The large-flowered thistle had an edible root of considerable size, which could be boiled. Its name Cirsium edule means “edible thistle.” When roasted the roots become very sweet and sugary.
A plant that white men found a little too severe on their digestive system was the huge cow parsnip that grows everywhere in wet locations. This family of plants includes many that are extremely poisonous. All of them make an umbrella-like flower head. The tall cow parsnip puts up a shoot in spring, which looks like a rather loose corncob. The flower head has a similar appearance. The leaf stalks had to be peeled and split before roasting. The immature flower buds were simply peeled before roasting, or were boiled like celery, and might even be eaten raw. To white men the disagreeable odor and taste can be converted into “an agreeable or even delicious vegetable” if carefully prepared. To some people they have an extremely laxative effect.
Cow parsnip is also known as “Indian rhubarb.”
Caution: Near relatives of the huge cow parsnip are the extremely poisonous water parsnip and water hemlock which lack the inch-diameter stems and have a very much smaller flower. They are apt to be found growing in or very near slow-moving water.
In times of extreme food shortage in both winter and summer, the women and children peeled young aspen poplar trees and used the green cambium layer underneath the bark for both human and horse food – the beaver may have given them the idea.
One plant which had several uses was the yellow water lily. In the mossy bottoms of the shallow lakes or river lagoons in which they grow are running rootstocks as thick as a man’s arm. The pithyinterior is said to be edible as a starchy vegetable. The seeds are in large pods near the surface of the water. When ripe, the seeds were ground into flour or meal. When roasted, they popped like popcorn. They are common in Sundance and Cameron Lakes near Chetwynd, and in the North around the Hay Lakes and many other locations.
Another plant that had several uses was the “strawberry blite.” It is said that wherever it grows plentifully, the Indians used to have campfires. It greatly resembles a spreading “pig weed” or lamb’s quarters, to which it is related. The fruit is conspicuous being bright red, shaped like a raspberry, but clustering along the stems in the axils of the leaves. The seeds, within the little nodules of the fruits look like “a cross between a raspberry and a strawberry.” The flavour is like a very mild beet, and is a pleasant addition to a salad. The leaves may be eaten as salad or boiled as greens.
Besides the well-known strawberries, raspberries, currants, cranberries, blueberries, and gooseberries, there is another berry not commonly used by white people, but much relished by Indians. The shrub is about three feet tall, with leaves that curl under sharply on the edges, and are woolly underneath. On the female plants small shiny bright red berries cluster thickly to the twigs and stems. When mixed with water and churned vigorously with the hands, the berries form pink suds or foam which was said to be much relished by children, – a sort of ice-cream soda, – but the taste is rather flat by our standards. However, the hands that mixed the treat would come out clean, for the berry acted like soap – which gave the plant its name among the Cariboo tribes – “soopalalli” meaning “soap berry.” During a recent trip to Hazelton the writer overtook an Indian family setting out with pails to pick these berries for canning for use in winter. “The kids like ‘em,” they told us.
Wild onions, with a flavour much like garlic, are abundant on the grassy banks of the Peace and other rivers. The bulb is small, but keeps very well for flavoring boiled meat. Old-timers say that the hills near Clayhurst were visited by bands of Beaver Indians every summer to dig the onions which for some reason, grew very abundantly there.
The roots of cattails were edible, as well as the roots of bulrushes, when boiled.
The creeping cranberry, with its little fruits like miniature apples are flavoured so like an apple that one might fancifully say that the Great Spirit gave them to the North so that Indian children might know the taste of apples.
A common fruit of the northern muskegs is actually call the “baked apple berry.” It grows very low on the sphagnum moss of the muskeg, and resembles a raspberry in shape. It is sweet and delicious, but has a very common habit of being bright red when “green” and a lovely soft orange when ripe. It does taste like baked apples. For no apparent reason it is usually call a “cloudberry.”
No mention has been found of mushrooms as food, but the country abounds in many edible sorts, as well as a few that are violently poisonous, or very irritating to the digestive system. Many of the grilled mushrooms dry well, and are therefore stored by squirrels for winter food. Generally speaking, any mushroom taken by squirrels to their nests would be eaten. As well, the puffball was edible as long as the inside was white. Also the shaggy manes were edible and delicious. Those are the elongated egg-shaped white ones that appear in late summer, looking like umbrellas, slightly opened. They turn into black, inky mess as they mature and are then unfit for use.
In the deep woods, a lichen appears on the northern side of the tree trunks. It is known as rock tripe or tripe du roche. In dry weather it dries into a large thin, dead-looking scale, but in wet weather it expands into a larger, leathery, jade-green flat form with crinkled edges. When boiled with water, a gelatinous soup is formed which will sustain life in time of starvation, but is not really nourishing. It grows high enough on the tree trunks to be above the snow.
