Pemmican By Dorthea Calverley
Venison or buffalo
Saskatoon berries or
During the summer the Indians dried Saskatoon berries as well as meat.
When the chokecherries were ripe the band assembled at some convenient
spot to make pemmican.
To the chant of traditional songs, the women beat strips of dry-meat
(a hollow log, up-ended, and bound with a thong of rawhide to prevent
splitting served as a container) with stone pounding implements until
it was almost like powder. The mass was mixed with melted fat in a
bark trough, then packed very tightly into skin bags, and sewed up so
that no air could enter, folding the skin over until no air remained
in the bag. Saskatoons and chokecherries pounded up, pits and all
added to the flavour, if not the digestibility. Some women, as in any
society were very clean and careful when preparing food, and some were
not. A well-known good pemmican-maker commanded a higher price as a
"Sweet" pemmican was made by cracking the big animal bones and boiling
them with water. The melted fat came to the top, and when congealed,
was used for mixing.
Also the paunch or stomach of the animal was used as a container.
People who are horrified by this idea should remember that until a
very few years ago sausage casings were made from the cleaned
intestines of pigs or lambs.
If kept dry, pemmican would remain good for years. Even today, many
native people embarking on long trips into remote areas make a supply,
for it is one of the most concentrated foods known to man. It will
sustain life indefinitely and needs no refrigeration.
The Indians used pemmican for emergency rations due to the large
amount of work involved in making it. They killed fresh meat whenever
they could. The Pouce Coupe Prairie was famous for good quality
pemmican, but the whole Peace River country "exported" it for
centuries before the white man arrived. It was partly to raid the
country for Peace River Pemmican that the Cree made their periodic
raids from the Edmonton area.
After the fur-trade began, pemmican was sought after as well as furs.
The fur brigades needed great amounts to carry them on long journeys
to Lake Superior, during which time the voyageurs had no time to stop
and hunt. In fact it was to help the Indians to shoot more buffalo for
pemmican that the white men gave them guns. With their new weapons and
with the added incentive of obtaining trade goods for the product, the
Indians forgot their ages-long tradition of conservation. Where they
used to take no more than they needed, they now slaughtered
mercilessly and wantonly. By 1830, the herds of bison no longer
wintered on Pouce Coupe's Prairie, but clung in one's and two's to the
coulees and isolated valleys. In 1906 the last, a tame one, was shot
near Fort St. John.
Archeological "digs" have not taken place in the area, except for
fossils. Pioneers yet living know where "Indian Hill" is, a few miles
west of Dawson Creek. Hector Tremblay Jr. in an interview here in
August, 1973, remembered the great summer pemmican making gatherings
there not fifty years ago. There was an Indian cemetery there too, now
The white pioneer women knew the preserving quality of fat. It was
customary to grind up quantities of beef or moose, fry or bake it in
patties, and pack it in crocks. Over it enough rendered lard was
poured to cover it well. Crocks of preserved meat were lifesavers when
gangs of men had to be fed at threshing, wood sawing, or "building
Sometimes black, rounded masses are ploughed up when breaking fields.
Many people believe them to be pemmican, or even "fossilized
pemmican". There is not a chance in a thousand that is anything more
than a kind of giant, underground fungus known as "tuckahoe". Museums
must have dozens turned in, for some people cannot be persuaded that
they have not made a notable find. The comparatively lightweight and
"mushroom" smell when they are dug up convinced the informed person at
once as to their nature. They are fairly common.
By Dorthea Calverley
http://www.calverley.dawson-creek.bc.ca/Part01-FirstNations/ [now dead]
Posted to rec.food.preserving by Jim Weller (in Yellowknife)