Most of us have been conditioned to think that the Indians lived mostly on pemmican. This is simply not true although pemmican was a critical part of their food supply. They killed animals for food all year round whenever they could. Naturally, in winter any meat not eaten immediately would soon freeze. Since the Peace River area is subject to sudden Chinooks or thawing spells in which meat would readily spoil, their winters supply could not be left to the mercies of the weather. Whenever possible, surplus meat was dried for safe storage and ease of handling.
Meat was seldom wasted until after the natives acquired horses which enabled them to surround large groups of buffalo, or when an extraordinarily large groups of animals was driven over a buffalo jump by men, women and children on foot. Furthermore, the buffalo were not the only food animals. It has been remarked that any animal, except the wolverine and similar unpalatable ones found their way into the diet.
Any excess meat was de-boned, the flesh cut in thin strips and hung up on racks made of saplings, exposed to the sun, the wind or smoke. In a remarkably short time such meat dried to a stage in which it would not become putrid. Even a day or two under suitable conditions rendered it safe to carry off or store. Many local Indians still do this today.
Nobody knows when the smoke was found to be a preservative for meat as well as keeping insects away. Not that the insect was abhorred in the same way as today. In the time before the advent of white men, such fly-borne diseases as typhoid fever, enteritis, or dysentery, except from poisonous or irritating plants, could not be carried. However, smoke kept flies from depositing eggs and making the meat maggoty.
As the smoke was not intended to cook the meat while it was drying, the fires were small. When they had burned to coals, suitable green wood was laid upon the coals. The resulting fumes preserved and flavored the meat. It was the job of the youngsters to keep the smoke going, and to stop flames from consuming the wood quickly.
Green willow twigs or bark gave a distinctive flavor. However, old-timers tell us that chunks of the thick bark from old cottonwood trees were pleasanter to use, as the smoke was not so acrid as to make ones eyes water. When the white man built "smoke-houses" for the same purpose, he said that one could walk right into the cottonwood-burning smokehouse without discomfort. Neither willow bark nor cottonwood (nor any of the other woods used) gave off enough heat to cook the meat, fish, or fowl.
Groundhogs, porcupines, beaver, muskrat, bear, buffalo, mountain goat - anything that came along was converted into light, portable food, to store against times of game scarcity, war, winter - or for trade with the white man. Some of it, especially buffalo, was converted into pemmican. More was cut off in chunks like a white mans snuff or "snoose" and still more was thrown into the pot.
Moose and buffalo tongue or nose, dried and smoked, were considered a great delicacy, even by white men, when soaked and boiled.
The settlers borrowed the method, although they generally added a preliminary treatment in brine and sugar. Until very recently when butchers began to "embalm" the meat by hypodermic injections of preservative fluids because the white man wants his meat moist, the Indian method gave us our bacon and ham from pork, and "jerky" from beef. In pioneer cabins the hams and bacons often hung from the rafters where air circulation from the stoves kept mold from forming, in which case the good housewife washed the meat with a vinegar solution. Whether Indians did this with an acid derived from the bark of certain plants or fruit is not known to us at the present. Actually the main preservative was simply dehydration by sun, wind and low heat.
The newly married Beaver couple spent their "honeymoon" off by themselves in the forest making dry meat for themselves and for the brides family with whom they lived until a child was born or for two years, "whichever came first".
In practice, this probationary period, in which two people learned to "get along with each other", was an excellent practice, free from parental or band interference, during which they learned mutual interdependence and overcame the personality clashes that are a part of marriage in any culture.
This is an account, slightly condensed, from a 1973 interview with Gabriel Laprete in Dawson Creek.
"We used to go out every fall, hunting. In them days it was not like today when you take one or two moose. When I was about fourteen years old...we used to get four, maybe five, moose, and dry all that meat up... and that would do us for the winter."
Interviewer: "How did your women dry meat? Do you remember?"
G. Laprete: "I know how to dry meat because I have dried lots of meat myself... Before my time they never used salt, but in my time, what we did was make a rack, sometimes two, even for one moose... Lots of times I would take the whole hind-quarter, cut the bone out, and then cut it fine (thin) and make it (the sheet of meat) as big as I can. You can, you know, make one sheet out of one hindquarter, if you watch it pretty close. It was very seldom I could do that. Lots of times I would cut it in two. Then I would cover the whole rack with that, laying it over (like a blanket). Before I did that I put salt on it on both sides.
Then you made a little smoky fire. In the heat and the sun, it dried very fast. It is better you know, if you cut it very thin than when you cut it thick. With the smoke and the salt, it can be well cured, and it is very good.
Then lots of times we would put that meat on a raw hide on the ground and pound it to make pemmican out of it...
We never threw anything of the moose away, hardly. We even ate the eyes - the head and everything. We used to boil that too... it made good headcheese. We even took the hoofs and cleaned the meat out. Then the bones, we took and boiled them and took the grease. That was really good lard. All of the bones we broke and boiled them in a big pail and made - in Cree we call it [Cree word unintelligible on tape] bone grease in English."
Mr. Lapretes story brings out a point which we have not found in any other account - the cutting of the meat into one large, thin sheet. Most pictures of modern meat - drying show the pieces cut into strips and hanging down from the thin poles of which the racks were made. Apparently a certain skill was required to do a "professional" job according to Peace River Cree standards of preparation. One can see the value of their method, larger areas of meat being exposed to the sun above and the heat and smoke below, than when suspended from the racks.
In another account we heard of allspice being put on the meat to keep the flies away, after such spice became available at the trading posts. We also heard that children were supposed to keep the meat in constant agitation to prevent the flies from alighting and depositing eggs. It would be interesting to find out whether the common "blow - fly" came with the white man, or whether those big, blue, shiny, noisy insects were always here.