By Abaki Beck
In 2016, the Blackfeet Reservation-based organization Saokio Heritage spent the year researching traditional Blackfeet foods and medicines and interviewing elders and other community members on foods they ate during their childhoods. The final report and educational pamphlet are available for free online and in a few places throughout the reservation as well. This article is part of a series that includes recipes, plant picking tips, and other ideas from our research.
Berries were one of the most commonly gathered foods by those we interviewed, and are prominent in Blackfeet cuisine in both sweet and more tart versions. The most commonly collected berries among our interviewees were: sarvis berries (also called service berries, June berries, or Saskatoon berries), gooseberries, and chokecherries. Picking huckleberries was not mentioned. This may surprise some, as huckleberry products are a common commodity, particularly in Montana tourist locales. However, the Blackfeet historically used huckleberries for medicinal purposes. Huckleberry leaves can be brewed into tea and used for medicine, but the Blackfeet did not historically eat the berry itself.
Two elders I interviewed reflected that as children, their mother would make them fill two fifty pound bags with berries they picked. Sometimes, their mother would go on multi-day trips specifically to pick berries. Some berries they would eat fresh, but primarily they would dry them to use throughout the winter. The berries could later be cooked into patties, boiled into soup, added to bread, or made into pemmican (mixed with fat). Berries can be dried on a canvas cloth or in a pan outside, checking on them and turning them a few times. It takes a few days to dry berries. They should be stored in a cool place and can be kept throughout the year.
Berry soup can be eaten as a side dish at many meals. Here, I offer three different recipes for berry soup. If the berries are frozen they can be eaten throughout the year. This recipe calls for sarvis berries, which a person can pick throughout the Blackfeet Reservation, in Glacier National Park (Blackfeet members only) and in other areas of Montana. If sarvis berries are unavailable, blueberries will work. Sarvis berries have a distinct, mealy texture and slightly bitter taste. Before electricity and refrigeration, the Blackfeet would dry berries and other plants to use later.
Old Version: Boil 6 cups sarvis berries with about 2 cups of bison or deer broth. Camas root can be boiled with the soup to add sweetener. Smash about half the berries to make the soup thicker.
Common Version: Boil 6 cups sarvis berries with about 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup flour, and 2 cups water. Smash the berries after they are cooked to thicken the soup.
Sugar Free Version: Boil 6 cups sarvis berries and one can of frozen concentrate 100% juice (cherry or apple are best). Smash the berries after they’re cooked to thicken the soup.
I hope you enjoy this recipe. Berry soup is a delicious Blackfeet dish that can be eaten with many meals. If you want to get creative, you can also use local berries in your smoothies, pancakes, or muffins. It is essential that we continue to use our traditional foods for cultural preservation, environmental protection, and to improve our community health.