Hide And Seek

Boiling brains and hunting voles in search of the old-time fur trader's life

You thought the sun-worshiping fitness junkies circling Lake of the Isles had a hungry, predatory look in their eyes? Consider this passage from The Recollections of Philander Prescott: Frontiersman of the Old Northwest:

As [the Chippewa] were leaving, two Pillagers, relatives of the man that was killed by the Sioux the summer before, went out to Lake Calhoun to see if they could get a scalp. They said the Sioux owed them one. They went and placed themselves in a trail that led from Lake Calhoun to a shack half a mile south of Lake Harriet, or a mile and a half south of Lake Calhoun, and hid themselves in the bushes. After a while an Indian came along. He was Neka (the Badger), one of the best Indians in the Lake Calhoun band. As he passed, they, the two Chippewa Pillagers, shot him and took his scalp and made off.

Prescott worked as a fur trader in the early 1800s buying hides from Native Americans and mountain men and then distributing them to craftsmen and retailers in the surrounding areas. He describes the procurement of at least one deer hide as follows:

Let me feel your bootie: James Hastings with his supple handicraft
Michael Dvorak
Let me feel your bootie: James Hastings with his supple handicraft

The Indian turned the deer over and said he had killed the deer without making a hole in the skin. "How can that be?" said I. "Well, said the Indian, "the ball went straight into the backside, through the entrails, and lodged in his shoulder." The Indian hastily took off the skin and a considerable quantity of the meat with it, and shouldered it. We went on, expecting to meet with [some Indians], but we traveled and traveled and traveled until we got tired and sat down to rest. We started again and traveled until dark and found no Indians that night. So we had a good roast of our venison and went to sleep, not dreaming of the trouble that we were to meet the next day.

By contrast, present-day leatherworker James Hastings buys his deer hide frozen from a butcher and has nothing more than a power-walker with a doublewide stroller to fear when he canoes Lake Calhoun. What Prescott and Hastings have in common is an affinity for the adventure and simplicity of life in the woods and a working connection to the function and beauty of deerskin.

On a recent Thursday evening, Hastings turns up at Dulono's Pizza in Lyn-Lake to talk about his work. He is back in the city working odd jobs and regrouping after spending fall in a solitary cabin in a swamp outside Ely. Hastings wears a veteran, but serviceable, winter coat, and a wool cap pulled down so that it skims the tops of his ears. He's been putting the finishing touches on a pair of deerskin baby moccasins and has brought them along to display.

Both tiny shoes fit in the palm of his hand. He picks one up and examines the gathers near the toes. With a workman's fingertip callused from flicking its fair share of cigarettes, he shows where he plans to attach a delicate, lacelike edging of antique seed beads made from white glass. He explains that he has made many pairs of baby moccasins, mostly for friends' children, and proudly declares that they'll last forever. Then he seems to remember that babies outgrow shoes quickly, and he pouts a bit that the little boots won't have time to prove his point. The tiny slipper smells like a late-night campfire, feels like plush or new suede, and moves like fabric. And it originated wholly from the handicraft of this scruffy-bearded, twinkly-eyed, cigarette-scented 28-year-old bike messenger-turned-mountain man sipping root beer.

Hastings came to this ancient craft under distinctly 20th-century circumstances. His first experience in leatherwork was at age 13 in a correctional facility for boys. An instructor named Mabel helped him make a little pouch from commercial leather. In his late teens and early 20s he lived in Minneapolis working as a bike messenger--a death-defying cowboy of the urban landscape. During his off hours he made sturdy, decorative, zippered pouches for his colleagues who would frequently load them with herbal products geared toward consciousness enhancement.

He now sells work at a type of historical reenactment known as "rendezvous," which imitate the mountain-man fur-trading meetings of old. The rendezvous--not unlike Civil War reenactments or Society for Creative Anachronism meetings--is a social event with a historical focus. Sometimes referred to as "experimental archaeology" or "living history," these outdoor festivals offer enthusiasts a chance to gather, dress in costume, live in character, explore antiquated trades, revive ignored crafts, and celebrate the legacy of their putative ancestors. Modern technology is left at the parking lot, and only historically accurate costuming, tools, and shelters are allowed within festival limits.

The original rendezvous were check-ins for early-19th-century mountain dwellers and fur traders. After months of solitary travels, hunting, trapping, and the attendant privations of mountain life, men would come in from the wilderness, gather together, and... well...party. Rendezvous served practical purposes, such as replenishing dwindling supplies, passing on news and warnings, and providing a time for the selling and buying of goods. But they also served social purposes. Storytelling, feasting, drinking and general merrymaking occurred in abundance, as nothing of the kind would be available again until the next year's rendezvous.

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