Tuesday, 13 November 2012

North American Aboriginal Hide Tanning: The Act of Transformation and Revival, by Dr Morgan Baillargeon

Robert Falcon Ouellette discusses with Dr Morgan Baillargeon his book and work North American Aboriginal Hide Tanning where Morgan shows his profound understanding of traditional hide tanning techniques and the discoveries he made concerning spirituality and the spirit of transformation.
Dr. Morgan Baillargeon is French/Metis from southwestern Ontario.  He obtained his PhD from the University of Ottawa, where his studies centred on Great Lakes and Plains Aboriginal spirituality. His research includes areas such as Plains Cree beliefs about death and the afterlife, traditional Plains arts and culture, urban Native life and contemporary Aboriginal performing and visual arts, and aspects of material culture among the Blackfoot, Cree, Metis and Ojibwa.  Earlier research resulted in the Canadian Museum of Civilization exhibition Legends of Our Times: Native Ranching and Rodeo Life on the Plains and Plateau and the companion publication Legends of Our Times: Native Cowboy Life.  Dr. Baillargeon is currently working on an exhibition focusing on urban Native life and the impact arts plays on the survival of Aboriginal culture, language and traditional knowledge in urban settings.  Since 1992 he has been Curator of Plains Ethnology , and in 2008 additional duties included  the First People’s Hall, at the Canadian  Museum of Civilization.


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  2. I was interested in this interview as I have one friend who has tanned a moose hide. It was an art form I had never given much thought to, until she told me she was taking this workshop. This piqued my curiosity about other lost arts, but also simply the mystery of turning skin into leather on purely practical terms.
    Dr. Morgan Baillargeon says he chose the topic of tanning for his book because of a great personal interest in traditional art. He goes on to say he is Metis, but that he did not feel there were many Metis artistic cultural practices in his home, so he was driven to seek them out on his on. In this regard, I can relate to Dr. Baillargeon. I, too, am Metis but was brought up completely devoid of Metis culture. It is only in marrying a Metis man who did grow up in the culture that I am beginning to learn about myself and my neglected cultural history.
    As a seamstress, leather art interests me as well, and the process by which it is made is a natural extension of that interest. This echoes Dr. Baillargeon’s statement that leather is so much the chosen media for Native art, that he was driven to learn more about it.
    I find his very personal research methods interesting. It’s also of interest that there are so many varying practices of tanning, from the actual mechanics of the trade, to the ritualistic elements that may or may not be present.
    I am hoping to construct a cradleboard in the next few months, but am similarly finding I must contact individuals directly and hope for the best when provided with their information. It is my understanding that handmade cradleboards are extremely expensive now, and people are loathe to lend them out to strangers. Additionally there are some who view the cradleboard as a ritualistic object, and some as a household item. It is therefore the belief of some that I should not be making one because I am not familiar with the ritualistic aspects of doing so. My response is, “Teach me!”, but I understand it’s not that simple!
    This is similar to what Dr. Baillargeon discovered when researching tanning methods. Some people feel tanning is a ritualistic act first, and a practical act only secondarily. Others feel it is only a practical task, and therefore knowledge should be shared freely.