Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Pemmican Empire

Empire of Extinction reminds us that the United States was not the only country that aggressively expanded across great regions of territory to the detriment of wildlife populations. Like the Americans moving west, the Russians driving east labored under the delusion that the vast natural resources in their new domain were inexhaustible.  In a similar way George Colpitts’s masterful Pemmican Empire serves to remind the reader that even a species so identified with one country -- in this case the buffalo – can still have an international history. Of course, the natural range of the species did not stop south of the 49thparallel. Nor did the trade network of the French/English/Natives stop to the north of that imaginary.

There are three ways in which the slaughter of  the buffalo unfolded differently in the north that really stood out to me after reading Pemmican Empire  -- even if the end result was the same: the buffalo was hunted to the point of almost going extinct. 

1.      The most important argument Colpitts makes is that buffalo in Canada were hunted for their pemmican (as the title implies), not their skins. He includes a significant discussion of the nutritional value of pemmican to prove its importance as a source of required calories for human movement west. This high energy, easily transportable food provided the sustenance of Canadian continental conquest. Hunters chasing beavers, farmers, and those simply crossing the vast expanse of the northern prairies on the way to the Pacific coast fueled themselves on pemmican supplied by trading posts. Pemmican was sold east, too, to those in more established provinces, as well as to the Royal Navy. This is at variance with the experience south of the border in which buffalo were killed more for their furs and robes and even some meat, but not pemmican.
2.      The time frame of the experience in Canada is different than in the United States. The great American buffalo hunt really begins after the Civil War, and was perpetrated by white market hunters like the famous Buffalo Bill Cody, and aided by the railroads. In other words, it was an industrialized slaughter on a par with the order Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, although the setting was clearly different. Like the Native Americans, the industrialized American buffalo slaughtering machine made multiple uses of the animal. Even the bleached bones were later collected and ground into fertilizer. On the contrary, events in Canada played out over a longer time period, beginning earlier in the 1790s with the white “discovery” of pemmican and the realization that pemmican could solve the problem of fueling explorers, hunters, and settlers pushing deep into the interior. By the time the transcontinental railroad accelerated the buffalo slaughter in the United States in late 1860s, the killing was winding down in the north. Local populations had been depleted. But pemmican was no longer an essential food supply; agriculture and the railroads supplied the energy needs of the Canadian settlers. 
3.      Native American tribes in Canada were bigger players as market hunters than their counterparts south. British trading posts contracted out to Native Americans to supply buffalo meat for pemmican.  As where Plains Indians to the south lived a largely nomadic existence, pursuing the great herds as needed, those in the north created enormous enclosures called "pounds" that trapped buffalo in a secure enclosure until needed. Soon competition between the tribes led to the destruction of the pens or the use of fire to chase buffalo away from their rival tribes and drive up prices.  

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