We had a day of lessons.
It started with me finally sitting down to work on the caribou leg skins for Ben's wedding boots. His beautiful mother passed away years ago, and one of the things that was put in storage was a pile of her carefully dried caribou leg skins. I thought it would be fitting to have something of her at our wedding, so I will be attempting to make a set of fancy calf length caribou skin boots. But first they have to be scraped and softened to a cloth-like consistency.
Another beautiful person came over and helped me work on them. She brought her mothers set so that we could see the pattern and compare the pieces that were used. The best skins are gathered in the fall harvest, because the skin is thick and less likely to tear. The front legs are cut on the front and split to the hoof, the back legs are split on the back. Four legs are needed for each boot. I will be adding a band of dark wolverine to the top of the boot, then another band of complicated dark and light pieces of calf skin sewn together to make a pattern (that you can see on the right bottom of the photo) which gives a hint to whose family he comes from and the region he comes from. The bottom in this case will be made in the Nunamiut way, using thick winter caribou skin.
But first the hard work of preparing the skins. We scrape them using a semi-sharp blade with a wooden handle. It has to be done carefully so that the skin does not tear, and care is taken to moisten and stretch the skins to make them wider.
Rarely did we chat about what were doing. Instead we passed the finished boot between us, taking care to examine shape, hair direction and flexibility. Inupiaqs like to know what the goal is. We did talk about the caribou a bit, told stories about other caribou skin clothing and stories about caribou habits and tools and places with caribou. I learned a lot in the Inupiaq way, by watching and making mistakes.
Some things I learned:
1. Oddly enough your non-dominant hand goes sore and weak first.
2. You can always patch up the rips later, there is never any permanent mistakes.
3. You can make dried skin stretch in any direction with enough patience and the right amount of moisture.
4. My dog will eat the scrapings of caribou skin.
5. Scraping skin must have been a daily routine back in the day.
6. Funny stories make good trade for info and also make the time go faster.
7. A pair of boots can take years to make, from the harvesting of the animal to the finished product, but the boots can last for generations and teach generations for decades after that....as long as you replace the bottoms once in a while.
8. There are always going to be new stitches you can learn.
Ben caught another wolf earlier that day. A big black male trotting close to town. We had seen this male before. He was the one that sat across the road and stared at my female dog while she was in heat. He was also the one spotted running around the outskirts of the village. He was left alone for the most part as most will not kill a wolf till their hide is usable.
Ben left on a ride to test a part on his snow machine, and just like any Inupiaq he strapped his rifle across his chest...."just in case." He carried the carcass home across his lap as he did not think he would need a sled for a test drive. I heard the snow machine pull up to our house, and then when he didn't come in I went outside to see five or size people admiring his catch.
It is a very wonderful gift from the universe, to be given an opportunity to bring home something useful and valued and loved. To have your bullet strike true. To have been there at the right time, in the right place. To have the right tool with you. To have thought to drive up on a rise to check the surrounding landscape for animals. To have it be the right time of year when the fur is thick and strong. To know the behavior of the animal enough to know what direction it would go and what it was doing. To have your snow machine be in good shape to catch up with the animal in the distance, and to have enough money to afford the gas. To be healthy enough to handle the ride and then healthy enough to run the last of the distance. To be trained enough to be able to hold still enough to shoot while your heart is beating out of your chest and your breathing is labored. Sometimes people do not understand why we shout in joy when we are blessed with a gift of a life taken cleanly. How much work and money and training and knowledge and luck goes into it. It is the ultimate sign of respect to the animal to acknowledge how much work went into capturing it, that it was not easy. And our type of luck includes knowing that the animals can deny us of their favor at any moment, and that ultimately they are in control of their gifts. And that also the universe can deny us of one tiny favor/piece so that we are denied a good outcome.
So many lessons to be learned.....
Two young boys stopped by to admire the catch, and to drop off a gift to the woman helping me. The stared with wide eyes at the wolf, as they had never seen one up close before. They asked if they could help Ben. He smiled and passed out the rubber gloves, and then more lessons came. The boys pulled and stretched the wolf and watched as Ben made the cuts, oohing and ahhing the whole time. Once in a while one would yell an observation! so excited that they saw something or learned something new. Ben rarely said much, instead he showed them what he knew, with gestures and demonstrations. I sat and scraped skins and giggled at the comments the boys were making, because they were amazed at everything. Ben would make comment about the wolf, his habits, why he was built the way he was built, and what was the same and different about us and the wolf.
Learning can happen in an instant....and yes you can actually enjoy it and the process....