Story by Shannon Leahy
HEAD-SMASHED-IN BUFFALO JUMP, ALBERTA — The voices, like the Chinook winds that carry them, are legion.
Close your eyes against the rolling expansiveness of the Porcupine Hills, where the foothills merge with the Rocky Mountains, and you’ll hear the echo of stampeding buffalo.
Squeeze your eyes a little tighter and you just might summon the cries of Blackfoot hunters tasked with the blessing of buffalo running.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is a special place.
Don’t let the odd name fool you. This is the biggest, oldest and best-preserved buffalo jump in North America. Long before the creation of the Pyramids of Giza and the mystery of Stonehenge, ancient hunters herded tens of thousands of bison over these 10- and 18-metre sandstone cliffs in southwestern Alberta.
About 18 kilometres north of Fort Macleod, where Alberta’s first cowboys ran wild and where the North West Mounted Police (now the RCMP) chased whiskey runners, is one of Canada’s most impressive UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Forget about the “stampede” you hear about 160 kilometres north up in big-city, big-party Calgary. Down here in the peaceful Porcupine Hills, beneath the precipice of two ancient jumps, the bones of the buffalo and the life of the Blackfoot run deep.
Where Buffalo Still Roam the Memory Banks
The 60 million buffalo that once roamed the continent’s Interior Plains have perished but Head-Smashed-In (estipah-skikikini-kots in the language of the Blackfoot people) is 1,500 acres (595 hectares) dedicated to bringing the great buffalo herds, and the aboriginal people whose lives depended on them, back to life.
The area’s most prized archeological finds — 6,000-year-old stone scrapers, buffalo-horn spoons, sun-bleached bones and fire-broken boiling stones — are displayed throughout the seven-tiered Interpretive Centre. Some artifacts pulsate with energy, especially when you’re invited to touch them and feel their sacred storied past.
The “iniskim” or buffalo stone is such a storyteller; a fossil ammonite whose shape resembles a buffalo. The iniskim was central to the ancient spiritual ceremonies that preceded each hunt.
An Ancient and Sacred Tradition
Orchestrating a stampede of buffalo meant life and death for hunter and beast. The average buffalo weighed 1,700 pounds, ran faster than 50 kilometres per hour and smelled danger (man and wolf) if the wind blew right.
The giant herds offered the aboriginal people of the Interior Plains everything: meat for food, hides for clothing and shelter, sinew, bone and horn for tools, and dung for fire. (What part of the buffalo wasn’t used? One amateur historian tells me, “The snort and the fart!”).
For more than 5,800 years the most common method for killing large numbers of bison was to have “buffalo runners;” young men tasked with finding buffalo and then, disguised under animal hides, to pass near the herds and trigger a stampede.
To start the drive, the fastest and most skilled buffalo runner would disguise himself as a bleating lost calf.
Buffalo herds are led by one or two dominant females that instinctively move toward a lost little one. As the herd follows the stray “calf,” they move closer to the cliff and gradually funnelled into V-shaped drive lanes that lead one way: over the cliff and straight down.
The drive lanes were marked by rock piles or cairns (called “dead men”) resembling our modern-day scarecrow, which are still visible today.
They snake their way across Head-Smashed-In’s rolling ridges, coulees and high hills. Thousands of years ago the rock piles would have been filled with tall brush, soil and dung to disguise hunters who would spring from behind the rock piles and wave buffalo robes or blankets to scare the animals and help the herd make the great leap forward.
“Wolves” (young men wearing wolf skins) at the back of the herd ensured a fevered panic that kept the buffalo running down the drive lanes.
Blind with terror and packed in too tight to change direction, the buffalo herd would stampede toward the cliff’s edge; a sophisticated and delicate chaos neither buffalo nor buffalo runner could stop.
The sheer weight of the herd pressing from behind ensured none of the buffalo upfront could prevent the beastly fall — the herd’s inevitable step into sky and then darkness.
Origin of the Name Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
All that buffalo carnage isn’t what inspired Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump’s name. According to legend, a young boy wanted to watch the buffalo fall. He chose the shelter of a cliff ledge rather than the safety of the camp site and processing area in the hills below. The hunt was particularly good that day so as more and more buffalo bodies mounted, the boy became trapped between beast and rock. When the boy’s people came to bless the dead animals, kill the wounded ones and begin the butchering, they discovered his body. His skull was crushed by the buffalo he had come to see fly.