One must mention the Labrador tea which grows everywhere in the taiga regions of Canada. It is a low, shrub, often occurring in wide expanses in muskegs and black spruce swamp edges. Its characteristic identification is a narrow leathery green leaf with sharply under-rolled edges that have a rusty-red wool underneath. The young shoots were dried to make tea. Its effects, however, are said to be the opposite of laxative. White man’s tea replaced it almost universally.
Rose hips have been identified as one of the richest sources of vitamin C. Indian mothers who collected them to dry for the winter were therefore instinctively wise. Father Morice noted that the Sikanni gave them to their babies to suck. Since they hang on the bushes all winter, they were available as a means to stave off starvation, if the squirrels did not get them first.
Chokecherries were highly favoured by the Indians. In the summer of 1973 Chief One Spot of the Sarcee sent the writer a flat cake of chokecherry as a gift – like a confection. It proved to be pounded whole fruit, pits and all, which had been dried in a sort of cake. With the care necessary to avoid the hard shells of the pits, it proved to be much pleasanter than the raw ripe fruit. It was often added to first-grade pemmican.
The universally favoured Saskatoon berry was mentioned by nearly every explorer. It entered into all of the pemmican for which the Peace River country was famous. Tons of pemmican were bought by the fur-traders to supply the voyageurs who raced to the eastern fur-markets each spring. Many parts of the country produced huge crops of Saskatoons, unless a frost caught the flowers before they were pollinated. The Pouce Coupe hills and Saskatoon Mountain near Beaverlodge rose high enough to escape the frosts that often occurred in the valleys, so that a complete crop failure seldom occurred. The nomadic Beavers would pitch a summer camp where the berries were abundant. The berries might be dried separately like raisins, or pounded to a pulp, in a bark vessel. The juice was strained off through a bark vessel with holes punched in to make a sieve. The pulp was dried in the sun, and then repeatedly drenched with the juice, and dried again to concentrate the sugar. The cakes could then be carried easily for winter fare.
It seems odd that, with all of the juices that were available to them, the Indians seem never to have discovered the process of fermentation, for themselves. The making of “moonshine” was, apparently, a strictly white man’s innovation.
Whether the aboriginal Athapaskan Indians used the plant foods we have mentioned is not known. It seems likely that they would subsist on meat alone. Certainly, with the coming of the Cree, the use of plants for food would be retained from their former plains life.
We are not suggesting that the use of these plants was extensive, but it is likely that some or all of them were introduced into the diet for variety by the immigrant Cree, Saulteaux, or Iroquois.
It would be interesting to know whether the wild hazelnuts or filberts which grow in large patches around Hudson Hope were eaten. Harvesting them would be a race with the squirrels, even as today.
When the Sekani or Beavers had an extra supply of dry meat or other food to store, it had to be secured against thieving bears. Apparently they constructed platforms suspended from branches that would not hold the weight of a black bear, which can climb a tree. The food, wrapped with skins or bark, was tied on. Father Morice reports that “even the bear cannot get at these caches without previously demolishing the floor which is practically impossible.”
Later, perhaps taught by white men, three or four trees suitably spaced would be cleared of limbs and bark, and a substantial little “tree-house” would be erected out of the reach of bears.
When necessary, a pit, heavily boxed in by logs, was used where the trees were too small to support a sizable cache. Poles, then a sod roof, and more poles would form a roof. Then a quick fire would be burned over the top to destroy the man smell and food smell, and discourage the wolverine, whose loathsome habit was to render useless to anyone or anything else whatever food he did not want by fouling it with his own secretions.
When the fur traders found it necessary to support the natives around the forts and especially after the government began to supply foods to those who took treaty and moved onto reserves, they gave the Indian flour. The average white man cannot imagine a meal without carbohydrates, (starches and sugars). The Beaver Indians on the other hand, had been almost exclusively meat eaters for centuries and had had a minimal amount of carbohydrates, only in their berries, some of which went into pemmican.
The nomads soon learned to make “bannock” by mixing some fat and water into the flour to make biscuit-like dough. Later they got baking powder to leaven the mass a little. The resulting paste was flattened out on a slab of bark or on a frying pan and baked by propping it up in front of a fire.
Often the “mix” was formed right in the flour sack, by making a depression in the unused flour, and pouring in liquids.
For the trappers, it was the “staff of life”, either as a “biscuit” or in flapjacks. To the Indian it ultimately meant disaster, for while it satisfied the cravings of hunger it was devoid of vitamins and replaced their normal diet. Both Indian and white man contracted scurvy from an unrelieved diet of bannock.
When the traders introduced jam, made with white sugar, to accompany the starchy food, the disaster came faster. The Indians began to have dental cavities just like the white men. Johnny Chipisia of Halfway Reserve relates that in the beginning the Indians did not like jam. Their instinct was right! Nevertheless, after the buffalo were gone, and the moose became scarce because of pemmican exporting, the cravings of thousands of hungry Indian, trapper, and pioneer bellies were inadequately fed with “bannock”.