by Ruth Griffiths
On this day in 1877, the North-West Territorial Council in Regina passed a law for the protection of the buffalo. But it was too little too late.
When European explorers first visited western Canada vast herds of bison dominated. As many as 60 million roamed the North American plains. By the late 1880s they were almost extinct. The herds that once stretched from horizon to horizon had been reduced by excessive slaughter to a few scattered survivors.
The Buffalo Protection Act provided for a closed season on cows from Nov. 15 to Aug. 14. But enforcement was almost non-existent.
The wood bison of the north were threatened too, but hung on a little longer. The North West Mounted Police helped to enforce the bison-hunting season and the wood bison populations recovered slightly. It is ironic that the NWMP wore buffalo coats in winter.
The bison were the mainstay of the Plains aboriginal people. The wood bison were also important to the First Nations living in the boreal forests where the fur trade was most active. Bison meat was the best for making pemmican that was sold to the fur traders. Some suggest that for northern peoples the income from selling pemmican was more important than income from furs.
Making pemmican was, of course, women’s work. The bison meat was cut, dried over a cool fire, pounded into a powder, mixed with rendered fat and dried berries and sealed into a skin bag by pouring fat over it. It was something like making sausage. If the pemmican was kept dry, it would keep for months. It was easily transported and could be stashed under piles of rocks for emergency use.
The pemmican could be fried or crumbled into boiling water to make a soup. It must have been a very monotonous diet for the voyageurs that transported furs from the interior of Canada to markets at Red River or further east.
Wet pemmican became moldy but they would eat it anyway. I guess if you’ve been paddling a canoe all day, even bad food is better than none.