Charleen and Charlotte

Charleen Alexander and Charlotte McRae are twin sisters from the St'at'imc Nation, raised in Ts'kw'aylaxw (Pavilion). They left the Fraser Canyon to settle in Douglas Lake, near Merritt, British Columbia. There they married members of the Upper Nicola Indian Band and learned the craft of tanning hides and the art of working with buckskin from their relatives.

Charleen and Charlotte make buckskin moccasins, gloves and medicine bags, as well as ribbon shirts, blankets, and other sewn crafts. They work together on every project, taking turns with sewing, embroidery and beading as they see fit. The buckskin pieces are time-consuming to create, starting with the raw animal hide and transforming it into practical, yet intricate pieces of wearable art.

They primarily use locally-sourced deer and moose to create their buckskin. The hunters in their family and in the community provide them with the hides and the sisters spend days carefully preparing the skin using the traditional art of brain tanning.

Brain tanning is an intensive, days-long process from start to finish. The hide goes through many steps from the raw animal skin to the finished buckskin. First, it is soaked in slurry made with the animal's brain, then allowed to rest for the natural oils to be absorbed, then wrung out and stretched onto a frame so every bit of fur and tissue attached to the hide can be scraped off. The hide must be stretched repeatedly during this part of the process. These last steps can be backbreaking labour and are often best accomplished by at least two people working together. The end goal is to soften the animal skin until it resembles a smooth, thick piece of cream-coloured felt that is both strong and pliable.

Finally, the tanned hide is finished with smoke to seal the buckskin's surface to ensure it stays soft. This is often done either over a smudge fire or in a smoke house built for the purpose. Different types of wood used for the smoking process will impart various colours to the buckskin. When the process is finished, the buckskin is extremely durable and ready to be sewn into different projects. Often the aroma of the smoke remains in the final product, a reminder of all the work that has gone into preparing the animal hide to be worn.

Charleen and Charlotte take great pride in their craft and make each medicine bag, pair of moccasins and gloves by hand. After the pieces take shape, they decorate them with embroidery or beaded patterns. The finat product is a long-lasting and beautiful piece of artwork. The buckskin is so durable that it can be washed, unlike leather.

The moccasins and medicine bags available at the Stone Pony Art Gallery leave a hint of their smoky scent in the air that can be noticed as soon as a visitor enters the buildinS. We carry the moccasins in a variety of sizes and hope to be offering buckskin gloves soon.