When Nathan and I returned to the community of Pikangikum after a month in the bush, the elders asked what we had eaten; not the white man’s food, but Anishinaabe food. We had a long list! Lots of fish – walleye, pickerel, whitefish, sucker, even trout; beaver, including the tail roasted on a fire; rabbit; several ducks; grouse, and muskrat. Gordon had specifically caught a muskrat for us to sample. Muskrat were once widely consumed in the springtime during trapping, but they were valued mainly for their fur. Elder Charlie Peters never got over the story, and continues to prod me for having eaten ‘rat’. So he started calling me ‘muskrat’, waa-shaa-shk.
Food is at the heart of what a cultural landscape is and what it means. It is primarily through food procurement, preparation and consumption that people have been able to occupy spaces, give them meaning and make them their home. The places near the bush camps we visited reflected the different activities that were attached to food procurement. A good example is rabbit snaring, an activity that can be performed close to the camp. Walking from the Pascal’s cabin into the bush, there were old rabbit snares – properly closed so animals wouldn’t get trapped once the family had left – still visible from previous years. They were set across rabbit trails, wa-boo-see-mee-kah-nah, and along a path that Larry and his son had cut through the forest following a recent forest fire. The day we arrived, Larry and his six years-old grandson Nathaniel set several snares along that trail. Donna told us to be quiet when the snares had been set, as her grandmother had told her. The next day Nathaniel showed us two rabbits he had caught.
While observing and trying to set snares – I quickly learned I would have starved had I been forced to rely on my own skill – we were taught where rabbit can be found, and what they eat. Jackpine, having returned vigorously after the fire, is one of their favourite foods. We were also taught to recognize wa-boo-see-mee-kah-nah. At first I learned to recognize rabbit trails on the snow – older and newer. That was somewhat easy. Once the snow melted, it took a bit longer before I was able to recognize them. While walking in the early morning to check the snares we were shown the tracks of other animals and occasionally found grouse trapped in the rabbit snares. We also travelled along the shorelines of the lake looking for signs of rabbits – rabbit tracks, young jackpine stands, and tracks of marten following rabbit. In camp, Donna showed me how she assesses the health of the rabbit, and showed me how to skin and cook it. She also told me what was good to eat and what had to be avoided. We had boiled rabbit and rabbit porridge. We also had it cooked in the oven, accompanied with bannock and lard – an omnipresent staple. She told me stories about how her grandmother used to make very warm rabbit fur blankets.
Food and landscape are intricately woven. Pikangikum people strongly relate to the land through food procurement and consumption. Having grown up in Italy, where life revolves around food, I have a weakness for local delicacies. However, during my stay in Pikangikum, I learned it was not only important to ‘eat’ Anishinaabe food, but also to learn to procure it, evaluate the health of the animal, prepare it, store it, and share it. Snaring rabbit, net fishing, hunting and trapping allow to go out on the land and tap into the rich resources which have supported Pikangikum people since time immemorial. We enjoyed the abundance of rabbit that follows a fire. As the forest grows back, the trees will change and new animals will return. Perhaps there will be less rabbit, but there will be other species attracted by a maturing forest and diversified sources of food.