Smoke Signals

From miles away you can see the smoke, billowing up into the clear sky. It is a clean white smoke, like a cloud forming in the sky. The wind is calm, and it is just another ordinary day. I pull up to the house where the smoke is coming from, and I observe the activity going on outside of the woodshed. The little lady, my grandmother, was hard at work doing something on this clear, windless day.

She has a fire built in the old wood stove. The stove is away from the woodpile—but not too far—so it cannot catch fire. Four long poles are posted up; they are tied almost to the top, like a teepee frame, but without the cover pulled around it. I now know what she is doing. She is going to be smoking a deer hide and here is how she does it.

Grandma’s usual routine is to rise each day at 6:00 A.M. She will eat a light breakfast, always with coffee, and then she will go outside and check out the weather. If the wind is calm, and it’s going to be a nice day, she will smoke her hide. The weather has to be just right because of the fire she uses to smoke her hide. The wind might create a flame in the smoldering wood, and this is not what she needs while smoking a hide. She always had something to do each day, something to sew or bead, something to live for, or money to be made by her key product, smoked buckskin.

After being tanned, the buckskin is always soft and white. Grandma will be able to use the buckskin in a number of ways: coats, vests, dresses, war shirts, pants, moccasins, bags, strings, backing for the beaded items, and even the cover of a cradle board (an oval shaped object weaved and tied, used to carry an infant). Buckskin is one of the oldest forms of cloth in the world since Adam and Eve became knowledgeable about their nakedness in the garden. The animals killed for their skin in our area include deer, elk, buffalo, sheep, goat, bear, otter, beaver, weasel, wolf, coyote, and even rabbit. But the white tanned skin is no good if it becomes wet. The skin will turn back to rawhide, become hard as rock, shrink, and lose its shape. This why she would cure a deer hide with smoke.

As she gathered her main materials, she worked very hard. She went out to the woodpile and picked out a certain wood with loose bark that had a great smell. This wood is called cedar wood. The cedar wood is the best wood to smoke a hide because it doesn’t have sap like pine wood. If pine wood was used to smoke the hide, the smoke would turn dark, and dark smoke would ruin a hide’s color, ultimately turning it black. This is not a desired color.

Grandma cleared the bark off the side of the wood using a sharp bladed knife. She would shave little wood chips while turning the log in a circular motion. The wood chips were placed in a medium bucket, slightly soaked with water, and placed to the side for the time being. She then built a fire in the little old rusted wood stove with a short stack that was outside the woodshed. After building a fire with any other type of wood, she gathered four long slender poles and tied them together—not quite at the top – with a piece of rope. She left about ten inches of the rope hanging on the middle so the hide could be hung from it. She then set up the polls as a teepee frame would be positioned with the legs spread apart to make it sturdy. She had to tend to the fire once more by adding more wood to ensure that it creates good red-hot coals. Once this was done she went back to the house to prepare the already tanned deer hide for the smoking process. A tanned hide already had gone through another process to get the hide soft.

Grandma then sewed the hide together on the top and along the sides, leaving one end open. The hide was sewn face to face with the outside of the hide placed inside. It looked like a pillow case. After sewing the side, she would sew any small holes with a couple of stitches, and then sew an eight-inch heavy piece of cloth strip to the bottom of the opening, keeping the bottom open still. This piece was used so the hide could not touch the stack and get black from the pipe. In the past before having a metal wood stove, a small fire pit was dug and the same technique was used with the pole and sewing of the hide, but the convenience of the stove helps.

After preparing the hide, grandma went back outside with the hide and a bucket of water. She cut a small hole at the top of the hide, so that it could hang from the middle of the wooden frame. She then placed a stick inside the hide in one direction then placed another in the opposite direction. This is to keep the hide from folding, so the smoke will circulate in an even fashion. After positioning the sticks she positioned the frame over the short pipe with the cloth touching the pipe. Opening the wood stove, she added the slightly wet cedar wood chips to the red-hot coals. The smoldering smoke then rose to the designated areas of the hide. She stays nearby, tending to the smoldering wood and keeps an eye on the coals so it didn’t create a flame. If a flame start up she would have to douse it with water to ensure that the skin would not get burned. The skin was a living organ at one time. It will burn and shrink like our skin if it caught on fire. As the wood smolders on the hot coals she adds the chips to keep a heavy smoke rising for about an hour. She would know when the hide is finished because the smoke would absorb through the hide and the color becomes light tan.

All the time and effort involved in gathering the materials, making the chips, setting up the poles, sewing the hide, and tending the fire was an incredible job. The product that came out was a useful, and a very durable material used for many years. Even if it got wet, the hide had been cured by smoke. It would keep whatever shape it is she made, such as a vest, moccasins, coat, or dress. This is why she smokes her hides. What a great technique.

I felt so grateful to be there that day. What a great legacy I have inherited.

Elizabeth Sam is of the Shoshone-Paiute people. She attends United Tribes Technical College (Bismarck, ND) and graduated from the LPN program in May 2011. She is currently working on a BS, RN.

Sam aspires to continue learning the techniques of her elders, and she writes to “encourage people to pick up the pieces of our rich ancestral knowledge that has been forgotten” and to keep those stories and techniques alive. She dedicates her memoir to her mother, Donna Jackson Dave, and to Floramae Jones.

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