Hides + Brains = Moccasins
Despite rain and a location well off the beaten path, the 25th Annual Living Archaeology Weekend (LAW) drew 1,700 students and visitors to Gladie Cultural-Environmental Learning Center in Red River Gorge the weekend of Sept. 20-21.
Kentucky’s oldest and largest public archaeology event, LAW teaches about skills and cultural practices of Native Americans and early Kentucky pioneers using knowledgeable demonstrators who engage participants with fun, hands-on learning opportunities. These include blacksmithing, basket weaving, pottery making, flint knapping (the making of spear and weapon points), cooking, and throwing spears with the use of an atlatl, a stick designed to propel the spear.
Long-time demonstrator Tressa Brown is Native American Heritage Coordinator with the Kentucky Heritage Council/State Historic Preservation Office, and a long-time LAW steering committee member. For the past 15 years, this self-taught artisan has demonstrated hide tanning, an ancient technique “that is basically the same process the world over, and has been used since the earliest civilizations,” she said. “Once, during a demonstration in Ohio, I had a fellow from Africa tell me they still do it the same way in their village today to create drum heads.”
Tressa uses deer hide that has been stored and frozen, thawed just in time to look fresh off the deer then attached to a frame and stretched in preparation for the tanning process. The first step is using a tool made from antler or bone, a “flesher,” to scrape the fat and meat from the hide. Next comes the “dry scraper,” a tool also made of antler or bone, or sometimes metal, used to scrape away the hair.
From here the hardened hide, or rawhide, can be used to make rope, knife sheaths or drums. An additional step dipping the hardened leather into a mixture of deer brains and water can be done to turn the rawhide into buckskin, a soft, pliable leather used for making clothing or moccasins, but that process is not demonstrated at Living Archaeology Weekend. Instead, Tressa keeps some buckskin on hand along with moccasins, bags and other items she has created, to show how beading can be applied to the soft leather.
In fact, Tressa’s skill at hide tanning stems from her interest in American Indian beadwork, which developed at the age of 7 or 8. After beadworking on cloth, she started using leather, but found purchasing the finished product quickly became expensive, so over the years she taught herself how to tan hides from “how to” books and practice.
Each Friday of Living Archaeology Weekend is open only to fifth-graders, drawing classes and home-schooled students from around the region. Saturday is open to the public. Tressa said some students may have some initial squeamishness, “Ew, yuck, can I touch it?” is a common response, but boys and girls alike are always eager to take part.
“I enjoy working with students and the public, and one of the most satisfying things is when they come back and say they remember me, and they’ve tried to get other people interested in what I do,” she said. “Reclaiming this heritage and keeping these traditional skills alive is important, whether from pioneer families or Native traditions, and it’s kind of cool to get people away from the video screen and using their hands.”
“In fact the whole purpose of Living Archaeology Weekend is stewardship, and that’s why these events are so important,” she said. “A lot of what we know about history and prehistory can only come from archaeology investigations, where archaeologists have found tools, evidence of domesticated plants, and other artifacts they have used to research and document the lives of people here long before us.”
“If we don’t protect these archaeological sites they will be gone, and these things left behind belong to all of us – not just the few who would damage them on purpose or break the law by looting and trying to make money off of them,” she said. “If these sites are destroyed they are lost forever, and there’s still so much we don’t know, can still learn and have yet to discover about our past.”
“Kentucky is known worldwide for some of its archaeological resources, like the Archaic shell middens of the Green River, the 5,000-year-old center of plant domestication in the Red River Gorge, and the famous Adena mound and earthwork sites of the Bluegrass region, “ explains Craig Potts, Kentucky Heritage Council executive director and state historic preservation officer. “Using little more than the remnants of daily life people left behind, archaeology has helped tell the story of Kentucky from the earliest indigenous peoples who entered the region 13,000 years ago, to a recently-discovered Civil War encampment at Ashland, the Henry Clay estate in Lexington.”
Tressa is one of several dedicated members of the Living Archaeology Weekend steering committee, which includes representatives from the main event sponsor, the U.S. Forest Service/Daniel Boone National Forest, as well as the Kentucky Organization of Professional Archaeologists and the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, a partnership of the Kentucky Heritage Council and University of Kentucky Department of Anthropology. She has also worked with the steering committee to develop educational curricula used by teachers and students prior to their visit.
For more, visit Tressa’s page at the Living Archaeology Weekend website, http://www.livingarchaeologyweekend.org/#!tressa-brown/c20ld, or find LAW on Facebook.