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Pemmican ball
CourseMain course
Place of originNorth America
Region or stateNorth America
Main ingredientsBison, deer, elk or moose

Pemmican (also pemican in older sources)[1][2] is a mixture of tallow, dried meat, and sometimes dried berries. A calorie-rich food, it can be used as a key component in prepared meals or eaten raw. Historically, it was an important part of indigenous cuisine in certain parts of North America and it is still prepared today.[3][4]

The name comes from the Cree word ᐱᒦᐦᑳᓐ (pimîhkân), which is derived from the word ᐱᒥᕀ (pimî), 'fat, grease'.[5] The Lakota (or Sioux) word is wasná, originally meaning 'grease derived from marrow bones', with the wa- creating a noun, and sná referring to small pieces that adhere to something.[6][7] It was invented by the Indigenous peoples of North America.[8][9]

Pemmican was widely adopted as a high-energy food by Europeans involved in the fur trade and later by Arctic and Antarctic explorers, such as Captain Robert Bartlett, Ernest Shackleton, Richard E. Byrd, Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Falcon Scott, George W. DeLong, Robert Peary, Matthew Henson, and Roald Amundsen.


Chokeberries (Aronia prunifolia) sometimes are added to pemmican.

Pemmican has traditionally been made using whatever meat was available at the time: large game meat such as bison, deer, elk, or moose, but also fish such as salmon, and smaller game such as duck;[10][11] while contemporary pemmican may also include beef. The meat is dried and chopped, before being mixed with rendered animal fat (tallow). Dried fruit may be added: cranberries, saskatoon berries (Cree misâskwatômina), and even blueberries, cherries, chokeberries, and currants—though in some regions these are used almost exclusively for ceremonial and wedding pemmican[12]—and European fur traders have also noted the addition of sugar.[10]

Among the Lakota and Dakota nations, there is also a corn wasná (or pemmican) that does not contain dried meat. This is made from toasted cornmeal, animal fat, fruit, and sugar.[13]

Traditional preparation[edit]

Demonstration at the Calgary Stampede of a traditional method of drying meat for pemmican

Traditionally, the meat was cut in thin slices and dried, either over a slow fire or in the hot sun until it was hard and brittle. Approximately 5 pounds (2,300 g) of meat are required to make 1 pound (450 g) of dried meat suitable for pemmican. This thin brittle meat is known in Cree as pânsâwân and colloquially in North American English as dry meat.[14] The pânsâwân was then spread across a tanned animal hide pinned to the ground, where it was beaten with flails or ground between two large stones till it turned into very small pieces, almost powder-like in its consistency.[10] The pounded meat was mixed with melted fat in an approximate 1:1 ratio by weight.[15] Typically, the melted fat would be suet that has been rendered into tallow.[16] In some cases, dried fruits, such as blueberries, chokecherries, cranberries, or saskatoon berries, were pounded into powder and then added to the meat-fat mixture. The resulting mixture was then packed into rawhide bags for storage where it would cool, and then harden into pemmican.[10]

Today, some people store their pemmican in glass jars or tin boxes. The shelf life may vary depending on ingredients and storage conditions. At room temperature, pemmican can generally last from one to five years,[17] but there are anecdotal stories of pemmican stored in cool cellars being safely consumed after a decade or more.

A bag of bison pemmican weighing approximately 90 lb (41 kg) was called a taureau (French for "bull") by the Métis of Red River. These bags of taureaux (lit. "bulls"), when mixed with fat from the udder, were known as taureaux fins, when mixed with bone marrow, as taureaux grand, and when mixed with berries, as taureaux à grains.[18][self-published source?] It generally took the meat of one bison to fill a taureau.[19]


In his notes of 1874, North-West Mounted Police Sergeant Major Sam Steele recorded three ways of serving pemmican: raw, boiled in a stew called "rubaboo", or fried, known in the West as a "rechaud":[a]

The pemmican was cooked in two ways in the west; one a stew of pemmican, water, flour and, if they could be secured, wild onions or preserved potatoes. This was called "rubaboo"; the other was called by the plains hunters a "rechaud". It was cooked in a frying pan with onions and potatoes or alone. Some persons ate pemmican raw, but I must say I never had a taste for it that way.[20]


As bone grease is an essential ingredient in pemmican, archaeologists consider evidence of its manufacture a strong indicator of pemmican making. There is widespread archaeological evidence (bone fragments and boiling pits) for bone grease production on the Great Plains by AD 1, but it likely developed much earlier. However, calcified bone fragments from Paleo-Indian times do not offer clear evidence, due to lack of boiling pits and other possible usages.[21]

It has also been suggested that pemmican may have come through the Bering Strait crossing 40–60 centuries ago. The first written account of pemmican is considered to be Francisco Vázquez de Coronado records from 1541, of the Querechos and Teyas, traversing the region later called the Texas Panhandle, who sun-dried and minced bison meat and then would make a stew of it and bison fat. The first written English usage is attributed to James Isham, who in 1743 wrote that "pimmegan" was a mixture of finely pounded dried meat, fat and cranberries.[22]

