New People of the Pemmican
Updated: Feb 26
With rivers frozen over, fruit and grains buried under snow and most edible animals vanished from the landscape - how in hell would you have survived a North American winter two hundred and fifty years ago? You would have eaten pemmican.
For over 5,000 years, Native Americans have made this processed super-food that’s not only energy-rich, but also has amazing powers of longevity. At room temperature it lasts three to five years; in cool cellars ten, and if vacuum packed – likely a century. Best of all, its weight to nutrition ratio is an incredible 7,000 plus calories per kilo. Wowsers!
Outside of the odd Viking, Basque fishermen chasing cod across the Atlantic were probably the first Europeans to get their laughing gear around pemmican and they soon cottoned on to something else besides the fish – the beaver fur robes made and worn by the Indigenous Americans. This seemingly limitless commodity brought the whitefellas en mass. From Jaques Cartier in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the 1530s and The Company of One Hundred Associates in 1627, through to the British Hudson’s Bay Company and its rival, the Montreal-based North West Company in the 18th and 19th centuries – they all came looking for that soft, soft fur.
The Hudson’s Bay Company, a London backed private merchant army, became the de-facto government and claimed a staggeringly huge fur monopoly that took in the whole of the 2.4 million sq. Hudson Bay drainage basin. In this vast area, known as Rupert’s Land, the fur industry was born, and rugged outposts and forts with names like Moose Factory, Rat Portage, Doubtful Post and Fort Churchill sprung up.
During fall and winter, First Nations and European trappers trapped and prepared the fur pelts. Traveling by canoe, horse and foot to the forts and posts, they bartered their hard-won prizes for manufactured goods like knives, guns, beads, clothes and material.
Pemmican became the main source of food source for these fellas as they worked areas that had a scarce food supply but plenty of fur. The indigenous folk, the Cree, Ojibwa and Saulteaux people, traded pemmican to the Euros but it wasn’t enough. So the fur companies accumulated massive amounts of dried meat and fat in fall and early winter, then made, traded and consumed pemmican into the spring.
The trappers, and traders – also known as voyageurs, were mainly French, and they lived with First Nations people; learning their lingo and marrying local lasses. They became part of Indigenous kinship circles and made strong ties that were crucial in underpinning the new economic relationships the fur trade brought.
After a couple of generations, a new hybrid people appeared - The Métis. They mixed Indigenous and European culture and created customs and traditions of their own; even developing a common language. All these intermingling was good for business and the Métis became vital to the fur trade as respected and valuable employees of the companies. Their knowledge of the land and ability to interpret was one thing, but in their skills as voyageurs they had no peer.
French and Métis voyageurs transported the furs through wild and uncharted country and were celebrated in folklore and music - apparently with good reason. One retired voyageur said, “I could carry, paddle, walk and sing with any man - fifty songs could I sing. Twenty-four years a canoe man, and forty-one years in service; no portage was too long. I saved the lives of ten voyageurs, had twelve wives and six running dogs. I spent all of my money in pleasure, and were I young again – I would spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur's life!”
But behind every heroic tale there’s hard truth. Voyageurs had to lug two 40 kg loads of fur over long, long portages. Some hard-nuts carried four or five such bundles. Hernias, not tomahawks, were a common cause of death. Most voyageurs never made enough for an early retirement, and the one’s that did – told all the stories.
The other thing the Métis did extremely well was hunt buffalo. This skill provided the basic sustenance that kept the trappers trapping, the voyageurs voyaging and the fur industry going. Though pemmican was made with large game like elk, deer and moose – buffalo, or more accurately American bison, was the ideal meat because of its sheer bulk and great hump of fatty meat. And they roamed in herds of countless size, literally drinking rivers dry and sometimes taking six days to pass by.
So twice a year, after sowing their crops in the spring, entire towns of Métis people left their Red River settlements and traveled south west on ‘dried meat’ hunts. Into Sioux and Blackfoot dominated prairies rode men, women, children, oxen, horses and dogs, with a full supply of tents and housekeeping utensils. At night, for protection against the outraged prairie people, the Métis formed the corral – a ring of carts with their shafts turned inwards. Rifle-toting guards did night watch duty on the outside, and in tents and around fires, the hunters and their families slept in the centre.
The women and children kept camp and processed the buffalo into pemmican and skins. The men hunted. On prized horses – ‘buffalo runners’ that were bred and trained to be fast and clever – Métis marksmen loaded and fired their single shot, large bore muskets in the saddle. With a mouthful of musket balls, they entered the herds, deftly dropped gunpowder from a powder horn down the barrel and then spat a ball into the muzzle. A tap with the butt end on the saddle made the salivated bullet stick to the powder as the sharpshooter brought the weapon down. He’d then fire from the hip. This loading and shooting was usually done at full gallop.
The Métis hunters were described as ‘exceedingly picturesque.’ They wore beaded moccasins, painted muslin shirts and coats of blue adorned with large brass buttons. They had caps of otter or badger skin decorated with beads, gilt lace and feathers. With a gaudy sash around the waist and leather leggings ornamented with sparkly baubles, they must have been real prairie dandies. Even the horses were fully stylin’ – with colourful ribbons twined into their manes and tails.
Currently 1.7% of Canada’s population, and officially recognised as Indigenous Canadians, the Métis are still here. And so are the buffalo. Just. In 1900, just 300 head of bison remained; today it’s more like half a million. As well as being rendered into pemmican, they were wiped out as a way of disenfranchising the First Nations people from their land. Once numbering 60, maybe a 100 million, these magnificent animals were unfortunate enough to be present at a historical nexus point where colonial desire, greed and exploitation – and the need for the perfect survival food – met.
For more amazing history of the Métis and some of their First Nations contemporaries, illustrated with some truly stunning photographs, check out – https://www.dibaajimowin.com/