Saskatoon Berry

Saskatoon Berry, or Service Berry (Amelanchier alnifolia): berries speqpeq7úw’i, or speqpeq (W, E); bush of common variety: speqpeqellp; “riverberries, red Saskatoon variety: stsíqwu (E)

Saskatoon berries are among the first fruits to be picked in the summer time (called skululux). The bushes bloom (together with wild rose, choke cherry and other bushes), in June, which is called “everything blooms” month, and the berries start to ripen by the end of June through July. In the past they were eaten fresh, but most were processed by dehydrating, then stored for use later in the year. The quantity picked depended on the season (the production of the berries varies from year to year) and the size of family. Generally, many (20 or more) litres would be harvested per family group. Teit (1909:516) stated that about half the saskatoon harvest was “. . . boiled and made into cakes . . . The cakes of berries were spread on layers of leaves, dry pine-needles, or dry grass, supported on sticks; but more generally they were laid on mats woven of willow twigs or of grass, made for the purpose. Frames woven of slats of wood were used by a few people.” Mary Thomas said the berries can be added to salmon eggs, and pit-cooked. The fresh berries were squeezed and mashed together in a basket. Mary Thomas’ granny did this; the process was called scep’eyégw (lit. “squeeze something in a container”). The dish was called “sweet and sour” by some people. Another favourite dish made with saskatoons was boiled dried saskatoons thickened with flour. The berries are soaked in cool water and brought to a slow boil. When they are cooked, about three tablespoons [50 ml] of flour are placed in a cup and slowly poured into the berries together with grease or lard. The mixture is stirred continuously until the flour cooks. Some people make dumplings with flour and water and drop them into the simmering berry mixture. Bitterroots can also be added. This dish, called “Indian pudding,” or scpet’ám, is still popular. Mary Thomas said that the speqpeq7úw’i variety was the best kind for this dish. Another way of cooking saskatoons is in a stew: “it’s a stewberry, with meat and potatoes, or bacon….” The stew is made in many different ways; each person used her favourite recipe.

Saskatoon wood is known for its toughness and strength. . It was used to make a variety of implements, such as spear shafts, digging sticks, arrows, canoe thwarts, and sometimes, for fish traps and the frames of sweat lodges, if there was no “red willow” available. The wood could be rendered even harder by heating it over a fire. In cooking with red-hot rocks in a birch-bark basket, a grid of saskatoon twigs was fashioned to set at the bottom the cooking baskets to prevent hot rocks from burning through the birch bark. Saskatoon twigs were also used to line cooking pits and as salmon spreaders for drying and cooking salmon. Mary Thomas said that the new-growth branches, split in half, were sometimes used for the rims of birch bark baskets. These sticks have a natural twist to them, and they are so strong, they will never split or break. When they dry, they become really hard, and this makes the basket really strong. To make them as tough and strong as the saskatoon itself, little boys were bathed in a solution of saskatoon sticks, broken up and boiled, according to Mary Thomas. This was done over a period of time, “as often as possible.” Also, when a boy baby was still tiny, a thick saskatoon stick was held out for him to grasp onto. The stick was then gently raised, with the baby holding on, saying “Oh, boy, Oh, boy!” This was to help develop his muscles and make him strong and enduring.