Tech by VICE

These 18th Century Native Tools Are Being 3D Scanned, Printed and Used Again

Artist Tania Larsson used modern replication techniques to recreate traditional animal hide tanning artifacts in the Smithsonian's collection.

by Meagan Wohlberg
May 28 2015, 11:00am

Larsson crafts traditional tools out of bone, metal and antler. Image: Tania Larsson

An indigenous artist from northern Canada is using 3D scanning and printing technology to recreate centuries-old hide tanning tools used by her ancestors.

Gwich'in artist Tania Larsson, currently a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, recently completed an internship at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian where she used modern replication techniques to recreate animal hide tanning artifacts in the museum's collection so that they can be used again today.

Using laser scanning and photogrammetry techniques, she collected images of the objects— mostly hide tanning tools, as well as harvesting tools like fish spears—from multiple angles to create digital models with the same dimensions. After scanning, she stitched the images together using 3D modelling software to create objects that can be printed using a 3D printer. The 3D printed models, which are made out of gypsum, are then used as reference models to build identical tools out of more traditional materials, such as bone and antler.

A centuries old animal hide scraping tool from the Smithsonian's artifact collection. Image: Tania Larsson/National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (071026.000)

"The biggest thing about Native Americans and First Nations is that we always adapted to the technologies we came across, so it's a totally normal step to use 3D scanning and 3D printing, because this is a new tool that is in front of us," said the 25-year-old, whose home is in Yellowknife in Canada's Northwest Territories, where the Gwich'in have lived for centuries as North America's northernmost Athabaskan group.

"This is a great way to actually take the reference of these tools, 3D print them and then be able to recreate our old tools through new technologies," Larsson continued. "It's very exciting because we're talking about hundreds of years old techniques and traditions and this brand new technology that we can use to recreate it and continue our culture, our traditions."

Although Larsson grew up in France with her Gwich'in mother and Swedish father, she returned to the North several years ago to reconnect with her land-based culture. With some friends she sought out the art of traditional caribou and moose hide tanning, which uses tools made of bone, antler and metal to soften an animal's thick skin into softer material. But because tools are typically handed down through families, Larsson lacked access to her own cultural inheritance. She began to learn how to make her own tools, but wanted to use truly Gwich'in models as a reference.

A 3D scan of a centuries old animal hide scraping tool held by the Smithsonian. Image: Tania Larsson/National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (071026.000)

"My mom didn't have tanning tools, so I don't have tanning tools," she said. "So I thought, I might as well go find the oldest tools I could find and replicate them. I knew there were some tools in the [Smithsonian] collection and I really wanted to see them, maybe for a sense of authenticity, and to just be able to have that connection with my ancestors through these tools that are in the museum."

At the Smithsonian, Larsson was able to access 18th century tools of the Gwich'in, whose territory spans the upper regions of Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, in line with caribou migration patterns. The Gwich'in believe caribou and people once traded half their hearts with one another and are now permanently interconnected. That relationship is reflected in the traditional tools Larsson is now fabricating, where leg bones and caribou antlers are repurposed into tools for scraping the fat, muscle, sinew and hair off a fresh hide to make traditional clothing.

Also a blacksmith and metalworker, Larsson has been adding her own flair to the knives and scrapers she's creating from the 3D printed replicas using patterned Damascus steel. Friends from the North who want to trade raw materials for finished tanning tools have sent Larsson the antler and bone needed to complete the project.

A 3D printed model of a traditional scraping tool. Image: Tania Larsson/National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (071026.000)

Unlike the carefully preserved artifacts at the museum, the 3D printed tools can be handled by anyone, including children, which Larsson foresees as a way to advance the movement towards cultural revitalization in indigenous communities across the continent.

That said, Larsson emphasizes the technology is only a facilitator and not a teacher.

"Even though I have the 3D technology, I still constantly rely on elders for their knowledge to help me to do all of this work. I'm still going to have to use lots of elbow grease to tan the hides," she said. "So it's not replacing traditional knowledge; it's just enhancing traditional knowledge by making a few things easier."

Larsson holds a scraped and softened caribou hide at a hide tanning camp on the Peel River in June 2014. Image: Kali Spitzer

While at the Smithsonian, Larsson said she found a bone puncher that fit her hand perfectly, as if the person who made it hundreds of years ago to scrape the fat off her caribou hide had the exact same hands. Now that she has a 3D printed version—and the digital pattern to make more—she'll be able to fashion her own identical tool, and ensure that tool will be available to her own children and grandchildren in the future.

"Even if something happens to the actual objects, we'll always have the digital information," she said.