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
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.”
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.