Visiting the Historic Alberta Buffalo Jump
Today at the base of Head-Smashed-In, accessible by a one-kilometre walking trail meandering through swaying grasses, shrubs and trees, are skeletal remains of the buffalo.
In some areas buffalo bone-beds are 11 metres (36 feet) deep. Farther out are the ancient butchering camps and farther still are the camp sites and processing areas.
Most of the land is held in trust and inaccessible to the public but the foothill topography invites imagination. The upper trail showcases the buffalo grazing grounds, the gathering basins, where the herds were gradually lured toward the cliff. There are also petroglyphs, rock-carving areas, and vision-quest sites where braves once communed with spirits.
At the kill site below the cliffs, on the lower trail, are the ancient tool beds of buffalo harvesting. Since 1938 archeologists have unearthed thousands of bone awls, drills, arrowheads, spear points, pottery, knives and bone choppers. Some relics are believed to be 9,000 years old.
The Head-Smashed-In Interpretive Centre is a marvel. While the seven-tiered building was being built, a section of the cliff was removed and a massive concrete box constructed inside. Earth and grass were then pulled over the top of the building. (Imagine a bunker built into a cliff. An über-awesome bunker. Architect Robert LeBlond was awarded a Governor’s General Award for the design in 1990.)
Every detail inside the centre is exquisite. Carpeting with tiny buffalo designs, natural sunlight warming a full-size tipi, ancient artifacts from a buffalo-hunting culture neither lost nor forgotten.
The lives of the Plains people are celebrated and mourned too. The fourth and final exhibit, “Cultures in Contact,” opens with a giant display of wall-to-ceiling buffalo skulls.
There were once “buffalo without number,” according to Europeans who first arrived in the Porcupine Hills in 1792. A population of 60 million free-roaming buffalo has been reduced to a current worldwide population of less than 5,000 animals. The good news? Those bison are tucked away safe and sound in northern Alberta in another one of the province’s five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Wood Buffalo National Park, in Fort Chipewyan.
Just as the buffalo once defined life for generations of Plains aboriginal people, the buffalo — in death — played a small part in defining the ways of a new world. By the beginning of the 20th century, buffalo killing sites such as Head-Smashed-In were mined for buffalo bones whose phosphorus content was used for making a different kind of fire — weapons and ammunitions.
Give yourself at least a half-day to explore Head-Smashed-In, inside and out. You’re in the heart of Canada’s Chinook belt so the warm, dry, westerly winds can roar and then fall dead silent, especially as you look to the cliffs and summon the spirit of braves and buffalo.
Just as people keep memories of what happened on the land, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump remembers when the Canadian west was wild and young.
Down here in Big Sky country, where the braves and buffalo once roamed, and where the Porcupine Hills blend into the Rocky Mountains, the land’s memories are loud and legion.
MORE ABOUT HEAD-SMASHED-IN BUFFALO JUMP
Location: Head-Smashed-In is 18 km (11 miles) northwest of Fort Macleod. Take secondary Hwy 785 (Spring Point Road). If you’re coming from Calgary, head south on Hwy 2 approximately 160 kilometres (100 miles) and then take Hwy 785 West. The site is situated about 100 kilometres (62 miles) east of the Rocky Mountains.
When to Visit: Annual events at Head-Smashed-In include: “Hike to the Drive Lanes” (May to October, first Saturday of the month, 10:30 am to 3 pm, telephone 1-403-553-2731 to register in advance); “Buffalo Harvest Days” (September 26-28, free admission and gift store discounts); and “Full Moon of the Eagle” (Family Day, February 16, 2015, simulated archaeological dig and live display of Alberta birds of prey).
Hours of Operation: The site is open year-round. Summer hours: 9 am to 6 pm. Fall and winter hours: 10 am to 5 pm. Closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Easter Sunday.
Admission (2014): $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $22 for families (two adults, two children), free for kids under 7.
Notable: If you’re sightseeing throughout southern Alberta and/or the entire province, consider buying an “Experience Alberta’s History” pass.
that offers unlimited access to select historic sites and museums. Cost (2014): $75 for families, $30 for adults, $25 for seniors, $15 for youth, free for kids under 7. Valid for one year and transferable.
To download a beautiful information guide about the history of buffalo jumping and why Head-Smashed-In is considered a world-class UNESCO Heritage Site, visit www.head-smashed-in.com. For more information about upcoming events, you can also call 1-403-553-2731 or email email@example.com.