Bark-tanning and Chinook Jargon @ Echoes in Time


This week at Echoes in Time my friend David and I led a workshop on bark-tanning. I also played an amazing game of WAYK Chinook Jargon. Aside from the classes I spent most of the time sleeping off a severe hangover in my tent. A hangover due to to drinking too much whiskey one night early in the week with my ex-girlfriend Emily: Tracker of Plants (the artist formerly known as Penny Scout), in an attempt to reconcile the bad blood between us. Phew! What a week.


Bark-Tanning refers to the process of using tannins from bark to render the skin of an animal into leather. A local rabbit farm donates their hides to me for educational workshops in natural hide-tanning. I brought along 14 hides and David brought a ton of Hemlock bark (the tree not the poisonous plant) to go through the process of bark-tanning.


First you break up the bark into a pot and make sure to scrape the meat and fat off of the rabbit hides. Then you boil the bark in a large pot, making a light tea. After letting it cool, you put the hides into the tea. If you put them in and the water feels too hot to touch on your own skin, it will also burn (or rather cook) the skin of the rabbits. Make sure the water feels cool enough to leave your hand in for 30 seconds. Stir the rabbit hides around every once and a while to make sure they evenly absorb the tannins. After a little while the water will change color and turn milky-looking. Make another, stronger batch of the bark tea and pour it into a new bucket and let it cool. Squeeze the liquid from the hides into the old bucket and place them in the new, stronger tea. Pour the old water back into the pot with the bark and boil it again, using the old water to make the next round. Because some water evaporates during boiling and cooling, add more clean water if necessary to fill the pot back up. You can reuse the same bark many times. In fact, we did 5 rounds of boiling with the same batch of bark and it continued to give tannins so we gave the bark away to folks after the workshop. Continue this process of changing the water and soaking the hides maybe twice a day for a few days. Don’t forget to stir them around a few times a day as well. We did 5 changes of new tannin water over the period of 3 days and they tanned through. We could have even done another day, but they didn’t really need it.


Notice the picture above. The new batch of tea on the left looks dark like coffee, while the older one on the right looks milky, like coffee with cream. You must make sure to start out bark-tanning with a lighter tea. If you put the hides immediately in a strong tea, it can tan the exterior and not allow any more tannins to permeate deeper into the hide, thus, ruining it. Rabbits have such thin skins that we didn’t worry too much about this process. To see if the rabbits have completely tanned you must perform the “snip test”. Snip a little corner of the hide just a bit and look at the layers. You’ll see mostly a white layer and a few lines of darker tannins that go through. This means the hide has completed tanning and you can start the rinsing and oiling process.

Rinse the hides in several changes of cool, clear water to get the excess tannins out. Begin drying the hides by squeezing the water out and make sure to work carefully to not pull the hair out. You can swing the hide through the air to get it to dry quicker. Stretching it out will also help air get in and dry it out. Once it feels damp and not soaking wet, you can apply the oil. We used some cheap corn oil from the store. Next time I’ll probably go with organic olive oil since I think I may have had an allergic reaction to the corn… although it could also have come from the whiskey hangover. Add more oil as the hide dries out to your desired softness. Really work the oil into the hide stretching it for a couple hours usually, similar with the brain-tanning process. After all this… Voila! A mostly finished hide that needs a little more oil.


During the week I decided to brain-tan on of the rabbits so that we could compare and contrast at the end of the week the two kinds of hide-tanning methods. The brain-tan has a much softer, fluffier feel, better for making interior clothes with that touch the skin. Because the bark-tan has oil in it, it sheds water but has a stiffer cooler feeling to it. Bark-tanning bigger, thicker hides takes a lot longer than 5 days. Sometimes months. For teaching bark-tanning in a week, rabbit hides work very well. As far as the practicality of using bark-tanned rabbit hides, I don’t see much. Maybe here in the northwest as an exterior layer it would work well for staying more dry and the bark tannins probably preserve better than the smoke tannins. I don’t really know. But for now I like using the rabbit hides to teach bark-tanning. If I want to make clothes though, I might stick with brain-tanning. Someday I hope to find a nutria hide hook-up and make a giant bark-tanned nutria rain cloak. Once I go through this process a few more times, I will take really good pictures and do a better blog about it. For more information about bark-tanning, check out this awesome blog by my friend Miles.


For the last six months I have studied and taught Chinook Jargon using the WAYK community language learning model. I thought Echoes would work as a great place to play a few of the games with folks. Since people originally spoke Chinook Jargon as a trade language, I set up the game next to the trading post, in the same spot where they do the “trade blanket”. We played the game for about an hour and got to the “Want, Have, Give, Take” progression, throwing in “trade” and “steal”. After everyone seemed “full” of the language we stopped the game. Later in the week we played “The Walk” and had a blast. Next year I’d love to play a game every evening and maybe even do a Chinook Jargon only trade blanket!


I’ve felt pretty shitty about the break-up and bullshit between Emily and I since our broke up a year and a half ago, so the hangover that ruined most of the week felt worth the gratification of making friends with Emily again. Thanks Dale and company for putting on Echoes in Time. Thanks to David for working on the class with me and teaching me more about bark-tanning. Thanks Tony, Crow, Robert, Liana and Ariel and everyone else for cracking me up all week. Can’t wait for next year!

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2 Comments on “Bark-tanning and Chinook Jargon @ Echoes in Time”

  1. I’m glad you’re friends again. You’re two of my favorite human beings!


  2. WAYK is so addicting…just one more reason why it works! You were right about remembering words a week later, I can remember most of the Chinook that I struggled with days ago. I can’t wait to learn new stuff. I meant to take one of the rabbit hides home, but on Friday I got myself into more tasks than I could handle, and had to leave in a hurry Saturday morning. So I forgot it until I was halfway to the airport. Oh well, now I know the process, so I can tan the next hides I get. It was fun meeting you and your friends. Thanks for the great teaching and hilariousness!