Bannock and Canada’s First Peoples

BannockWith interest growing in the foods of Canada’s First Nations, let author Alison Bell guide you through her indepth research on the topic.

“The term bannock stems from the Old English bannuc, meaning a morsel, and in many dictionaries it is defined as ‘traditionally Scottish’.  While a search for information about Scottish bannock is somewhat fruitless, a plethora of information is available on the bannock which is ‘traditional’ amongst the Aboriginal peoples of Canada. Introduced by early Scottish Fur Traders, bannock has been transformed into the ‘Aboriginal Staff of Life’. But how did it travel from the Highlands of Scotland to what is now Canada and why was it so readily adopted.

Bannaq, Bannock or Galette?  Will the Real Bannock Please Stand Up!

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Scottish bannock first appeared in Canada, but there is evidence that it played an important role in providing sustenance for the young Scottish and French Fur Traders who arrived here to make their fortunes.

Bannock is mentioned in the journals of both The Hudson Bay Company and Northwest Company traders, as well as those of early explorers dating back to the early nineteenth century.  Known by various names and spellings including, bannock, bannaq, galette, and galette de michif, it was made of wheat flour, water and sometimes fat, unlike the bannock in Scotland which was made mostly of oats or barley.  While bannock was referred to in many historical papers, it is often stated that flour was not easily procured.  At Fort Chippewyan, a trading fort alternatively operated by the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Company in Northern Alberta, the issue of food supply was all-consuming.  Whether made with or without fat, bannock was highly prized.

More than a ‘treat’, bannock was the mainstay of the diets of explorers, fur traders and voyageurs, the young French men who paddled the fur traders in their canoes across the west. And it was the ultimate comfort food to the fur traders, voyageurs and early settlers of Western Canada.

 Sapl’il:  Bannock, Pre-Contact

If, as is currently thought, Scottish fur traders brought bannock to North America, it would follow Aboriginal peoples made no form of bread prior to their arrival. There is evidence, however, that this is not the case.

In June 2000, Michael Blackstock, Aboriginal Affairs Manager of the Kamloops Forest Region in British Columbia, published a small booklet entitled ‘Bannock Awareness’, to coincide with National Aboriginal Day, June 21. The booklet features a history of bannock, Aboriginal history and land claim information, Aboriginal rights, and many pertinent facts about Aboriginal peoples in Canada.  More importantly, Blackstock’s publication features no less than seventeen recipes for bannock; some that incorporate ingredients used prior to European contact.  A project designed to raise Aboriginal awareness in his office; his booklet has been reprinted several times and is being used in schools, by community groups and most recently, in prisons, to help foster a sense of self amongst Aboriginal inmates.  Blackstock argues that there is a false assumption “that Aboriginal peoples did not have forms of bread prior to European contact.”  He states that natural ingredients such as lichen and plants were used. There are others who concur with Blackstock.

Bannock or Sapli’l, as it is known, was made with flour from wild plants before European contact.  According to Pakki Chipps an ethnobotanist, writer and member of the Beecher Bay First Nation on the West coast of British Columbia “sapl’il was a part of our culture for a long time, but when we had to leave our traditional yearly rounds, and when the men went away on sealing schooners, the women, children and Elders had to make do with bought food rather than traditional foods.  When the men returned, they brought money instead of salmon, seals, oils, etc.  I think this was the basis in our culture for the change in sapli’l.

Chipps explains that she and her children lived on nothing but wild food in the bush for a year and a half, making a delicious bannock from cat-tail pollen and water. As well, her father-in-law was highly revered by Elders for his bannock-making skills; preparing a delicious bannock in a pit on the beach without a grain of sand on its crust.   Chipps’ father-in-law guarded his recipe closely and when asked what plant he used for the bread, “he would grin and wave his hand at the forest” [iv]

Interestingly, the art of bannock-making of Chipps’ people was left to the men and its subsequent success often brought honour, as in the case of her father-in-law, a champion bannock-maker.   There is additional evidence that wild plants were used in a form of bannock-making.  Early explorers learned important lessons from the Aboriginals that wild ingredients provided much-needed strength.

Merging Traditions: Cat-tails and Moss

 There is evidence that bannock was made with ingredients other than wheat flour, hundreds of years ago.  In his book Canadian savage folk: the native tribes of Canada published in 1896, John MacLean describes a form of bread made from moss. “We were obliged to gather moss, called in the Indian tongue, wahkoonun, ‘from the rocks’.  This moss we boiled, which becomes very slimy, but which possessed some nourishing qualities.  On this we lived for several days…” 

In another account, a nourishing type of bread made from pine moss “boiled till it is reduced to a sort of glue or black paste, of a sufficient consistence to take the form of a biscuit” was documented in 1811. Although bannock made with moss or lichen may not be prevalent today, Blackstock includes a recipe for pit-cooked or steamed black tree lichen called Secwepemc Lichen Bannock contributed by Elder Mary Thomas from the Neskonlith Indian Band.  It is described as licorice tasting. 

Various different bannocks are made from wheat flour combined with sunflower seeds, ground cattail roots, ground camas bulbs and ground bracken rhizomes.

Dr. Nancy Turner, world-renowned professor of Ethnobotany at The University of Victoria, has written extensively on the wild plants used by the First Peoples of British Columbia.  Turner suggests that unleavened breads made from the starch/flour of bracken rhizomes were probably “cooked/baked on rocks over the fire, in sand, or in cooking pits or earth ovens.”

Clearly the Aboriginal peoples of Canada were consuming bread-like foods pre-contact and that the Scots’ bread was easily adopted.”

Alison Bell PhotoAbout the Author, Alison Bell:

After travelling the world working as a private chef, caterer and chef for three America’s Cup sailing teams, Alison Bell returned to school and obtained a BA (Hons) and BEd from Queen’s University, followed by an MA in Gastronomy from the University of Adelaide, Australia. Alison is the founder of Slow Food Columbia Valley and an instructor at David Thompson Secondary School in Invermere, B.C. This account is an excerpt from her longer essay Food as Symbol: Bannock and the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada.




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