mahkwa pimi ‘Black Bear Grease’

As we are in the midst of Mahkwa Kiilhswa ‘Black Bear Moon,’ I thought it would be fitting to write a brief post about one of the favorite all purpose substances of the Myaamia past: mahkwa pimi ‘Black bear grease.’

In one of our community’s favorite Aalhsoohkaana ‘Winter Stories,’ Wiihsakacaakwa goes out visiting to his friend Mahkwa’s ‘Black bear’s’ house. Mahkwa generously feeds his guest ahkaawi ‘tenderloin’ (cut from his own wife’s back!) and pimi ‘grease’ (produced from a hole that he made in his wife’s foot). After healing his wife’s wounds, Mahkwa accepts Wiihsakacaakwa’s compliments on the deliciousness of the food and an invitation to visit Wiihsakacaakwa next. This story episode is evidence of a Myaamia love of mahkwa meat and of the use of mahkwa pimi as a condiment adding a wonderful umami flavor to any meal.

Jar of bear grease
sakinteeyonki makwa pimi – A glass jar of Black Bear Grease that the author uses to preserve and polish objects made of stone or wood. A gift from tribal spouse Larry Hedeen. Photo courtesy of George Ironstrack

When most Myaamiaki think of bears today, we think of rare apex predator animals who are to be feared and respected by humans. Keekaanwikašiaki ‘Grizzly bears’ and mahkooki ‘Black bears’ are rare in any of our three homelands (although Black bears are returning to parts of southeastern Oklahoma from populations in Arkansas). Prior to the 1800s, mahkooki were numerous throughout Myaamia homelands in the Waapaahšiki Siipionki ‘Wabash River Valley.’ Because of constant hunting by humans, mahkooki tended to be fearful and relatively easy to hunt. They were a favorite source of meat and grease for Myaamiaki as the Wiihsakacaakwa story highlighted. Bears were also highly respected and certain parts of their body, like their skin and fur, were treated with special regard.

Mahkwa pimi is made by separating the animal’s fat from the meat and the skin following a successful hunt. The solid fat was then cooked slowly over a low heat until it liquified. Impurities were skimmed off the top of the liquid as it cooked. Once it cooled, but before it returned to a solid state, the pimi was poured into a watertight container, like a storage gourd or small clay pot. When the weather is cool, the pimi thickens like a runny wax (like the bottom of the jar in the photo above). When the weather is warm the pimi naturally reliquifies and takes on an amber color (like the upper ¼ of the jar in the photo). Properly made mahkwa pimi has no smell and no strong flavor. In a recent discussion with Myaamia citizen Kyle Lankford, I learned that mahkwa pimi makes the best chocolate chip cookies! Kyle did clarify that the cookie dough tastes terrible, but the finished product is amazing!

Prior to the arrival of dairy cows and the adoption of the technology of churning cream to make butter, Myaamia people (and many early settlers) relied on mahkwa pimi as an all purpose oil. It could be added to any cooked dish just like lard or butter, and was often used as a condiment to cover dishes. In the late 1700s, John Heckewelder described one general use of mahkwa pimi by tribes who called the Ohio River Valley home: “They are fond of dried venison, pounded in a mortar and dipped in bear’s oil.”1

Mahkwa pimi was also used on the human body in a variety of ways that were beautifying and medicinal. The clarified grease could be mixed with minerals to create paints used on the human body, especially on the face. It could also be used to protect the body from bug bites and as a means of increasing the luster of a person’s hair. It could also be mixed with medicinal plants and applied to the outside of the body to treaty joint pain and aid in the healing of wounds.

In addition to use on the human body, mahkwa pimi was used to add a protective sheen to wooden tools or weapons and objects carved from stone.

1 John Gottlieb Ernestus Heckewelder and William Cornelius Reichel, History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations. Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States (Philadelphia: The Historical society of Pennsylvania, 1881), 196. Neewe to our Shawnee friend Jeremy Turner for supplying this quote.

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