The voyageurs of the North American fur trade had no time to live off the land during the short season when the lakes and rivers were free of ice. They had to carry all of their food with them if the distance traveled was too great to be resupplied along the way.[23] A north canoe (canot du nord) with six men and 25 standard 90-pound (41 kg) packs required about four packs of food per 500 miles (800 km). Montreal-based canoemen could be supplied by sea or with locally grown food. Their main food was dried peas or beans, sea biscuit, and salt pork. (Western canoemen called their Montreal-based fellows mangeurs de lard or "pork-eaters".) In the Great Lakes, some maize and wild rice could be obtained locally. By the time trade reached the Lake Winnipeg area, the pemmican trade was developed.[23]

Bison meat drying at a Métis settlement in St. François Xavier, Manitoba, Canada (1899), Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1989-492-2

Trading people of mixed ancestry and becoming known as the Métis would go southwest onto the prairie in Red River carts, slaughter bison, convert it into pemmican, and carry it north to trade from settlements they would make adjacent to North West Company posts.[24] For these people on the edge of the prairie, the pemmican trade was as important a source of trade goods as was the beaver trade for the Indigenous peoples farther north. This trade was a major factor in the emergence of the new and distinct Métis society. Packs of pemmican would be shipped north and stored at the major fur posts: Fort Alexander, Cumberland House, Île-à-la-Crosse, Fort Garry, Norway House, and Edmonton House.

So important was pemmican that, in 1814, governor Miles Macdonell started the Pemmican War with the Métis when he passed the short-lived Pemmican Proclamation, which forbade the export of pemmican from the Red River Colony.[25]

Alexander Mackenzie relied on pemmican on his 1793 expedition from the Canadas to the Pacific.[26]

North Pole explorer Robert Peary used pemmican on all three of his expeditions, from 1886 to 1909, for both his men and his dogs. In his 1917 book, Secrets of Polar Travel, he devoted several pages to the food, stating, "Too much cannot be said of the importance of pemmican to a polar expedition. It is an absolute sine qua non. Without it a sledge-party cannot compact its supplies within a limit of weight to make a serious polar journey successful."[27]

British polar expeditions fed a type of pemmican to their dogs as "sledging rations". Called "Bovril pemmican" or simply "dog pemmican", it was a beef product consisting, by volume, of 23 protein and 13 fat (i.e., a 2:1 ratio of protein to fat), without carbohydrate. It was later ascertained that although the dogs survived on it, this was not a nutritious and healthy diet for them, being too high in protein.[28] Members of Ernest Shackleton's 1914–1916 expedition to the Antarctic resorted to eating dog pemmican when they were stranded on ice during the antarctic summer.[29]

Emergency Ration, c. 1899, as carried by British soldiers in the Second Boer War, consisting of four ounces of pemmican and four ounces of cocoa paste

During the Second Boer War (1899–1902), British troops were given an iron ration made of 4 ounces (110 g) of pemmican and 4 ounces of chocolate and sugar. The pemmican would keep in perfect condition for decades.[30] It was considered much superior to biltong, a form of cured game meats commonly used in Africa. This iron ration was prepared in two small tins (soldered together) that were fastened inside the belts of the soldiers. It was the last ration used and it was used only as a last resort—when ordered by the commanding officer. A man could march on this for 36 hours before he began to drop from hunger.[31]

While serving as chief of scouts for the British Army in South Africa, American adventurer Frederick Russell Burnham required pemmican to be carried by every scout.[32]

Pemmican, likely condensed meat bars, was used as a ration for French troops fighting in Morocco in the 1920s.[33]

A 1945 scientific study of pemmican criticized using it exclusively as a survival food because of the low levels of certain vitamins.[34]

A study was later done by the U.S. military in January 1969, entitled Arctic Survival Rations, III. The Evaluation of Pemmican Under Winter Field Conditions.[35] The study found that during a cycle of two starvation periods the subjects could stave off starvation for the first cycle of testing with only 1000 calories worth of pemmican.[35]

Contemporary uses[edit]

Today, people in many indigenous communities across North America continue to make pemmican for personal, community, and ceremonial consumption. Some contemporary pemmican recipes incorporate ingredients that have been introduced to the Americas in the past 500 years, including beef. There are also indigenous-owned companies, such as Tanka Bar, based on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, that produce pemmican or foods based on traditional pemmican recipes, for commercial distribution.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ also spelled richeau, rasho, richot, rouchou, rousseau, rusho(o), rowshow, etc. see, http://dchp.ca/DCHP-1/entries/view/richeau


