Friday, 31 May 2013

Beautiful-smelling caribou hides; or, why my office smells like kippers

A few years ago, a friend was going to a northern Cree village on Hudson’s Bay where I had done my first fieldwork, decades ago. I had a hankering for some home-tanned caribou hides to have as educational, handling material for the museum, so I sent some money with her and asked her to post me some if she was able to get any. Not many people tan hides any more: it’s a messy business requiring a lot of skill and strength. Properly done, though, the process produces golden, smooth, beautiful hide for mittens, moccasins, jackets, baby clothing—it’s gorgeous stuff. It’s also a way of honoring the beings who give their lives to human relatives to sustain them.

My friend posted me some hides. She dutifully labeled the package as caribou hide, and so DEFRA—the English environmental agency—promptly confiscated the package. Traditional Cree brain-tanned hide doesn’t conform to EU regulations for leather processing, and despite strenuous arguments and detailed descriptions of the Cree tanning process, the DEFRA vet was convinced that the hides would have anthrax. He was working on evidence which is based on completely untanned, raw hide from Africa used as drum heads, which have indeed sometimes had anthrax spores, and not processing the information I gave him on traditional Aboriginal tanning, which has never been linked to anthrax. So I had to get a license to import the hides, and am forbidden to use them with the public. Fine, I said; I’ll add them to the Museum’s collections, and we can use them to talk about relationships between humans and animal-beings.

When I presented the hides to my colleagues in Collections Management, though, they said: those hides stink! No, I said: they smell lovely, like the smoky fire over which they were hung to finish the tanning process. They smell beautiful! It’s true, the lady who tanned them may have decided that because they were going to Oxford, they should be properly smoked. Three years on, they still smell nice and smoky.

They smell like kippers, my colleagues said. The smell will contaminate other objects. We don’t want them in collections storage, because then everything will smell like kippers.

So I took the poor rejected, lovely hides into my office. On nice days I hang them out on the railing of the balcony outside my office. Cree ladies do this to air the hides and allow some of the smoky smell to dissipate. It’s a nice reminder that we work in an ethnographic museum, too: visitors coming in to the research centre door are sometimes greeted by the sight of my caribou hides. There aren’t many nice days in England, though, so they spend most of their time in a black garbage bag in my office. Students coming in for tutorials sniff a bit at first, and look puzzled. It’s ok, I tell them: I’ve got a license to have caribou hides in my office.

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