mixture of traditional — bone or ulu — and contemporary options.

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Lorne Kequahtooway pulls on the ropes looped through the edges of the buffalo hide to make it taut before scraping begins
Lorne Kequahtooway pulls on the ropes looped through the edges of the buffalo hide to make it taut before scraping begins. Daniella Ponticelli / Global News

Over the next four days, the group will have a rotation of helpers come to scrape the meat off the hide before letting it dry.

“We don’t use any chemicals other than water and elbow grease — and buffalo brains,” BigEagle-Kequahtooway said.

The latter is used in a mixture to tan the entire hide once it’s dried.

BigEagle-Kequahtooway noted there is no one way to treat a hide, but that this is the process that has worked for them. She added that her own education is still ongoing.