Recent events have forced a reckoning over many things, including dark histories that have been carefully suppressed. Part of Truth and Reconciliation in Canada is facing our history, especially the ugly parts, and doing the work needed on the long road towards equality. One of the most heartbreaking things about reading A Girl Called Echo Volume 1: The Pemmican Wars was understanding that, not only were these moments in history largely new to me as a Canadian citizen, but they were also new to Echo, the titular character.
Written by Katherena Vermette, illustrated by Scott B. Henderson, and coloured by Donovan Yaciuk, A Girl Called Echo Volume 1 follows a 13-year-old Métis girl struggling to find her way through the loneliness of a new home away from her mother, and a new school. She often slips away into the solitude of her playlist, but during history class when she starts to doze off, she wakes up to find herself back in time where she partakes of history as it happens. During one such visit, she learns about pemmican.
A combination of dried meat, dried fruit, and lard, pemmican remains a staple part of many Indigenous people’s diets. It played an instrumental role during the fur trade and was paramount to the survival of Métis in the Red River region (now Manitoba, Saskatchewan). The Pemmican Proclamation of 1814 made by Governor Miles Macdonnell frustrated the Métis’ livelihood and increased tensions between rival fur trading companies, Hudson’s Bay and North West, eventually leading to resistance. Restricting the food sources and trade for Indigenous people was a tactic that continued to be employed for decades, including by Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister.
A Girl Called Echo introduces the history in a captivating and haunting depiction of a teen learning her place in the world. In the backmatter, it shares the details of this history, as well as the recipe for pemmican, which turns out to be very easy, though it takes a significant amount of time to make.
Lacking the hunting skills and access to game such as bison, moose, deer, or caribou, I opted for the more easily accessible option of beef, as well as Crisco, instead of lard. As a Jamaican woman, it is impossible for me to cook without seasoning salt, and, continuing with the Caribbean twist, my dried fruit of choice was mango:
Step one of the process is preheating the oven to 180 degrees and flattening the meat on a baking sheet before putting it into the oven for eight hours. Traditionally, the meat would be left out in the sun, but hurray for modern technology.
Modern technology strikes again after removing the dried out meat from the oven and allowing it to cool, as the next step involves blending the chopped meat and fruit — as opposed to grinding it with rocks.
After melting the shortening and mixing it in, the mixture was allowed to cool for about an hour before being rolled into balls and served with bannock, another traditional Indigenous (or Scottish) food.
Aside from the unusual texture, these fruity “meatballs” (according to my 12-year-old) were very tasty, and it’s easy to understand their practicality. It was a delight to share them with my book club, which is how I was introduced to A Girl Called Echo when we read it for July.