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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 12, 2003 - Issue 91


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Salish Indians follow tradition of butchering, drying buffalo

by John Stromnes -The Missoulian
credits: Photo: Arapaho camp with buffalo meat drying Kansas, 1870

Arapaho camp with buffalo meat drying Kansas, 1870ST. IGNATIUS – On Sept. 4, 1805, a band of the Salish Indians camped at one of the traditional gathering places in the Bitterroot Valley, a place called K'tid Xsulex' in their language, meaning Great Clearing, which we now know as Ross' Hole.

On that day, members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition came into view, looking ragged, hungry, bone tired and, because of their pale complexions, quite cold, or at least so it seemed from the Salish Indian perspective. Tribal leaders took one look at these men and ordered up a square meal.

According to an oral history by Pierre Pichette, as related to Ella Clark in 1953 and compiled by the Salish Pend Orielle Culture Committee, "The chief (of the Salish) looked through their (visitors') packs and then began to explain to the people: 'These men must be very hungry, perhaps starving. And see how poor and torn their clothes are.' The chief ordered food to be brought to them – dried buffalo meat and dried roots. ..."

If you're looking for a square meal this Fourth of July weekend, you're invited to the annual Arlee Fourth of July celebration, also known as the Arlee Powwow, where you will be able to sample the freshest dried buffalo meat north of the Great Clearing, and probably anywhere else in Montana. (Dried roots are optional, and not supplied by the buffalo meat vendors).

In preparation for the powwow, tribal members of the Nk(w)usm (One Fire) Salish Language Immersion School of Arlee, aided by Outward Bound students from the Salish-Kootenai College teen-activities program and numerous other volunteers all the way from Arlee to Dog Lake near Hot Springs, slaughtered two 1,000-pound buffalo cows Monday morning at a ranch near Ronan.

The buffalo (zoologists prefer to call them American bison) were dispatched with one shot each to the skull, gutted and taken immediately by truck to the Longhouse in St. Ignatius where a cottonwood tree previously sawed up and seasoned, was waiting patiently to become fire.

The carcasses were hoisted up in the shade of two large trees. A fire was built and folks from all around came out with skinning knives and hatchets made short work of the bison carcasses.

They separated the meat into slabs – using the hatchets when required on the joints, ribs and bones – and piled the fresh meat on a table loaded with ice to keep it cool.

Some lucky bystanders carted away the tongues – a great delicacy for bison epicures. The hide and skull, laid out to dry in the sun, and the intestinal sacks were reserved for tanning, taxidermy and other uses.

By noon, the meat had been trimmed of fat and carefully sliced into thin slabs. Some helpers placed the meat on drying frames; others raked the coals to keep the fire low and the smoky.

By evening, the meat was done – no blood inside, but not so dry that it became tough like overdone jerky. It will be measured out in ounces, placed in paper sacks, and sold at the powwow – about as authentic an American food this Fourth of July as you could get anywhere.

In the Salish language, dried meat is called "esxmip squeltc." (Don't try to pronounce this at home. A dot under the "x" and a check above the "c" are typographical marks that aid in pronunciation, but cannot be reproduced in the typeface inventory in this newspaper. For Microsoft Windows XP users, a complete set of fonts of both the Kootenai and Salish languages is available from the Web site

"When I was a kid, we dried all our meat and fish in the fall. A lot of our foods were air-dried, but the meat and fish was smoked like we are doing here," said Pat Pierre, a tribal elder who grew up in Camas Prairie between Perma and Hot Springs on the Flathead Reservation.

"We didn't have electricity. No refrigerators or freezers. So we dried the meat. This is good experience for these kids. It gives them a chance for hands-on," Pierre said as he watched all the activity near the butchering trees.

This is the second year of the language school's existence, and the second year of its major fund-raiser – the making and selling of dried buffalo meat at the powwow, said 27-year-old Joshua Brown of St. Ignatius. Last year, one buffalo was butchered, and the meat sold out the first day. So this year they doubled production.

Brown is a teacher and founder of the language school, Nk(w)usm (One Fire), which he said is a word that connotes the family unit in Salish.

He also serves as the school's fund-raising organizer.

The goal, he said, is to make the school self-supporting. Right now the full-time school, which teaches preschool children to become fluent in Salish, relies on a $184,000 annual grant for the academic year, plus $68,000 for the summer program, all from Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes revenue.

"We're trying to be self-sufficient and build community," he said of the dried-buffalo meat activities.

As for the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, they tried the Indian tobacco – dried leaves of the plant called kinnickinnick – but it made them choke and cough. Once burned, twice shy. When offered dried buffalo meat, hungry as they were, they refused it.

According to another oral history by Cix'mx'msna – Sophie Moise – as told to Louie Pierre and Ella Clark and compiled by the Culture Committee, "When dried meat was brought to the men, they just looked at it and put it back. It was really good to eat, but they seemed to think it was bark or wood. ..."

Reporter John Stromnes can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at

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