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Ho-Chunk Hide Scraper

Wooden handled hide scraper with steel blade made and used by Ho-Chunk Indians in Wisconsin in the early 20th century.
(Museum object #1951.949)

Hide scrapers have long been an essential tool for Native Americans living in Wisconsin and throughout the Great Lakes region. Animal hides provided many fundamental necessities during a time when people depended strictly on the environment to sustain life. The usefulness and durability of this form of technology is evident in its continued use even today. While the composition of scrapers has evolved over the centuries based on available materials, the method of scraping, stripping, and cleaning hides employed by Native Americans across the region have endured the test of time and remained largely unchanged. While the original user of this scraper is unknown, it was likely a Ho-Chunk woman as the Historical Society purchased the tool from a Ho-Chunk (then known as Winnebago) man, John Blackhawk, in 1927.

Throughout the past, scrapers were made from various raw materials using different construction methods. Wood, stone, bone, antler, and metal were commonly used, depending largely upon their availability to the maker. The material used helped determine the method of construction. Chipped stone scrapers and carved antler and bone scrapers often included no attachments or were hafted (attached) to a wooden handle. Dating to the early part of the 20th century, this scraper is an example of how Native Americans incorporated traditional techniques and new materials such as steel. The combination of wood, which was a readily available material throughout history, with iron or steel, more recent materials that arrived via European traders, allowed Native Americans to create more efficient and durable tools.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Native Americans lived in the area now known as Wisconsin as early as 9,300 B.C . Without the use of such modern amenities as grocery stores, shopping malls, and the internet, these people had to provide for themselves all of life's necessities. Wisconsin Indians hunted in the forests and prairies, fished the streams, rivers, and lakes, gardened, and gathered wild plants in order to survive and prosper. Different groups practiced these subsistence strategies to varying degrees. The Ojibwe and Menominee appeared to prefer hunting and gathering, while the Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi, and the Sauk & Fox tended more towards gardening.

While gardening was generally more heavily practiced in the more temperate environments of the southern regions, hunting was universal throughout the state. Hunting was especially important during the winter months when gardens and wild plants were not in season. To better adapt to the often inhospitable climate, Native Americans of the Great Lakes region often camped at different places over the course of the year. They would spend spring, summer, and fall months at one camp, often near a lake or stream that allowed easy access to fish, and move near herds of animals such as deer or elk during the winter months when waterways turned to ice.

Men were primarily responsible for hunting, while women generally performed the tasks related to the processing of the animal. After a successful hunt, the men brought the animal carcass back to their village for processing. The first step involved removing the flesh, fat, and hair from the animal. To do this, women used scrapers such as the one featured here, to remove flesh and fat by pushing or dragging the metal blade firmly over the hide. To complete the treatment, the hide then had to be cleaned further, dried, and softened.

Various animals were essential to the life of native peoples. Commonly hunted animals included beaver, muskrat, deer, bison, elk, moose, and rabbits. For Native Americans, hunting was, and remains, a highly respected and spiritual act. Many believe that animals have spirits and therefore must always be treated with respect. Prayers were often offered to the animal spirit at the time of the hunt, thanking Mother Nature for the use of the animal. This respect was also displayed through the Native American custom of using all available parts of the animal they had killed. If not consumed immediately, meat was dried and stored for later use. Animal bones and antlers could be made into tools, game pieces, or even art. Skins and furs were used to make clothing, shelter, drums, and materials such as sinew or rope.

[Sources: Mason, Carol I. Introduction to Wisconsin Indians: Prehistory to Statehood (1988); Manataka American Indian Council. "Deer Hide Tanning" available online at www.manataka.org/;
Bieder, Robert E. "Native American Communities in Wisconsin 1600-1960: A Study of Tradition and Change," Wisconsin Magazine of History 71(3):162-183, 1995.]

EBG


Posted on February 07, 2008

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