The word pemmican is derived from the Cree phrase pimikan, meaning “manufactured grease.”
There seems to be some argument about who is responsible for the “invention” of pemmican, but it’s probably safe to say that it was plains Indians of the far north of the current United States (Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana) and the southern provinces of current day Canada. The Lakota (Sioux) called it wasna (‘wa’ meaning “anything” and ‘sna’ meaning “ground up”). Pemmican could be made of virtually any lean, dried protein, including fish. Bison was used most often, before being hunted to near extinction.
This vital food was traditionally used by Indigenous People of the Plains as both a travel and survival food. It was introduced to the fur trade in 1779, and became a key advantage to the North West Company in their competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company for dominance in the fur trade. Posts along the Red, Assiniboine, and North Saskatchewan Rivers were devoted to acquiring pemmican from Aboriginal peoples living in the region as well as the Métis. Métis traveled onto the prairie in Red River carts (carts constructed entirely of wood and lashed together with leather), killed and butchered bison, converted the meat into pemmican, and shipped it in bags to fur trading posts. Pemmican was sufficiently important to the regional economy that, in 1814, Governor Miles Macdonell passed the disastrous but short-lived Pemmican Proclamation, which forbade the export of any food supplies, including pemmican, from the Red River Colony, nearly starting a war with the Métis. Pemmican was essential to the polar expeditions of the mid to late 1800’s.