Buffalo hides drive Indian economic development venture

Montana State Roundup

Published April 1, 1994  | April 1994 issue

With water, wood smoke, and buffalo brains and hides, a Native American tannery plans to preserve cultural identity and foster economic development in Montana.

The Bi Sha Tannery, a joint venture between Aaxua Tanning Co., Intertribal Bison Cooperative and Sundance Training Center, will tan up to 2,500 buffalo hides per year beginning this spring in Billings.

The Intertribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC) will coordinate a supply of hides from buffalo raised on reservations. Twenty-eight tribes covering 12 states are reintroducing buffalo to their native land, says Mark Heckert, ITBC executive director. The project promotes economic development, ecological restoration and spiritual revitalization. Tribes will provide one-third of the hides for BI Sha, Heckert says. The remaining hides will come from other commercial buffalo raisers.

The Sundance Training Center, a nonprofit organization, will teach Native Americans the art of tanning through on- and off-site seminars. Ray Fetzer, chief tanner for Aaxua and BI Sha, encourages others to not only learn how to tan hides, but supplant Aaxua and BI Sha all together. "The market is so large, none of this is competition. There is no other supplier," Fetzer says.

Fetzer cites a high demand for non-pollutant, high quality leather for Native American artists and reenactment enthusiasts. Aaxua currently processes about 18 elk and deer hides per day using traditional tanning methods.

Native Americans find value in every part of the buffalo, Fetzer says. "Traditionally everything would be used, such as the tendon for thread, stomach, bones and feet."

The tannery will employ techniques used 10,000 years ago to tan many of the hides. A traditional tanner soaks, scrapes and applies pureed animal brains to both sides of the hide. The hide is then stretched on a frame to dry and smoked.

The BI Sha Tannery marks a sound economic development effort by Native Americans to recapture their economy, Heckert says. Instead of exporting hides to commercial manufacturers, the tannery will cycle hides through artists on reservations so crafts can be sold at the highest value. Since tanning and art work are labor-intensive processes, they will provide needed employment and guarantee favorable returns on sales, Heckert adds.

Rob Grunewald