Original Way of Making Pemmican
Before steel rails cut lines across the American and Canadian prairies, buffalo roamed the plains in herds large enough to stretch beyond the horizon. These furnished an endless supply of meat for the plains Indians. Preserving the meat for later use was accomplished by making pemmican.
This description of the method used to make pemmican came to me from the writings of Egerton Ryerson Young, a missionary who served at Norway House in northern Manitoba before the Hudson’s Bay Company sold out to Canada. (1870) “When the Indians or half-breed hunters succeeded in killing large numbers of buffaloes, after being skinned the meat was skilfully cut into great thin flakes and strips. These were placed on a frame staging. Utilizing the warmth of the sun above, and a small, steady fire of buffalo chips below, these thin sheets of meat were soon as dry as they could be. The next step in the process was to pound this dry meat as fine and small as possible. Large bags, capable of holding from one to three bushels, were made by the squaws out of the fresh buffalo hides, with the fur side out. Into these green hide-bags this pounded dry meat was packed. To aid in the packing down an Indian, in his dirty moccasined feet, would frequently jump into the bag and stamp and dance around in it as it was held up by two other strong, sturdy fellows, while a fourth kept shovelling in additional meat until no more could be packed in. Then the melted buffalo tallow was poured in until it permeated the whole mass. The top of the bag was then skilfully sewed together with sinew, and was ready for use. If well prepared, it would keep for years. This pemmican was the most nourishing food I ever ate, but a little would go a long way for it often smelled like rotten soap grease.”
Mr. Young was also familiar with the settlements of six to eleven thousand Metis strung along the banks of the Red River from Pembina to the Hudson’s Bay post of Fort Gary. Prior to his arrival at Winnipeg in 1868 and before the railroad crossed Canada, huge herds of buffalo roamed the Canadian prairies. Hunted and slaughtered incessantly by the white man, they were driven north and west into the shadows of the Rocky Mountains. To quote Mr. Young, “It does seem a pity that the strong arms of the United States or Canadian governments were not stretched out for protection from extermination of these really valuable animals.”
During the time that great herds of them still roamed over the western prairies, Mr Young writes of the Metis hunt: “The hunting was done on horseback, and the well-trained horses thoroughly entered into the excitement of the sport... How admirably the men are dressed for such exciting work! Everything about them, and also the accouterments of their horses, are exactly suited for the hour. Their little saddles made of deerskin, strong and enduring, yet soft as flannel. Under it is the far-famed saddle-cloth, extending beyond the saddle on every side and beautifully ornamented with bead or silk-thread work by the fond wife or bright-eyed sweetheart.”
The Metis hunt was well organized with an appointed leader or president. Under him trusted men acted as captains and the rest of the men were considered constables. The entire hunting party was governed by rigid laws. No gun was allowed to be fired until the leader had given the word. Mr. Young’s description of the what follows is something out of the movie Dances with Wolves. “Then they dash forward with a deafening yell. The great herds of buffaloes, bewildered and excited, rapidly rush away, but are speedily overtaken by the swift runners. Pell-mell into the heard of wild animals dash the horsemen, and at once there is the greatest rivalry among these hunters... All are firing and trying to hit buffalo and not one another.... Bullets are flying everywhere; for some of the fiery horses have carried their riders so far into the herd that they turn on their saddles and shoot at the maddening, excited crowd of animals behind them. Then frequently some old bulls, maddened by wounds and the presence of the hunters, and excited by the smell of blood, suddenly turn and, with lowered heads and fearful roars, charge the too adventurous hunters. Well it is for them their well-trained chargers are quick of eye and nibble on their feet.”
After the hunt the women would remove the hides and the business of making pemmican began. Not only were thousands of pounds of pemmican put up, but also great quantities of buffalo tallow were melted down into large cakes and carefully preserved. When this was all completed everything was loaded into Red River carts for the trip back home. Slowly but surely the great buffalo hunts came to an end as civilization in the form of the iron horse closed of the vast prairies and settlers plowed up the land. One irony is that Winnipeg continued to be a centre of Metis culture yet at the same time established itself as the centre of Canada’s wheat industry, the very thing that destroyed much it.
Above quotes were first published in London, England in 1893