For the Plains Indians, for many thousands of years, the buffalo (more properly called bison) was a walking supermarket providing them with food, clothing, shelter, tools, and toys. Buffalo were hunted in many different ways: they were killed as they swam across rivers and lakes; they were driven into snow banks where their short legs failed them; they were driven into dead-end canyons where they were easily cornered; they were ambushed as they migrated along well-marked trails; they were herded into corrals; and they were driven over cliffs.
Once the buffalo had been harvested, the carcass had to be fully butchered and processed into usable food fairly quickly or it would spoil. In a communal hunt, such as a buffalo jump, processing the carcass was done with an assembly line. Removing the hide and emptying the stomach were crucial in cooling down the carcass and ensuring that the greatest amount of food could be saved for future use.
In butchering a buffalo, the tongue and internal organs were removed first. These were taken to the camp’s medicine people and then eaten as delicacies. As the people butchered the carcass-a process which would go on around the clock until it was done-they would smash the big marrow bones with heavy stone hammers to extract the tasty and nutritious marrow. This would help replenish the energy of the workers.
The body would be cut into 11 pieces to facilitate transportation: the four limbs, the two sides of ribs, the two sinews on each side of the back bone, the brisket, the croup, and the back bone.
Bison meat is about 65% water, so the Indians would dry the meat to make it lighter and easier to carry. In order to get rid of the moisture, the meat would be cut into thin strips, thus exposing a great deal of the surface area to the drying effects of the sun and air. The thin strips of meat would be hung on simple wooden racks for drying. Drying the meat in very thin strips is also a method of preserving it.
The dried meat would be stored in hide containers known as parfleches. Parfleches were made from stiff, untanned hides that were folded into a large envelope. The food would be packed in the parfleche as tightly as possible to keep out as much air as possible, thus reducing spoilage. Properly cured and packaged dried meat could last for months, and even years.
The hides would be processed into robes or tanned hides for lodge covers or clothing.
One of the common methods of cooking is known as stone boiling. A bowl-shaped pit would be dug into the hard earth. It would then be made watertight by pushing a fresh buffalo hide, fleshy side up, into the bottom of the pit. The pit would then be filled with water. Large heavy cobbles would be heated in a nearby fire until they glowed red. They would then be carried on a forked stick to the pit. By continually replacing the rocks as they cooled with hot rocks, the water would get very hot. Food would then be added and cooked.
At the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta, the local stone was not suitable for heating for this process and so the cobbles were brought in from some distance away.
This diorama at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump shows the use of stone boiling to render fat from the bones. Notice that the material stacked up on the right is buffalo dung (commonly called buffalo chips). Since trees tend to be scarce on the Great Plains, dried buffalo dung was the standard fuel used by the Plains Indians.
This display at the First Peoples Buffalo Jump in Ulm, Montana shows stone boiling.
Grilling meat on a spit over an open flame was a quick, easy way to cook buffalo. It was often done, but it was not the preferred way of cooking. Native Americans viewed grilling as an inferior way of preparing meat as it resulted in the loss of much of what makes meat so great to eat: fat.
A common way of cooking buffalo involved earth ovens. A pit-deeper and with steeper sides than the pit used for stone boiling-would be dug. In many cases this pit would be shaped like an inverted bell. Rocks would be placed at the bottom of this pit. At Head-Smashed-In, local sandstone was used for this.
In some cases the rocks would be heated before being placed in the pit and at other times a fire would be built over the rocks in the bottom of the pit to get them red hot. Once the hot rocks were ready, the meat would be added. Usually, the meat would be wrapped in a covering of either hide or local vegetation to keep the meat from getting covered in dirt. At Head-Smashed-In, the local vegetation was small branches of local willows, Saskatoon bushes, or conifers. Dirt was then piled on top of the protected meat and a fire was built over the pit. After several hours, sometimes the next day, the pit would be uncovered and the people would feast.
Personal note: I had buffalo prepared this way at the Kalispel Powwow many years ago. It was the best buffalo I have ever tasted, and I have eaten a lot of buffalo.
Making pemmican out of buffalo is a way of preserving it so that it can be stored for a very long time. Once the flat sheets of meat have been thoroughly dried, they can be used in making pemmican. Using stone hammers, the meat would be reduced to almost a powder, then mixed with fat. Berries would then be added to the mixture. On the Northern Plains, Saskatoon and chokecherries were most frequently used.
Dried Saskatoon and Choke Cherry berries were mixed with finely pounded buffalo meat to make pemmican.
At times, wild Bergamont would be added to the pemmican for additional flavor.
When all of the ingredients-powdered meat, fat, berries, and other flavorings-had been thoroughly mixed, the mash was then placed in heavy bags made of buffalo hide. These bags were made from several pieces of hide sewn together to make a large sack which would hold 40 to 50 kilograms (88 to 110 pounds) of pemmican. In the dog days prior to the horse, the bags would have been somewhat smaller.
Pemmican is a dense, nutritious, storable food that often served as a staple. Later, during the fur trade era, pemmican became the staple of the fur trappers and both Indians and Métis produced it as a trade good.