COVID-19 cuts into Behchokǫ̀ hide tanning camp

Organizers say the camp is not fully cancelled, just delayed for the time being.

Lydiah Rabesca was one of about a dozen participants learning how to tan caribou hide.

The growing outbreak of COVID-19 in Yellowknife is also affecting nearby communities.

A workshop started on Monday near Behchokǫ̀ and was supposed to run two weeks to teach community members the art of hide tanning.

“My interest in taking this workshop is to help promote the traditional way of life for the Tłı̨chǫ people,” said Lydiah Rabesca. “It’s for personal reasons too, to help me stay intact as who I am as a Tłı̨chǫ person, and for me to pass this on to the next generation in my family.”

It was Lydiah’s first time attempting to tan a caribou hide. Asked what some of the challenges were, she laughed.

“Trying not to make holes!”

Mercedes Rabesca sat beside Lydiah, also scrapping away at hide for the first time.

“I’ve always been interested in learning how to tan hides and they were finally offering (a workshop) in Rae, so I was really excited to go learn,” she said.

Mercedes was one of a dozen participants wearing garbage bags to cover their clothes and sweating as they scrapped.

“It’s really nice to learn from Elders and keep this traditional skill,” she said. “It’s a lot of hard work.”

‘Our Elders will never turn us away’

Julia Wedzin and Mary Rose Simpson are two Elders sharing their tanning knowledge. From cutting and scraping, to boiling and smoking, the pair will walk the participants through the entire process.

Sadly that process was cut short.

Julia Wedzin was one of the Elders sharing her knowledge.

While CKLB was at the camp, the Tłı̨chǫ Government decided to shut it down after hearing about the worsening situation in Yellowknife.

Janelle Nitsiza is one of the coordinators. At 27, she’s been tanning hides since she was 11 after learning from her late grandmother, Dora Nitsiza.

Along with Wedzin and Simpson, Nitsiza would flit from stand to stand guiding the participants.

“I’m just really grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from my grandma, not very many people get the opportunity,” she said.

Nitsiza says social media is also now a place where people can turn to learn traditional skills, but asking Elders will always be the best resource.

“Our Elders will never turn us away,” she said. “They are eager to teach us and they want to teach us.”

Nitsiza and other organizers assured participants the workshop is not cancelled outright, simply delayed.

For now Mercedes and Lydiah need to wait a little bit longer before finishing their first hides and turning them into moccasins and other pieces of art.

About the Author

Francis Tessier-Burns
Francis has been a general news reporter with CKLB since January 2019. Originally from rural Ontario, he first came to the NWT in 2016 as an intern with Up Here magazine and fell in love with the North. In his time with CKLB, he's had the immense pleasure and honour of learning about northern Indigenous cultures. Otherwise, you can find him hanging around the Legislative Assembly. If you have a story or want to chat, reach out to