  1. ^ Ballantyne, Robert Michael (1876). Away in the Wilderness. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates. pp. 81–84.
  2. ^ Anderson, Anne (1973). The Great Outdoors Kitchen: Native Cookbook. Cree Productions. ISBN 9780919864290.
  3. ^ "Wo Lakota Making Wasna". Lakota Red Nations. 2017-11-30. Retrieved 2018-09-17.
  4. ^ "NANF". www.tankabar.com.
  5. ^ Sinclair, J.M. (ed) English Dictionary Harper Collins: 2001.
  6. ^ "Native Recipes". sacred.indigenous.youth.education.circle.mysite.com.
  7. ^ "New Lakota Dictionary Online". www.lakotadictionary.org. Retrieved 2020-02-12.
  8. ^ McLagan, Jennifer (2008). Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient. Ten Speed Press. p. 195. ISBN 978-1580089357.
  9. ^ Morton, Mark (2004). Cupboard Love: A Dictionary of Culinary Curiosities. Insomniac Press. p. 222. ISBN 1894663667.
  10. ^ a b c d Merriam, Willis B. (1955). "The Role of Pemmican in the Canadian Northwest Fur Trade". Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers. 17 (1): 34–38. doi:10.1353/pcg.1955.0000. ISSN 1551-3211. S2CID 130451803.
  11. ^ Sherman, Sean (2017). The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0816699797.
  12. ^ Albala, Kevn (2011). Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia. Abc-Clio. p. 235. ISBN 9780313376269.
  13. ^ Goodwin, Janice. "Healthy Traditions: Recipes of our Ancestors" (PDF). National Center for Native American Aging at the Center for Rural Health, University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences. Retrieved 2020-02-12.
  14. ^ Gladue, Ian. "Interviewed with owner of Pânsâwân Dry Meat". CBC Radio. Radio Active. Retrieved 2019-01-29.
  15. ^ Angier, Bradford. How to Stay Alive in the Woods (originally published as Living off the Country 1956) ISBN 978-1-57912-221-8 Black Dog & Levanthal. p. 107
  16. ^ "Pemmican Recipes". Alderleaf Wilderness College. Retrieved 2019-02-23.
  17. ^ "How Long Does Pemmican Last (GUIDE)". Ultimate Prepping. 2017-05-27.
  18. ^ Barkwell, Lawrence J. "How the Metis make pemmican". Retrieved 2013-01-24.
  19. ^ Hargrave, Joseph James (1871). Red River. Montreal: J. Lovell. p. 168. OCLC 5035707.
  20. ^ Myrna Kostash; Duane Burton (2005). Reading the River: A Traveller's Companion to the North Saskatchewan River. Coteau Books. p. 160. ISBN 978-1-55050-317-3.
  21. ^ Bamforth, Douglas B. (2011). "Origin Stories, Archaeological Evidence, and Postclovis Paleoindian Bison Hunting on the Great Plains". American Antiquity. 76 (1): 24–40. doi:10.7183/0002-7316.76.1.24. ISSN 0002-7316. S2CID 163282801.
  22. ^ Ngapo, Tania M.; Champagne, Claude; Chilian, Cornelia; Dugan, Michael E.R.; Gariépy, Stéphane; Vahmani, Payam; Bilodeau, Pauline (August 2021). "Pemmican, an endurance food: Past and present". Meat Science. 178: 108526. doi:10.1016/j.meatsci.2021.108526. PMID 33945979. S2CID 233744039.
  23. ^ a b Carolyn Podruchny (2006). Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade. U of Nebraska Press. p. 118. ISBN 0-8032-8790-9.
  24. ^ O'Brien, Sam, "How to Make a 5,000-Year-Old Energy Bar", Atlas Obscura, April 30, 2020
  25. ^ Hayes, Derek (2006). Historical Atlas of Canada. Douglas & McIntyre. p. 178. ISBN 9781553650775.
  26. ^ Stefansson, Vilhjalmur (2005). Great Adventures and Explorations: From the Earliest Times to the Present As Told by the Explorers Themselves. Kessinger. p. 328. ISBN 1417990902.[permanent dead link]
  27. ^ Peary, Robert E. (1917). Secrets of Polar Travel. Century Company. pp. 77–83.
  28. ^ Taylor, R. J. F. (January 1957). "The physiology of sledge dogs". Polar Record. 8 (55): 317–321. Bibcode:1957PoRec...8..317T. doi:10.1017/S003224740004924X. S2CID 129952806.
  29. ^ Alfred Lansing (1969), Endurance, New York: McGraw Hill, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 58-59666
  30. ^ Stefansson, Vilhjalmur (1946). Not by Bread Alone. New York: MacMillan Company. pp. 211, 270. OCLC 989807.
  31. ^ Stefansson, Vilhjalmur (1946). Not by Bread Alone. New York: MacMillan Company. pp. 263–264, 270. OCLC 989807.
  32. ^ Burnham, Frederick Russell (1926). Scouting on Two Continents. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company. OCLC 407686.
  33. ^ Rupert Furneaux, Abdel Krim, p.177
  34. ^ "Defects of Pemmican as an Emergency Ration for Infantry Troops". Nutrition Reviews. 3 (10): 314–315. 1 October 1945. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.1945.tb08500.x.
  35. ^ a b "Pemmican". Nutrition Reviews. 19 (3): 73–75. 2009-04-27. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.1961.tb01895.x. S2CID 252701647.

External links[edit]