Hats for Hides program keeps traditional crafts alive

Dominic Bebonang has been running the Hats for Hides program for over 20 years on Manitoulin.

M’CHIGEENG—This week on Manitoulin is what many consider an annual week-long holiday—deer rifle season. Hunters across the Island are in their ground blinds or tree stands waiting to sight that perfect buck or doe.

Far too often deer hides are cast off along with other parts of the deer that are uneatable or mountable, but the Hats for Hides program offers a positive alternative to trading deer hides, which are in turn tanned, for hats.

“I’ve been looking after the Hats for Hides program for about 20 years,” said M’Chigeeng resident Dominic Bebonang. “I used to run it for the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation, but now I still run it, just for whoever needs it (hides).”

Mr. Bebonang explained that hunters bring their deer hides to him throughout hunting week and he salts and piles them.

Wilma Langel is one of the Manitoulin elders who use Mr. Bebonangs’ hides from the Hats for Hides program for her leatherwork.
Wilma Langel is one of the Manitoulin elders who use Mr. Bebonangs’ hides from the Hats for Hides program for her leatherwork.

“I salt them and lay them down—like a pile of blankets—100 pieces at a time,” shared Mr. Bebonang. “It’s important you have good drainage for the fat and blood, otherwise you get black marks and other imperfections on the leather.”

Mr. Bebonang says that in peak years he has received 500 to 600 hides in a week, but that typically it is around 350 to 400.

“I get some moose too from Massey,” he added.

Salted properly and with good drainage, Mr. Bebonang said the hides will stay good right through to next summer if needed.

In the New Year he will take the hides down to Guelph to be tanned. Mr. Bebonang brings the tanned hides back to Manitoulin and sells them.

“I don’t sell them for much, especially to elders,” said Mr. Bebonang. “Just enough to cover my costs. I think it’s important to have the Manitoulin hides available for elders for traditional leatherwork and crafts.”

One of Mr. Bebonang’s customers is Wilma Langel of Wilma’s Native Crafts.

“I’ve been doing leatherwork for years,” said Ms. Langel, who makes deer hide moccasins, leather purses, jackets, vests and earrings. “When I was in my 20s someone offered to teach me leatherwork. No one else in my community was doing it so I started and I was one of the first.”

Mr. Bebonang salts all the deer hides he gets and piles them in groups of 100, ensuring good drainage, prior to having them tanned. photos by Robin Burridge
Mr. Bebonang salts all the deer hides he gets and piles them in groups of 100, ensuring good drainage, prior to having them tanned.
photos by Robin Burridge

The tanned hides come in large sheets, similar in size to the original hide. Ms. Langel uses patterns based on the piece she is making and cuts the leather into shapes.

“For moccasins I have a leather punch and punch holes and then sew together the moccasins,” shared Ms. Langel.

Ms. Langel said she buys her deer hide from Mr. Bebonang because it is nice Manitoulin leather and reasonably priced.

Mr. Bebonang says he expects to get around 400 deer hides this year. Hats for Hides will be running throughout the week at the Old Dump Road in M’Chigeeng from 8 am to 5 pm. Call Mr. Bebonang for more information at 705-377-4130.