About Melvin Beattie and The Tanning Spirit
How I got started with Native American crafts and Mountain Men Lore: At the breakfast table Nabisco Shredded Wheat, in between each layer, was a blue card with pictures of Indian lore and know-how by Straight Arrow (Steve Adams). This was my earliest memory of playing Indian 1949-1950. The only thing that has changed over the years is the title, Indian to Mountain Men.
My Grandfather was a full time trapper, fur and hide buyer. He had a book on furs, trapping and tanning. One method of tanning was using the brains for softening and wood ashes to slip the hair. Needless to say, that first hide was one black dirty mess. The interesting thing about the recipe was to boil the brains in a muslin sack then soak the hide in the water. That first hide was not what you would call buckskin. Back to my Grandfather's pile of hides and start over, over, over and over.
By the early 70s I had met a few non-Indians who brain tanned, but the best information I ever got was from Mary Jackson of East Glacier, MT. Mary was a Cree Indian lady that was still tanning moose hides at the age of 70 and doing bead work. The first meeting with Mary I had six brain tanned white hides with me, in the traditional Indain way Mary said nothing just examined the hides nodded handed the hides back to me. For the rest of the day I listened to Mary tell how she tanned hides deer, elk and moose. I left with greater understanding and appreciation of brain tanning.
The day spent with Mary filled in the missing information that I needed to finish the white hides. Most of the 70s I spent living in a very small mountain cabin and perfected the tanning skills that I had learned over the years. One of the processes that became the signature of my beautiful soft smoked brain tanned hides was discovered because of the small living area of the cabin. During the 70s and early 80s I was doing 100 hides a year selling at Powwows and Rendezvous. With limited space I started tacking hides on to the wall and when dried rolled them up for storage which is now called "aging hides". How and why it worked I didn't understand, but the method I used produced the beautiful hides that I sold.
During hunting season in the fall of 1989, I made the video "The Tanning Spirit" which I began selling in 1990. Over the last 15 years new understanding of the process of brain tanning has emerged and I have made small changes to the basic method in the video which is what this web site is all about.
The Montana Arts Council recognizes Melvin Beattie
with the distinction as one of Montana's Circle of American Masters
By Cindy Kittredge, Folk Arts and Market Development Specialist
January/February 2011 - State of the Arts
Melvin Beattie, a traditional leather tanner from Helena, was born in Townsend, and raised near the headwaters of the Missouri. As a small boy, he shadowed his grandfather, a full-time trapper on the Jefferson and Madison Rivers. Beattie's earliest memories are of trapping muskrat in the creek by the house and then selling hides to the fur buyer who came every year.
He grew up in what he calls "the best kind of world," one filled with animals, skins and furs - a world in which he was allowed to freely explore his surroundings.
At age eight, Beattie started brain tanning, using the brains for softening and wood ashes to slip the hair. The first hide was a black and dirty mess, and he ended up wasting one hide after another until he "got it right." He and his cousin ran their own traplines, checking them before and after school.
Once grown, he left the state and served in the military. He returned to Montana in the late '60s and took up with his craft where he had left off, trapping and tanning hides and furs.
He was able to learn even more about brain tanning from Mary Jackson, a Cree who lived in East Glacier. Out of his work with her grew his signature pieces - soft, smoked, brain-tanned hide. In the '70s and '80s, he routinely created 100 of these types of hides a year.
In 1989, Beattie created a video called The Tanning Spirit to help people understand the art of traditional hide dressing and the pivotal role it plays in so many other leather arts, and has shared his knowledge with troubled youth, both through the Aspen program and Project for Alternative Learning.
According to one young woman who studied brain tanning with him, "It takes years of crafting, years of practicing, years of experience and devotion to master the art of dressing hides in the traditional manner... Dressing hides is like a dance - sure, you can learn the steps, but jiggling your hips to the tune and awkwardly imitating those steps isn't dancing. And how big a part do steps take in a dance? What about the grace of the dancer, or the personal talent of the artist?"
He shares his unique art and knowledge at powwows, rendezvous and art shows, and is often called upon to speak and demonstrate at schools and venues relating to his art and his way of life.
Jackie Bread, a Blackfeet beadworker and MCAM artist from Great Falls who nominated Beattie, points out that he has a wealth of knowledge surrounding a component of Montana's cultural past - the era of the mountain men, a tradition carried forward in today's trapping culture. "He shares his knowledge and art generously, and is one-of-a-kind, a true Montana cultural gem," she says.
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