Featured image: ‘Barve’, watercolour, “Bison Lying Down,” (c. 1810–1875). Source: Archive.org no. 29.100.581.
Excerpt from Louis Goulet, ed. Guillaume Charette and Elizabeth Maquet, L’espace de Louis Goulet (1976; reprint in English as Vanishing Spaces (Memoirs of a Prairie Métis), translated by Ray Ellenwood, Winnipeg: Editions Bois-Brulés, 1980), 1, 13–15, 53–57.
“I came into the world on October 6, 1859 by the banks of the Gratias River … I was born right after my parents got back from a buffalo hunting expedition that set out from St. Norbert on the Sale River, went in the direction of the Missouri, and got as far as the foothills of the first range of the Rocky Mountains. From there they’d headed straight back towards the Red River, meeting it at its juncture with the Cheyenne River in North Dakota. …
By the time I was six or eight years old (the age where we start to have a clearer recollection of the past) it was between 1865 and 1870 and the Red River country had already changed a lot. For the past couple of years the buffalo had been nothing but a memory of days gone by. There were no more herds like those I remembered seeing in the valley. Quite a few little boys my age had never set eyes on one of those proud animals. A significant number of people were beginning to raise livestock and almost every family already had its little vegetable garden. Here and there you could see pigs and sheep, every home had its chicken coop and dairy cattle were popular. Every day there were more and more people sowing small fields of wheat, barley and oats. The great hunts were disappearing to make way for grain farming. …
As soon as the snow melted in the spring, we would leave our winter camp as we always did and head for another location, either father south or farther north, around Fort Layusse (Edmonton), or St. Albert and beyond. Finally we’d return to the Red River, where the buffalo were getting scarce. They would disappear completely in 1868, after the devastation that went along with the grasshoppers.
I’d turned nine years old the autumn before my father had decided to return to St. Norbert [Parish, Red River Settlement]. We’d been gone for two years. Our return journey was uneventful except for three or four buffalo chases first in the Cypress Hills and later at Wood Mountain. In both places we’d come upon what we called a foule, an enormous herd. Out caravan had stayed in contact with them, giving the hunters travelling with us time to kill around four thousand animals.
There were about five hundred carts in the caravan and it took us three weeks to strip the meat and make pemmican of it.
Once they were claimed, the killed animals would be skinned as soon as possible and dressed on the spot. The hides were hung on stretchers, which were a kind of frame made of straight poles, to be dried in the sun and smoked until they were stiff as a shingle. Then they were scraped with a sharp tool, on one side to remove the hair and on the other to clean off any fat, meat or other impurities that might be sticking to the skin. That last process was called enlever la maque.
The hair and the maque were were removed with sharp scrapers handmade from a piece of knife blade, a bit of metal hoop or a wood chisel solidly attached to some kind of convenient handle or grip.
Scraping hides was men’s work, but the women helped when they had time, and they were very good at it because they were so painstakingly patient. But usually, while the men were stripping the hides of hair and maque, the women cut up the carcasses, cutting the meat into very thin strips so that it would dry quickly in the sun lying on grids of branches over smoking fires of buffalo chips which drove away the flies and hastened drying.
The meat took at least two days to dry perfectly, after which it was put in skin bags or baskets made of wicker, rushes or leather. When the skins had been thoroughly scraped, plumées as the Métis used to say, they were called peaux de batterie or drumskins, sheets of hide out of which we would cut our tents, leather bags, thongs, whips, drums, even shields that could stop an arrow.
The hunting expedition did not stop until the carts were full, that is if the weather was favourable. We never killed more animals than we could dress quickly, otherwise there was a danger the meat might ‘go off’ as we said, become tainted or spoil completely. Without the prairie tradition of helping one another to get the butchering done before the sun got too hot or it started to rain, there would have been a lot more spoilage. Everybody had a job to do after the kill, whether or not he’d joined in the hunt. in those days there was none of this everybody out for himself like we see now. There were still some practising Catholics among the Métis. We hadn’t all been spoiled by civilization!
R.M. Ballantyne, illustration, “The Chase,” The Buffalo Runners: A Tale of the Red River Plains (London: James Nisbet and Co., 1891).
We stopped hunting when it was time to make pemmican. When the meat was dry enough to be brittle, it was pounded as fine as possible with a stick, a bar, the head of a hammer, or a small stone. The powdered meat was put into big cast iron pots full of boiling fat or, more often, marrow got by breaking buffalo bones and letting them boil.
As it cooked, this mixture of pulverised dry meat and fat or marrow turned into a paste. The thickness could be easily regulated. To this paste we would add dry or crushed berries when they were in season: saskatoons, wild grapes and chokecherries, a kind of small berry with a pit which grew in bunches and had to be pounded before it was used as an ingredient in pemmican.
Still boiling hot, the paste would then be poured into bags made of peau de batterie sewn up with tendon or rawhide to form an air-tight seal. The bags would be left to dry as hard as tallow, either in the sun as we travelled or over a patient forty, fifty, sixty years. The older pemmican got, the better it was. It was eaten in different ways: either straight from the bag with no preparation, or else roasted in its grease or boiled. Many people liked it boiled in dumplings, as a kind of stew called rababout. A bag of pemmican, called a taureau, was supposed to weigh exactly one hundred pounds. People who tried it for the first time said it tasted of suet, but after a while they’d get used to it and not notice, which just goes to show that anything tastes good if you’re hungry enough.
The strips of dried meat left unpowdered were delicious. We used to carry them in our pockets to nibble on while we were travelling, like biscuits or candy.
There were several products the Métis knew how to extract from the buffalo. First, we did business in skins as hides or as leather, raw or cured. The meat was sold dry, salted, smoked and especially in the form of pemmican. We supplied the whole country with buffalo tongue prepared in the same way, and we also exported some. In addition, the skins gave us material to make our tents, clothes, shoes, ropes and the babiche we used to strengthen our carts and sleds. Babiche was rawhide cut into strips thin as laces, very useful as cord for binding things.
The main market for distributing our products of the hunt was the Hudson’s Bay Company, which sent them to posts farther west or in the north, even to England. Finally, there was the United States, with St. Paul being the main outlet.
Our journey from St. Norbert to the highlands of the Missouri River had taken us almost two years. We’d left when autumn was coming on in 1865 and returned in July 1867. A plague of grasshoppers had swept over the entire country destroying the crops. I remember seeing the devastation, the woods and fields stripped bare, every last leaf and head of grain devoured.
People were completely destitute, waiting for help from outside: the States, Canada and England. The Hudson’s Bay Company had already distributed all kinds of supplies among the population.
It was obvious that the buffalo were disappearing before our eyes. Ordinarily, when we were coming back from the open prairies, all we had to do was climb a hillock or any height of land and we could see them here and there, grazing in twos, threes and fours. And there would be larger groups, closer together, as we looked farther away on all sides.
We noticed this time that we hadn’t spotted a single buffalo since coming down from the highlands on the western edge of the Red River Valley. The grass was high, showing it hadn’t been grazed as it normally was.
Heavy rains during the last two springs had filled all the little lakes, sloughs and lowlands, so there were plenty of ducks and small game birds, but also clouds of mosquitoes.”