August 2nd ~ Near Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada
EDITORS NOTE: The contents of this post are rather graphic as native buffalo hunting methods are described. I am not attempting to justify or condone the ancient ways, but to simply report what we learned/observed at this fascinating place.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is gruesome, but at the same time, tells a story about a tradition that goes back over 6,000 years – The Buffalo Hunt. Although a bit difficult to look at, the Plains People depended on this way of life for their survival.
The center itself is laid out in a well-organized manner to bring this history lesson to life for all visitors.
Upon entering the building, we were directed toward the elevators where we went up six levels to exit up on the side of the cliff. From here, a short walk would bring you to a viewing platform which provided an overview of this ancient hunt site.
Returning inside, we start at the upper level and methodically work our way back down, one floor at a time as the story was told.
A historical dialog unfolded as we moved along which explained the way of life, how they moved from area to area to follow the food source and changing weather, communal living and members working together, and the tipi (aka teepee).
Lets put the timeline into perspective:
- 120 years ago – Last use of Head-Smashed-In
- 500 years ago – Columbus sailed to North America
- 900 years ago – Norse sailors land in Newfoundland
- 2000 years ago – Birth of Jesus Christ
- 4500 years ago – Stonehenge Constructed
- 5000 years ago – Great Pyramids were built
- 6000 years ago – First known use of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
We are not talking yesterday, folks. This history, tradition and way of life, goes back…way back.
Just what is a Buffalo Jump?
The Indigenous Peoples relied heavily on the buffalo for their primary food source. The rest of the buffalo was also used; i.e. the skins for clothing or to make their tipi shelter, fur to keep them warm during the harsh winter, and bones were used as tools.
To sustain a large group of people, they needed a reliable method of capturing and killing large numbers of buffalo.
Around 6000 years ago, they developed the following method that would be used for thousands of years. This is a simplified explanation, but will convey the basics.
- The planning: They had to know and understand the ways of the buffalo. This required living near them, observing their movements and following the herds. Fall was the favored time for a hunt, as the cows were fattened up over the summer. Cleansing and special rituals were performed. Water was gathered and cooking pits were prepared.
- The preparation: When the conditions were deemed right, they would set up a mock fence system with stones, sticks, and poles that would slowly funnel the buffalo herd from their grazing fields toward the cliff.
- The hunt: One or more healthy runners would dress in buffalo calf skin, he/they would get to the head of the herd, closer to the cliff and mimic a young calf in distress. The herd would instinctively move in that direction, thinking they were on their way to help/rescue one of their youngsters. In the meantime, several hunters would put the skin of a local predator over their heads and body (often a wolf or coyote) and come up behind the herd.
This was to start/keep them moving in the right direction. Also stationed all along the artificial fence line, the majority of the group were in place to encourage the herd along toward the cliff. At the precise time the lead hunters would jump out-of-the-way, the herd would be sent into a panic/stampede and with nowhere else to go, the lead cows would end up jumping off the side of the cliff with the rest of the herd following.
- The kill: Not all of the herd met instant death, so other warriors were stationed below the cliff to kill any who had only been wounded. They believed that if any survived and escaped, that they would inform other herds, and that the buffalo would then leave and not return to this area.
- The celebration: A successful hunt was grounds for the entire tribe to celebrate, but this was only a brief ceremony, as there was much work that remained. The animals had to be butchered, divided and the meat boiled in massive pits. Hides had to be cleaned, bones crushed and marrow extracted. Some of the meat was cut into strips and hung to dry then ground into a powder where berries and fat were added to make pemmican.
The winter count and tribal diary was etched on a skin. A special event was recorded each year. This was a simple, but effective method of keeping time. The robe shown below records the years from 1764 to 1879.
An explanation of a few of the symbols.
Careful excavation and recording of data has helped uncover some of the methods and mysteries regarding the Buffalo Jump.
Archeological records indicate that this area was used for over 5700 years, making it the oldest, largest and best preserved of any of the Buffalo Jump sites on the Western Plains.
Some of the mysteries include why the site was once abandoned for a thousand years and then the hunt resumed and what were people doing here 9,000 years ago.
One of the galleries had some fantastic photography.
After closing up the museum, we decided to take an Interpretive Trail Hike.
A slideshow of what we saw on the Interpretive Trail Hike
And just how did this site come by this gruesome name you might ask?
According to legend, in the 1800’s, a young brave wanted to witness the buffalo being driven over the cliff. The hunt was particularly successful that year, and as the bodies piled up, he became trapped. When the rest of the hunters came to do the butchering, they found his body buried under the weight of the buffalo with his head smashed. Thus, they named the place, “Head-Smashed-In”.
GRATITUDE MOMENT: Today I am grateful that we have other, more humane methods of gathering food available to us. My son and his girlfriend are vegan. They are slowly influencing us to move further and further in that direction. Although we still have our lapses, we are making progress.