It is said that nothing of a buffalo carcass was wasted. In bad winters when the animals were lean, muscle meat would not do more than sustain life. In winter, finding a bear’s den before the animal became too thin was considered great good fortune. However, bear meat was forbidden to women in some groups.
White men are surprised and often put off by the Indians’ traditional food habits, both as to what they ate, and how they prepared it. For example, moose nose was considered a very great delicacy. When boiled, it is a rather gelatinous meat, which even white people can quickly acquire a liking for.
Some bands had a taboo against eating beaver. If cooked without removing the castoreum glands, one could easily understand that! However, among the Slaveys met by Mr. George Hunter in a nearly undisturbed state near Fort Nelson, roasted beaver tail was considered a great delicacy. He described its preparation this way: the tail was suspended from a green stick over red coals, until the tough outer skin cracked open, when the delicate fat and muscle could be picked out like the meat from a lobster claw. Mr. Hunter pronounced the meat “very good.”
Fish and small animals were often roasted whole over the coals or buried in the hot ashes, wrapped in mud – just as Boy Scouts do today.
Mrs. Elizabeth Beattie of Hudson’s Hope described the Beaver Indians’ rendering of bear fat in the autumn to keep for winter use. At first she was happy to be offered some of the rendered fat, because she had found that it made excellent pastry. However, she declined when she observed that some of the women, who were chewing tobacco, were somewhat less than accurate when ejecting the juice over the pot, aimed for the open door.
Bear meat was directly involved in the Northwest Mounted Police being brought into the Peace River country. Before the last buffalo was shot near Fort St. John in 1906, moose and bear had become the mainstay of diet. The Indians took bears by means of pits covered with light brush and leaves and baited in such a way that the bear fell through into the trap. When the Klondikers were moving north, some of their horses did the same. Without regard for the Indians’ only source of the fat they so greatly needed, and which must be stored when the animals were in good condition before hibernation, the Klondikers sent scouts ahead of their pack trains to break down the bear-traps. At that time, the Indians had not signed treaty. The land was theirs absolutely and they were becoming more and more enraged. In reprisal for the Klondikers’ behaviour, the Indians got a bloodless revenge near Fort St. John. After a party of Klondikers had laboriously pulled all their wagons up the steep hill on the other side of the Peace River, and “parked” them for a night’s much-needed rest, the Beavers, allegedly led by the famous Wolf, simply pushed them over the many-hundred foot clay cutbanks onto the river flat below.
The Federal Government within a very short time concluded a treaty, and sent the Northwest Mounted Police in to police the white men, and protect the Indian.
Different bands of Indians might have taboos against eating animals that other bands relished. The influence of the shaman or “medicine man” might be the basis of the taboo. An individual might have a “dream” in which he would receive instructions for him to avoid eating certain animals, or to eat them only in certain ways. Women were often under prohibition to eat certain foods during childbearing age. It is no more true to say that “Indians ate everything,” than to say the same of white men. As one old Athapaskan said to Richard K. Nelson (in Trappers of the Northern Forest) “Wolf, wolverine and raven are hard to swallow even if you try it.” The fat of eagles was reported by George Thompson to make a white man violently ill. The Indians did not eat it. In times of starvation foods that would ordinarily be avoided would be used. White trappers did the same – even consuming wolverine or lynx. (See story of Dan Yeager.)
Without going into details of some of their primitive food habits, we might reflect that many white nations use meat in much the same way. No internal organ, except the gall bladder is exempted from use in gourmet or common foods in some part of Europe or even America. The Arabs esteem the eye of the sheep to be the greatest delicacy to offer a guest. Blood, brain, the paunch or stomach (served as “tripe,” or as the container for the famous Scots’ haggis), liver, lungs, tongue, kidneys, etc., find their way into “headcheese”, “brawn” or sausages. And speaking of sausages, everybody alive over forty who has eaten sausage or salami has eaten the intestine of the pig. It was carefully cleaned and kept every slaughtering day by the white men and also by the meatpacking plants to make the sausage “casing.” The Chinese say that white men “stink of milk” from their consumption of dairy products and yet isn’t snake bile a delicacy in Asia?
Much of our thinking that Indian food was unappetizing may be a hand-down from the writings of white explorers and travelers, who, like today’s news writers are sure to describe the sensational. An account of Sioux cooking written by E.T. Denig about 1840 is an example:
“Some of the dishes prepared by the Indians in their yet uncultivated state of cooks and cookery present a mess not very enticing to the eye of the hungry traveler, and are by no means adapted to delicate stomachs and fastidious appetites. In this class may be placed a favorite one made of blood boiled with brains, rosebuds and scrapings of rawhide until it becomes the consistency of warm glue. Pounded cherries boiled with sugar and grease added, is considered a dainty and eaten with great relish. The prairie turnip sliced, dried and boiled with the dried paunch of a buffalo, or the peas extracted from mice’s nests cooked with dried beaver tail or a good fat dog is also much admired and considered fit for soldiers, chiefs, and distinguished guests.”
To which one may add two observations.
First that our tastes are acquired. In fact they are taught! The human infant puts anything and everything into his mouth, and he regularly swallows things that are nauseous to adults, and even burning or irritating to his mouth. He soon learns to associate his mother’s “no-no” or her expression of disgust with certain things. Soon he responds in the same way. Baby will accept almost anything given gently with a smile.
Secondly, we do not hear of the traders “importing” cooks. Many of the traders were from middle class or better British homes, yet almost all of them took Indian wives. Can you recall one of the journals of any of them mentioning a yearning for mother’s cooking?
After all, in 1972 a white man downed in a northern air-crash ate human flesh, when a native Eskimo boy preferred to walk away into the snow and die.
It might be a sobering thought to consider that the Indian was notably disease-free as long as he lived on his diet, prepared and eaten in his own way. Moreover, even today when the Indian has been partly “civilized,” I would wager that there is a greater percentage of spry, working nonagenarians and centenarians among the Indians than among the white people in this North Country. Chief Dokkie’s mother took treaty at one hundred and six at Moberly Lake. Bella Yahey was still “going strong” at Halfway in 1973, allegedly at the age of one hundred and sixteen!