People in Profile

Paulette & Brian Bird

Longtime residents of the region, Paulette and Brian Bird are keeping a lost art alive in their community.

“This is home, that’s for sure,” Brian said, reflecting on his 26 years in the community, “New Years, 1997. It’s been my home ever since.” Paulette was born and raised in Fort McMurray, and has lived in the region for most of her life.

Together they live in Fort McMurray 468 First Nation and, in recent years, have carved a livelihood from a shared passion for the tradition of smoke tanning moose hides.

“It’s far different from anything you’d find in a modern tannery,” Brian said when speaking of the process. “The work is labour intensive, there’s only a few people still doing it. It’s a rare art, for sure.”

Hides are most often made from moose or caribou, a result of the days-long process of soaking, stretching, and scraping the flesh down to a softened, even thickness. The hide is then hung over a smoking fire for several hours, slowly tanning from the exposure. The finished hide takes on a yellowy or even reddish colour depending on what was burned to create the smoke.

“It’s not the kind of leather you’d find in the store, but it can be used for anything you’d use leather for. The world has moved on, modernized, but there’s still people who rely on what the forest provides us.

“I grew up with this, I’ve been doing it since I was a teenager. I learned from people on my own reserve. My mother, family, friends, we all did it at one point. As the years went by, fewer people were doing it, and eventually I was the only person who kept at it. So now I’m trying hard to keep it alive.”

The Moose Hide Factory is a product of this drive to revive. Beyond their own work in smoke tanning, the Birds offer hands-on workshops and even sell their own handcrafted tools to anyone with new interest in old traditions.

In recent years, Paulette has started selling her own handmade ribbon skirts, earrings and other accessories.

“She does her thing, I do my thing, and we do our thing. It’s a good system.”

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