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Native American furs, hides sold at War Bonnet in Shawno, Wisconsin

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The War Bonnet Native American gift shop in Shawano sells traditional Indigenous crafts made from animal hides and pelts. (Photo: Karen and Leo Dillenburg)

SHAWANO – Many of the artisan suppliers of goods to the War Bonnet Native American gift shop in Shawano still live and work much in the same way people did hundreds of years ago.

Owners Karen and Leo Dillenburg said some of the hunters and trappers they do business with are so off-grid that sometimes the only way to contact them is through a very old-fashioned system.

“Most still live in the bush and it’s really hard to find them,” Leo Dillenburg said.

These rugged tradespeople live in the wild in Canada’s remote Yukon and Northwest territories or Alaska.

For some, the Dillenburgs have to leave a note containing an order for fur and leather goods at the nearest small village on an Indigenous reservation with the hope that the outdoors people will eventually come into town and fulfill the order.

But the Dillenburgs believe it’s well worth the wait because the artistic pieces produced are some of the finest and most unique in the world, and they said it’s a dying art form.

An 80-year-old Cree woman, for example, is one of the few artisans they’ve found who still produced leather Indigenous jackets in the traditional way, that is through hand-tanning moose hide.

Even at that age she still hunts and shoots her own moose and then tans, softens and smokes the hide in a structure near her home.

Artistic designs using beads and other materials are then added in a process that can take up to a year to make a jacket from start to finish.

“Now, it’s practically impossible to find someone who can still make them like that,” Leo said.

He said there are commercially produced jackets, but it involves a process of dipping hundreds of hides at a time in large vats.

“It’s not at all the quality of hand-tanning,” Leo said.

The War Bonnet currently has 15 hand-tanned jackets for sale ranging from $600 to $5,000 that the Dillenburgs picked up through the years from their travels in Canada.

The shop also sells traditionally made moccasins, mittens and animal pelt hats that are popular for use at Packers games.

The Dillenburgs are expecting a large shipment of caribou hides that they say are popularly used as rugs for their extreme softness.

Local Indigenous artists also have an outlet in selling their wares at War Bonnet, which include jewelry and canvas paintings.

Another form of art available at the shop are called birch bark bitings, in which an artist takes a piece of folded birch bark and literally bites into it and it unfolds to reveal designs, such as dragonflies or flowers.

The shop used to be connected to their bar and grill in Keshena that they had owned for 10 years, but the new owners decided they didn’t want to operate the shop, so the Dillenburgs moved their inventory to their new shop in Shawano, which opened in May.

Being Menominee, Karen Dillenburg said it’s important for her to provide an outlet for traditional Indigenous artists and craftspeople.

“Because I’m Native American,” she said, “I have a personal desire to make sure the old crafts and arts are still continuing on.”

Frank Vaisvilas is a Report For America corps member based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette covering Native American issues in Wisconsin. He can be reached at 920-228-0437 or [email protected], or on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA.

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