For Autumn Godwin, a graduate student at Concordia University, there was a disconnect between living in Montreal and access to cultural teachings that comes along with being on her ancestral lands of northern Saskatchewan.
It’s why she started the Buckskin Babes Collective to organize moose hide tanning in urban spaces throughout the city.
“I can’t afford to go home every year or every summer to go and be on the land and I was craving these types of practices and I wanted to make it accessible,” said Godwin, who is nehithaw (Woodland Cree) from Montreal Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.
The collective, which also includes Concordia students Brooke Rice, Dayna Danger, Melanie Lefebvre, and Victoria May, has been tanning hides outside of Bâtiment 7 in the city’s Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhood.
Godwin said the project, which is a part of her ethnographic work for her master’s degree research into cultural resurgence, has “been medicine” and has brought a sense of healing and kinship.
“My mom went to the residential schools and my aunt went to residential schools, so it’s a way for me to connect with my grandmother and my ancestors who did this on a daily basis,” she said.
Indigenous people from across the city have stopped by the space to contribute to the project.
“I grew up in my community but due to the legacies of colonization, I missed out on a lot of knowledge transfer,” said Craig Commanda, a Concordia student from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, north of Ottawa.
Commanda has been volunteering with the project every day. It’s the first time he’s helped tan a moose hide.
“Being able to take part in this opportunity for me has been very important,” he said.
“It really feels like fulfilling work. It just helps put back what I don’t have and I can take this with me wherever I go in the world.”
Godwin’s aunt is a knowledge keeper, and is helping the collective virtually throughout each step of the process.
They’ve been making their own tools for scraping. Rice, who is from Kahnawake, south of Montreal, harvested her first moose during the fall and is making tools out of its four legs.
“It’s been a really long dream of mine to make moccasins from start to finish — the hunt, processing the hide, making tools out of the animals, utilizing the whole animal and honouring and respecting it in that way,” she said.
For her, the project is about reclaiming and learning cultural teachings, some things that weren’t passed down.
“It’s a part of our responsibility, our generation, to learn things and dig. Just keep digging for the knowledge, asking elders, and organizing in this way even if it is bringing different communities and nations together,” said Rice.
“We’re learning that knowledge so that we can pass it on to the future generations.”
Some of the hides will be gifted back to the communities that donated the hides, after the second stage of the tanning process is complete during the fall.
“I would like to see this go one every year so that people will have the opportunity to learn how to do this and connect Indigenous communities,” said Godwin.