When she was about six years old, Shawnesia Ottawa saw an old photograph of moccasins made of fish leather while flipping through a book in her father’s library.

When she asked her father how to turn fish skin into leather, he had no idea. Ottawa, who is from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, wanted to learn, but teachers weren’t readily available. She ended up mostly teaching herself with the help of other artists online.

Ottawa now uses fish leather in her beadwork patches and mixed-media art and is trying to perfect and pass on the art of tanning fish leather to others. Since March, she has run lessons at the University of Ottawa Mashkawazìwogamig Indigenous Resource Centre.

“I was either self-taught, or someone would explain really quickly how to do something and then I figured it out,” Ottawa said. “If I can teach someone how to do something and help save them a year or two of frustration and struggling, then I’ll do it.”

Ottawa comes from a family of artists and creatives. Her father and brother are painters, Ottawa said, and an aunt taught her beadwork. When she was a teenager, Ottawa learned how to make moose callers out of birch bark and baskets out of foraged wood.

“I just fell in love with it,” Ottawa said. “I thought, this is awesome, this is different.”

For most of her life, Ottawa said, she and her family ate fish. Once a fish is fileted for its meat, Ottawa said, the spines can be turned into beads and the scales can be used like sequins. But until she learned how to tan them, the skins were discarded.

Ottawa was scrolling through Instagram when she found an Anishinaabe artist’s post about experimenting with fish leather. Ottawa said she watched as the artist, Amber Sandy, posted the process online, then tried it out herself.

“If you’re going to be taking a life, you want to honour it… You can make drums, rattles, moccasins — anything — but you’re giving that animal a second life when you’re including it in your artwork,” Ottawa said. “When I saw how to make fish leather, I totally fell in love with it because it was giving the fish a second life.”

Ottawa started collecting fish skins from her family and a local hunter. After a fish is fileted, she separates the meat from the skin. Then, Ottawa uses a spoon to remove the scales from the skin — she said she likes to do it gently.

“Gently, just because I like the look of the pockets of the scales, but like you can be rough with it, too. That’s fine,” Ottawa said. “If you are too rough, the pockets will rip a little bit.”

Then, Ottawa will brew a strong black tea — she advises using at least 10 bags — and wash the skin in cold water while she lets the tea cool. She said hot water or tea might cook and disintegrate the skin.

Once the skins are clean and the tea is cold, she puts the skins in the tea, which has tannins that tan the fish skin into leather. Ottawa said she wants to keep experimenting with different ways to tan the leather, too — recently, she’s been interested in using the tannins in aspen tree branches to replace the teabags.

Ottawa said she leaves the skins in tea for at least five days. The tannins will settle to the bottom of any vessel the skins soak in, Ottawa said, so she stirs the mixture every time she passes. Every day, she also adds more teabags.

After five days, Ottawa takes the skins out and puts them in the freezer. Water expands the skin, Ottawa said, so freezing them makes them softer and easier to work with. Then Ottawa takes the skin out and dries it in a towel. She plays with the skin to soften it and then works an oil into it — bear grease, Ottawa said, works just as well as coconut oil — until the leather is ready to use.

“It feels good using (fish leather) because you’re giving it another life,” Ottawa said. “These are materials that are out there that don’t cost a thing; they just need your time.”

By Isaac Nay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Apr 03, 2023

This item reprinted with permission from   Canada's National Observer   Ottawa, Ontario

Comments are Welcome - Use the 'Join the Discussion' above any replies, or 'TheRegional / Chat' below replies. Both links take you to the same place. You will be asked to become a registered user if you are not one already - Posts are moderated