Stephenville Crossing woman devotes each fall to turning moosehides into hand drums

·3 min read
Cora Butt has been making her own hand drums for the past decade. (Cherie Wheeler/CBC - image credit)
Cora Butt has been making her own hand drums for the past decade. (Cherie Wheeler/CBC - image credit)
Cherie Wheeler/CBC
Cherie Wheeler/CBC

Every fall Cora Butt, a Mi'kmaw woman from Stephenville Crossing, N.L., turns her backyard into an unusual sort of workshop. There are huge wooden frames leaning across her fence, each one stretching a large, brown and beige moosehide. At just the right angle, the opaque spans of leather are backlit by the autumn sun.

In a few days these hides will be transformed from something visceral to something special: a hand drum.

Butt collects the hides from outfitting camps and local hunters. Many times, they're dropped off in garbage bags left at the end of her driveway. Still covered in fur, blood and bits of meat, the hides go directly into one of the many large plastic barrels around Butt's yard and soaked in water for four to five days.

"We'll clean what we can off it like the velum and that and the rest we put back into nature," said Butt. "We clean it so you don't get [as much of] that stinky smell."

But even with fresh water added to the barrel every day or two, it's hard to eliminate the smell of something organic breaking down.

"Especially on a hot day," Butt laughed. "Oh man! She's bad."

Cherie Wheeler/CBC
Cherie Wheeler/CBC

Once the hides come out of the barrels, Butt has to rip the fur out by hand. It's the hardest part of the process and she has to wear rubber gloves to protect her hands from the coarse moose fur.

From there the hides are stretched and dried before the drum circles are cut out and put back into soak again.

"It's not easy," she said. "I usually use a knife on it … and I use scissors at times for different parts that I do and stuff like that. But it's a lot of time into it."

Thankfully, Butt has help through the whole process. Her husband, Wendell, who's of settler descent, helps clean and dry the hides and he makes all the drum frames the skins will eventually be laced to.

Cherie Wheeler/CBC
Cherie Wheeler/CBC

Cora Butt is a member of Qalipu First Nation but it was actually their son was who taught her and her husband how to make drums after he watched others at a powwow in Ontario.

"When we started out first, we didn't know nothing," said Wendell Butt. "We had to experiment different ways of doing it."

The couple and their drums have come a long way since those early days, so much so that Cora Butt now teaches drum-making workshops to others. She also makes moosehide rattles, spruce root baskets and sews traditional ribbon skirts. She even teaches workshops so others can learn to do it themselves.

Cherie Wheeler/CBC
Cherie Wheeler/CBC

But one of the most important lessons she passes on about her drums is how to care for them and treat them with respect.

"I keep mine wrapped in red flannel," she said. "I keep it warm because you never let your drum go cold and other people shouldn't touch your drum without permission."

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