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Pemmican Empire: Food, Trade, and the Last Bison Hunts in the North American Plains, 1780-1882

By George Colpitts

Review By Scott P. Stephen

May 27, 2017

BC Studies no. 194 Summer 2017  | p. 202-204

Let us get the quibbling out of the way first, lest it leave a bad taste in our mouths at the end. Cambridge University Press appears to have put little effort into indexing this volume, and even less into copy-editing it. Nevertheless, they have published a solid contribution to western history from one of the most thoughtful of western Canadian scholars, George Colpitts. If an army travels on its stomach, then surely the fur trade did too. Colpitts sets out to explain “how and why pemmican became a driving energy source in the British western territories, and the nature of a society that developed around the trading, use, and distribution of bison fats and meats” (2-3). The introduction is not for the faint of heart, but careful reading and frequent reference to a good dictionary (for words like stochastically, cancellous, oleic, and xeric) pay dividends. Colpitts then proceeds to articulate a new framework for understanding western history. The framework is not Colpitts’ creation: in some ways, this feels like a sequel to Ted Binnema’s Common and Contested Ground (2001), and the influence of Gerhard Ens is evident too. This book places relationships between humans and their environment at the centre of the narrative, but also places that narrative within broader imperial and international histories of food, capitalism, changing modes of production, and expanding market economies.

The crux of Colpitts’ argument is that food trading created relationships of obligations and reciprocity distinct from those created by fur trading, and that understanding those relationships is key to understanding the changing balances of power between major groups on the northern plains. Pemmican was adopted and adapted by Euro-Canadian traders “to underwrite not only greater commercial reach, but also to support the sinews of colonial power” (3). This echoes the revolutionary impact of pemmican’s first appearance on the northern plains 5,000-6,000 years ago: the greater food security it provided encouraged longer-distance travel, trade, and warfare, extending the geographical reach of plains communities in the same way as the horse did many generations later.

Rising provisions prices in the opening decades of the nineteenth century encouraged more Indigenous hunters to enter that market, but the 1821 corporate amalgamation under the Hudson’s Bay Company banner was in part a strategy to bring down those prices. Low prices and still-growing demand encouraged more intensive (but more wasteful) harvesting and production to achieve the same purchasing power. By the 1840s, the market for pemmican was clearly “unsustainable” (16). As bison herds collapsed in the 1860s and 1870s, producers and purchasers increased their activity in the hopes of stockpiling resources for an increasingly uncertain future.

Those whose interests range beyond the bison’s historic habitat will still find much on which to feast here. The Euro-Canadian trade in the Athabasca, Mackenzie, New Caledonia, and Columbia territories would not have been possible without the cheap and abundant pemmican from the plains. But not all pemmican was made with bison: salmon pemmican (especially from the Dalles on the Columbia) was a delicacy among many Plains First Nations (65, 275), and the Ojibwa made their own sturgeon pemmican (275).

One of the most striking aspects of this book is the diversity of experiences, which Colpitts handles with skill and agility. Not only does he distinguish between the over-exploitation of the bison commons south of the Missouri (where bison were hunted primarily for their skins) from that north of the Missouri (where hunting bison for food was much more important) (5-6). He also distinguishes between traditional (“sweet”) pemmican, which involved intensive processing of the carcass, and trade pemmican, which was made more quickly using the most easily accessible parts of the carcass. These changing modes of production, in response to emerging market economies and other economic circumstances, in turn altered people’s relationships with the animal, with each other, and with the cultural institution of hunting.

Herein lies the greatest strength of Colpitts’ work, and the aspect of his scholarship which may prove most influential. Pemmican is understood here not merely as a product, but as a process — the name comes from the Cree pemmican or pemigan, meaning “he makes grease.”  This draws our attention to the work involved in making pemmican, and to the work which its amazing caloric capacity facilitated. It also highlights pemmican as more than just a combination of meat and fat: it was the result of human decision-making, a tangible expression of the producer’s relationships with the animals, people, and economies around them. The “Fur Trade Food Glossary” at the end (267-280) — which is almost worth the price of the book in itself — lists seven major variants of pemmican, each one grounded in specific needs, opportunities, objectives, and constraints.

Pemmican Empire: Food, Trade, and the Last Bison Hunts in the North American Plains, 1780-1882
George Colpitts
New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2015.  303 pp. $106.95 cloth