Fish Jerky: How the Native Americans Did It

Fish jerky seems like a product designed for modern times - healthy, high-protein, low-carb, sustainable, ethical snacks from seafood. While it may appear like another new age food trend for an increasingly health-conscious general public, fish jerky origins in the Americas date back hundreds of years. Indigenous peoples from both North and South America have been making jerky as a sustainable way to preserve their meats for centuries.

Spanish Conquistadors first documented long-term meat preservation in the Americas as early as 1550. The term “jerky” comes from the Peruvian Quechua (originally part of the ancient Inca empire) tribe’s word “ch’arki” which means “burned” or “dried” meat. It referred to a method in which they meticulously defatted, cut, pounded and dried fresh pieces of meat from large game and fish. The meat was either sun dried or smoked over a fire, preserving it from mold and moisture. The most popular of the fish jerkies was salmon, as the thickness of its flesh made it ideal to smoke. Native Americans, particularly Pacific Northwest tribes, used salmon more frequently than any other caught fish to smoke and preserve. The modern methods which we currently use to make fish jerky are not too unlike the traditions of our indigenous predecessors.

fish jerky

Apart from jerky, another popular way in which Native Americans preserved their meats was from a concentrated mixture of fat and protein called pemmican, first developed by the Cree Indians of North America. Used as a nutritious, long-lasting source of protein, the meat was usually sourced from large game animals such as deer, elk, or buffalo. By mixing powdered jerky with certain berries and rendered fats, the very high calorie pemmican was an ideal long-term winter food.

Through jerky and pemmican, indigenous tribes were able to store high protein foods that could be relied on when scarcity arose. The practice was so effective that it was eventually adopted by early American pioneers and cowboys as they spread out across the western US. The jerky phenomena has only grown and evolved since then as the addition of various spices, new flavors, styles, and different types of meats have turned it from a last resort food supply to a flavorful treat. Nowadays, it is one of the country’s most popular snacks.

It’s no secret that Native Americans were well ahead of their time in regards to living a sustainable life in harmony with mother nature. Known for their ability to live off of the land, and make delicate use of it without causing any serious environmental degradation, many of their practices have withstood the test of time and are still being used today — fish jerky being a prime example. By incorporating their practices into your preparation before your next camping or hiking trip, you will be learning from the original survivalists. With fish jerky, you are getting a delicious, nutritional protein snack that has stood the test of times.