Work in Skins in North America In-Class Activity

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Exercise ID: 2.42
Class size: Any
Level(s): I II
Source: Produced by HRAF

Learning Objectives

Does the exercise compare 2 or more cultures? Yes
Subject selection: Multiple subjects specified by teacher
Subjects/OCMS, if applicable: work in skins, manufacturing of basic materials, division of labor by gender
Region selection: pre-selected
Region, if applicable: North America
Culture selection: Set by teacher
Cultures/OWCs, if applicable: Kaska, Pawnee, Western Apache, Navajo, Crow, Aleut, Alutiiq, Chipewyans, Cooper INuit, Ingalik, Innu, Ojibwa, Western Woods Cree, Cherokee, Creek, Deleware, Fox, Iroquois, Mikmaq, Seminole, Winnebago/Ho-Chunk, Chinookans of the Lower Columbia River, Haida, Nuu-Chah-Nulth, Nuxalk, Pomo, Quinault, Tlingit, Tubatulabal, Yokuts, Yuki, Yurok, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Comanche, Gros Ventre, Klamath, Omaha, Osage, Stoney, Cajuns, Chicanos, Sea Islanders, Eastern Apache, Havasupai, Hopi, Maricopa, Mescalero Apache, northern Paiute, O’odham, Tewa Pueblos, ute, Zia Pueblo, Zuni

Classroom Guide

Instructions for navigating eHRAF included? No
Assignments for students to complete in groups? Yes
Assignments for students to complete on their own? Yes
Instructions for Microfiche version? No

Christiane Cunnar, Alissa Jordan, Human Relations Area Files

Adapted from Teaching eHRAF Exercise Hide Working and Tanning Leather by Christiane Cunnar

Download In-Class Activity PDF



In this assignment, you will research strategies for working in skins in North America, and synthesize this data by extrapolating the material evidence hide-working practices might leave in the archaeological record.

Exercise Details

  • Time: 45 minutes

Materials Required:

  • HRAF Access
  • Worksheet and pen or other materials for recording answers

Student Learning Outcomes:

  • At the end of this Exercise, students will be able to:
  • describe the material traces left by hide working practices.
  • explain the social context of hide working practices in multiple Native North American societies
  • demonstrate an understanding of secondary data collection and analysis techniques that archaeologists use to ethnographically and historically situate material evidence at given sites
  • construct effective and efficient search strategies in eHRAF in order to retrieve data relevant to a specific topic/assignment.

Leather goods

Practices of processing animal hide for human use are commonly referred to work in skins, hide working, tanning, or skin dressing. In the United States, and in many other societies, leather is an integral part of fashion and household living. For example, in North America many people own shoes or belts made out of leather, and some have leather journals, jackets, chairs, or sofas. For most parts, hide working in the USA was usually an industrialized process in the 20th century, with artisanal exceptions. By 2010, with the economic growth of handmade creative markets, “diy” (do-it-yourself)  craftspersons and organic leather studios found broader exposure for ‘traditional’ methods of hide working that rely on natural ingredients and individual craftsmanship. These methods of hide working are connected to older, pre-industrial practices that have been kept alive by communities of craftspersons around the world.

Compared to industrial processes, these small-scale methods of hide-working are long and labor-intensive involving several discrete stages—such as the removal of hair, the preparation of ingredients, soaking of skins, and kneading and conditioning.

Gender Stratification

Looking to the ethnographic record, it appears that this multi-step, processually-complex and chemically-precise work was more often than not performed by women and girls

In this assignment, you will imagine that you are an archaeology student assisting in the excavation of a faunal assemblage at a historic site in the North American plains region. You find evidence for hide working, and decide to consult the ethnographic literature to learn more about hide working processes.

Assignment Part 1

Use the literature in eHRAF World Cultures to compare and contrast the hide working methods employed by three Native North American groups.

  • First, choose three societies for comparison from the list of Native American groups that work in hides in eHRAF collections (1-2 minutes).
  • Fill in the following information for each society, using an advanced search in eHRAF**


Society A Society B Society C
Division of Labor:

(If there is a division of labor for hide working, how is work allocated?)

Length of Time/Persons

(Roughly how long and how many people does it take to process hides?)

Tools and Materials

(What tools and materials are used? )


**Try constructing an advanced search, add all three of your chosen societies at once, add in the subject category “work in skins” and execute.**


Assignment Part 2

After you have answered the above questions using ethnographic data, choose one of the two societies as a case study and answer the following questions:


Based on the sorts of work in skins you explored:


Question #1. What evidence of working in skins would you expect to find in the archaeological record of this society? (5 minutes)


Question #2. Where would you look for it? (5 minutes)


Question #3. And how would you distinguish it from other zoological evidence or other practices? (5 minutes)

Resources: Assignment Rubric, Tips, References

  • A rubric is located in the attached PDF.

Further reading

  • For more exercises and teaching resources related to human societies past and present, explore Teaching eHRAF.
  • For a more detailed version of this particular exercise with additional questions and activities check out Exercise 2.4 Hide Working by Christiane Cunnar.
  • Check out the Advanced Search Tutorial for detailed instructions on conducting searches in eHRAF World Cultures.
  • For information on hide working practices in the archaeological record, check out eHRAF Archaeology.