Brain Tanning Buffalo Hides: page 1
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Brain Tanning Buffalo Hides
by Markus Klek



Native American Use
Getting Ready to Tan
Fleshing, Thinning, Braining
Smoking & Conclusion

Markus Klek wrapped in one of his hides.

With this article, I am picking out one small element of the complex interrelationship of native people and their environment and what can be learned from it today. I would like to honor the Buffalo Nation and all our non-human relatives, whose lives we take to sustain ourselves, and maybe help to reevaluate the way we use our resources, especially when a life has been spent for them. The buffalo is one good example of this tragic process; a creature that has been exploited to its almost complete destruction. Even today this tragedy is continuing to a certain degree in Yellowstone National Park, home of the last wild and unfenced buffalo herd in the USA. For information check

The article will describe the art of tanning raw bison hides into robe size hides with the hair left intact; similar to the way as practiced by the women of many Native American tribes on a large scale, until the end of the 19th century. It will be a step by step description of the work process and also the use of bison hides, including quotations and observations made by early travelers and pioneers amongst native tribes of the 18th and 19th century.

I still remember a drawing I made when I was a kid back in Germany. It was a self-portrait of me dressed in leather with a fur cap on my head and a rifle in my hand. I presented it in school and explained that I wanted to be a trapper when I grew up. The teacher laughed and said that all little boys liked cowboys and Indians and that those feelings would disappear, as we grew older. I was very angry with her. The underlying fascination of the powerful buffalo, that shaggy beast, that in our modern world looks like a relict of times long gone by, stayed with me for all those years.

Image to the left: Dakota Sioux pictograph of a buffalo.

Image to the right: Petroglyph from Saskatchewan, Canada.


My first encounter with live buffalo was a rather unimpressive one. In my early twenties, I traveled to New York and went to visit a friend in Buffalo, NY. After arriving at the train station at night, he drove me to the local zoo to see the namesakes of his town. There they were, in a small enclosure, sadly staring from the dark into the headlights of our truck. Today I live in San Francisco and am fortunate to have a small herd of bison close by. They live in Golden Gate Park in the middle of the city (for info check the site: ). I got my first real piece of buffalo from those animals in the form of shed winter hair that I collected when I was volunteering to help clean up the paddock. Then one day I ran across the address of Jim Miller of Michigan, the first man I heard of who was brain-tanning buffalo hides and teaching classes too. When I called him, he said I need not apply for class until I had tanned at least a half dozen deerskins and a bunch of pelts. Therefore, a few years later after I had accomplished that, I traveled to Michigan in January and was fortunate enough to have a one on one class with him. (call Jim at "Willow Winds" 515 736 3487 for information on his classes or a copy of his booklet "Brain tanned Buffalo Robes, Skins and Pelts").

Buffalo herd in Golden Gate Park
 ( photo by Jesse Leake)













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