Concordia students and alumni work to indigenize urban spaces through a week-long moose hide tanning camp
The Buckskin Babes Urban Moose Hide Tanning Collective recently hosted its third tanning camp in the backyard of Bâtiment 7, a community space in Montreal’s Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhood.
The event, held in May, brought together youth and Elders from different Indigenous communities across Canada and created a space for collective learning, healing and cultural reclamation. The initiative was supported in part by funding from Concordia’s SHIFT Centre for Social Transformation.
‘Reviving Indigenous cultural practices’
The Buckskin Babes Collective is an initiative founded by a group of Indigenous students and graduates of the university. The collective’s goal is to revive Indigenous cultural practices and land-based traditions by making them accessible to urban Indigenous peoples.
Specifically, the group focuses on the tanning of moose hides, a traditional art form that requires several hands and intergenerational knowledge transmission.
“What we are doing is asking people to share what they know so we can understand and connect to our lands, our language, medicines, food and culture,” says Autumn Godwin, nihithaw iskwew from Montreal’s Lake Cree Nation, located on Treaty 6 territory in Northern Saskatchewan.
Currently enrolled in Concordia’s Master of Arts in the Individualized Program (INDI), Godwin is conducting research on Indigenous cultural resurgence. One of the founding members of the Buckskin Babes, she is actively involved in creating generative spaces for urban Indigenous peoples.
Sharing and disseminating her research is one of the ways she sees herself contributing to the process of decolonization.
Bringing communities together
The hides used for the tanning camp came from a variety of places, including Kahnawà:ke, Cree communities and Mi’kmaq communities. The practice of sharing these hides for tanning creates a unique opportunity for intergenerational connections and community-to-community experiences.
Brooke Rice, Kanien’keha: ha of Kahnawà:ke, is also enrolled in the INDI Program. She says this project was born out of a shared interest discovered through conversations among peers at Concordia’s Otsenhákta Student Centre.
“My interest really started in 2018 after my first moose hunt. I saw all the beautiful hides that people were harvesting,” Rice says.
“Later, at the centre, I was talking about it, and we were all saying: ‘My auntie knows how to do this, my mom does that, my grandma can teach us this.’ And that’s how it all came together, by realizing that we could bring people together to share their knowledge with us.”
To prioritize knowledge transmission intergenerationally and across communities, while deepening nation-to-nation relations, the collective takes a deeply collaborative, reciprocal and care-centred approach.
The hide camp exemplifies this: collaboratively tanning and turning the hides into leather fosters a sense of unity and allows people to learn from one’s another tradition and techniques.
“What I’ve observed over these past five days is the spirit of heart medicine and drive among everyone. It is as if we are connecting the parts of the heart of Turtle Island from across Canada,” shares Debbie Cielen. “Watching everybody coming together, laughing from the moment we just meet each other; just witnessing how we are embracing each other, creating new bonds with each other and with the Elders.”
Cielen is Métis-Saulteaux of Winnipeg and the mother of Dayna Danger, a founding member of the Buckskin Babes who also holds an MFA from Concordia.
Remembering the traditional ways
“When thinking about the impact of our work, I like the word reawakening. We are reawakening our spirits when we do these types of work both for ourselves and our youth within the urban landscape,” Godwin adds.
“And I say reawakening because these practices were sleeping within us and when we organize and bring people together, and we share what we know, we are reminded of the old ways.”
Eleanor Hegland, Godwin’s aunt, agrees there has been a disconnect.
“Because of the residential schools we were taught later in life the things that we were supposed to be taught when we were younger,” she says. “Because we lost all of that, we see so many lost souls.”
Hegland is from Lac La Ronge Indian Band. “I am very thankful this camp is happening. And it’s almost like it skipped two generations: my mother, myself,” she notes.
“And now it is through Autumn, it is her generation that is putting this together.”
Initiating lasting impact
The SHIFT Centre awarded Buckskin Babes $15,000 in 2022 through its application-based funding program. The program specifically supports community-led projects that strive for systems-level change.
For the jury, the collective stood out among the other applicants with its potential to implement innovative ways of indigenizing urban spaces. The focus on intergenerational learning and cultural reclamation was particularly inspiring to the jury, as it emphasizes the importance of passing on traditional knowledge and values to future generations.
Discover other projects funded by Concordia’s SHIFT Centre for Social Transformation.