Pair working to revive the lost skill of fish tanning

Tattoo artist and fish-tanner travel Nunavik with goal to restore a tradition lost through colonialism

Fish skins are hung to dry during a fish-tanning workshop in Nunavik. (Photo courtesy of Janey Chang)

By Cedric Gallant - Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Arsaniq Deer, left, puts fish skin on the window with two participants during a fish-tanning workshop in Nunavik. (Photo courtesy of Janey Chang)

This story was updated on Monday, June 5, at 10:30 a.m. ET.

Tattoo artist Arsaniq Deer and full-time fish tanner Janey Chang are helping to revitalize a lost skill in Nunavik.

The pair recently hosted fish-tanning workshops in Akulivik and Ivujivik, as part of the Ilurqusitigut program (which means ‘through our culture’ in Inuktitut), the cultural subsection of the adult education program at Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, Nunavik’s school board.

“I’d never thought I’d be able to do this kind of work,” said Deer, seated next to Chang during a phone call from their hotel room in Akulivik.

The workshops can be used to add credits toward participants’ high school diplomas. The plan is for them to be hosted in all 14 communities in Nunavik.

This was the first time Deer joined Chang to help lead the fish-tanning workshops. The school board wants to have Inuit train Inuit, so Deer is shadowing Chang to learn the skills and eventually pass them on to others herself.

Chang has also worked in Inukjuak, Kuujjuaq, Salluit and Puvirnituq. Akulivik and Ivujivik were the smallest communities she has held workshops in.

The goal remains the same: Revitalization of a lost skill.

“This is something that has been lost and stolen,” says Chang, who is from Vancouver and has taught fish-tanning for five years.

Though her methods of fish tanning may not be the same as those used traditionally by Inuit, she said part of the work is trying to remember and figure out from other people how it was done.

“As a non-Inuit person,” says Chang, “I don’t know how it was done. It’s more of an awakening, or remembering, that I hope to bring to people.”

Earrings and a wallet made with fish leather, done during the process of Janey Chang and Arsiniq Deer’s workshops. (Photo courtesy of Janey Chang)

At the workshops, each participant gets their own fish. They scrape the skin off and then apply tannin.

A natural dye can be added to the mix and then after some drying time and a few other steps, the participant has fish leather.

Students made wallets, earrings, purses and sewing bags. Fish leather can be used like any other kind of leather, according to Chang.

Traditionally, Deer says, pouches and water-resistant parkas could be made from fish leather, but these skills were stolen from Inuit through colonialization.

She says, “it is really healing when I learn new or old traditions whilst doing it together with the community.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct information about the tanning process and what items the students created during the workshop.

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(22) Comments:

  1. Posted by Forever Amazed on

    Some miss information in this article. Nothing was stolen.

  2. Posted by Want to learn on

    ever cool!

  3. Posted by Confused on

    And today we see kayaks, canoes, ulus, panas, gun powders, teas, maple syrup etc. all indigenous peoples inventions being sold by company’s 🙁

    • Posted by Delusional on

      Tell us more about the time indigenous people invented gun powder? oh and Maple Syrup? I thought that came from a tree? And tea..? LOL Your list is getting small

      • Posted by More confused on

        Gun powder came from China, maple syrup natives, Tea from China. inventions comes from everything 🙂

        • Posted by iThink™ on

          People all over the world harvest tree saps for drink and medicine, it’s not an invention, it’s a discovery. The idea that any one group has title to that discovery is a parochial, narcissists fiction.

          • Posted by Confused on

            Thanks for the addition yes stolen discoveries too being sold too.

          • Posted by Gonzo on

            Boiling maple sap into syrup was a native thing. Your broad interpretation of this is ridiculous. You might as well have said “people made houses out of wood, so the natives didn’t invent maple syrup”- it all comes from trees. I don’t know what you look like, but I’m pretty sure you’re a white troll come to hate on First Nations people. Seriously, do better.

            • Posted by Too funny on

              The idea that native people have inherent ownership over boiling sap is a laugh. End of story.

    • Posted by 867 on

      Can’t forget when a non-japanese person makes or sells sushi

      • Posted by Today in Nonsense on

        Yes, I feel much the same when I see an Inuk playing a fiddle or guitar. /s

        Where do people get this nonsense?

        • Posted by More confused on

          I can say the same, where did the idea of drum set come from.

  4. Posted by Same old axe, same old grind on

    This workshop sounds great and a lot of fun, a great way to revive a piece of history! It’s not going to result in people transitioning back to wearing fish parkas though, and that has nothing to do with “colonialism”. Times change, technologies evolve, change and adapt, and you don’t have to demonize others every time it happens.

    Lost and “stolen”? OK, who has it, and how did they remove it from you? No, the usual go-to residential school rhetoric won’t explain it; if people want to tan fish, they will tan fish. Plus, if it was stolen that means someone else has it, who would that be?

    Modernization happens all over the world. Old technologies peter out when newer ones that are easier and work better. Happens in all cultures, even those currently labelled as “colonial”.

    • Posted by Hunter / Gatherer on

      Funny question : “Plus, if it was stolen that means someone else has it, who would that be?”

      Maybe you could check your local museum archives. Seems to be the main place where the colonists store things.

      • Posted by Thanks for the trade on

        it’s unfortunate western technology displaced indigenous technology, but in reality it was a material culture much more advanced, and Inuit badly wanted those goods. So, they would trade all sorts of items for things like guns, bullets, metal pots, boats. The items they traded, furs, meat, mammal oils, and importantly trinkets and art work especially, which often made their way into museums many years later.

    • Posted by Gonzo on

      Same old, if you weren’t a demon, you wouldn’t be worried about being demonized. The white colonists committed tons of acts of cultural genocide, outlawing languages, beating and raping the culture out of native people in residential schools, burning their art and houses and replacing it all with their own stuff. And you’re bothered by them using the word theft? That’s the hill you choose to die on? Here’s a hint for you super sensitive colonial descendants- if you just accept that your ancestors did some really bad stuff, and agree that it was bad and should never happen again, then you don’t need to feel guilty about it. If you don’t think the colonists wiping out millions of people, destroying their cultures and taking over their lands was bad, then you definitely need to feel guilty.

      • Posted by Polique on

        Cultures collapse when they no longer offer the best models of adaptability relative to other models in their proximity.

        That is what happened in the past, what is happening today, and will always happen as long as humans inhabit the earth.

  5. Posted by So cool on

    So nice to hear about fish leather! I wonder what the tanning process was like traditionally… sun? organs?

    • Posted by anon on

      Arctic willow maybe, willow bark has lots of tannins in it.

      • Posted by Gonzo on

        Can’t imagine brain tanning with a fish!

  6. Posted by Shannon M on

    New to this site – what a wonderful article. I will be sharing with my students!

    Disappointed to see the targeted harassment taking place in the comments – shaking my head to think that these trolls lose time in their armchairs sowing online hate. Pick up a book and put that armchair to better use with some reading-time, boys.

    • Posted by Lady Troll on

      Some very sexist assumptions there. Wow.


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