Large hares of rabbits, – snared, or shot when lured by a “rabbit call” which imitates the cry of the young rabbit, which the mother bounds out to look for.
Beaver – fencing the exit hole and then chiseling the hole in the top of the house with a spear.
Buffalo – hunted by driving into a “pound”. A buffalo carcass was the property of the whole band. That is, it had to be shared under great penalty for keeping it for an individual’s own use. By 1830 the buffalo had pretty well disappeared.
Elk and moose – said to be difficult to kill but an important food source
Caribou – shot and killed while swimming.
Bears – by deadfalls or holes covered with brush through which the animal fell, to be speared or shot.
Other writers say that the Indian preferred to use bow and arrow even long after he got guns. The first guns were muzzle-loaders, and besides being noisy, often exploded. With a quiver of arrows on his back an Indian could shoot faster especially on horseback. The Beaver were almost exclusively meat-eaters, on which Vilhalmar Steffanson proved in the 1920s one could sustain life and health, without vitamins or other additives. The Indians ate every part of the animal, especially fat.
Dried or fresh raspberries, chokecherries (crushed pits and all), Saskatoons and blueberries were used, the latter being prepared by mashing in a birch-bark vessel through which the juice dripped. Flat hand-formed cakes were made of the pulp, over which the juice was poured and the cake dried over a slow fire until the flat cakes could be kept for winter. Rose hips were also dried and given to babies to suck, providing a source of vitamin C. The inner bark of aspen poplars – the soft green part — was also used, but probably only when other food was scarce. The strawberry blite or strawberry spinach is a plant related to the “pig-weed” or lambs quarters, much used by pioneers for greens, but the strawberry blite has along its stems red, rough fruits resembling a strawberry or a raspberry, which tastes like a very mild beetroot.
Mr. George Robinson of Sexsmith, Alberta tells of finding a “sugar camp” along the Smoky River in the early 1900s. About two dozen birch trees, a foot or more in diameter, had been cut with several small V-shaped incisions. The flap was pulled down to make a sort of spout. Scattered around the trees were many flat little trays about 4 inches by 6 inches by 2 or 3 inches deep, which had been hung under the flap to catch the sweet sap. At that time five-gallon cans were available which had held trader’s goods. He could see that these had been used to boil the sap down into syrup or sugar. Formerly the Indians would have used large birch-bark containers which would be made of folded birch-bark sewn with spruce roots that swelled when wet to seal the holes for a watertight seam. Hot stones would have been dropped in to evaporate the excess water. It is known that the resulting syrup would be a purple colour, and quite sweet.
Before the white man came, the Beavers ate their namesake animal only in case of dire necessity, since they regarded them highly for their wisdom. The Beavers would not willingly eat fish although the Cree were great fishermen.
Goddard said that he saw no attempt on the part of this people to cultivate any kind of garden – a hang-over, no doubt of their nomad hunting way of life. Gardens are not practical when people are always on the move, and have no place to store anything but dried produce in the long winters.
When starvation threatened the Indians ate their dogs, but only as a last resort, since the dog carried whatever load the women could not bear on their backs. Those who shudder at the idea might reflect that the pig is also carnivorous if poorly fed, but by nature they would rather graze or root up underground roots, etc.
It has been written that Indians also snared birds. The handbook, Indians in Canada, prepared by the resources centres of some northern Alberta school districts states that geese, ducks, and swans were used as food. In another place I have read that the Beavers made loose rafts of twigs etc. on which the birds sat to preen their feathers. The Indian would swim underneath and catch them by their feet, but it seems more likely that a bow and arrow would be used before the days of guns – and even after that, for one bird was a small return for precious ammunition.
For the Beaver, most food was roasted over red coals and preferably eaten well done. If not roasted, it was usually boiled in a birch-bark or woven spruce root vessel by dropping hot stones into water. This technique was probably learned from the Cree.
The Beaver often dug a cooking pit, lining it with a fresh animal hide with the hair towards the sides of the hole – then dropping in hot stones. The hollow stump of a fallen tree might be used in the same way.
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 bride.
“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 ploughed over.
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 bee” time.
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.