Alberta is what we Americans like to say is “out west” in every sense of the phrase. It means wide-open expanses, prairies, indigenous peoples, cowboys, and a feeling of freedom. So, there’s no better place to learn more about the natives that lived out on the prairies, than to visit Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.
Miles and miles from anywhere, the buffalo jump is seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but the people knew that it was imperative to prepare for the coming winter. One way to do that, for food and furs, bones and sinew, was to hunt bison, and they knew their bison well. Well-preserved and surrounded by lots of evidence UNESCO inscribed Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump as a world heritage site in 1981.
Head Smashed In – Buffalo Jump
Using the cycle of seasons, and following the natural migration of the buffalo, wise medecine women were summoned to “call” the buffalo. Then young boys, well-trained, dressed in wolf furs to herd the bison to the cliff. They did this slowly and methodically, not spooking the animals until they were in just the right position.
Perhaps this marmot is a reincarnation of an elder watching the buffalo approach and ready to signal the herders towards the final push. He would do this knowing that below more men were waiting to make sure the animals died, and to move them to the processing area. There women and children, everyone had their job, would skin, separate, the furs and meat. Hanging some to dry, cooking some right there, and making other meat into pemmican to last them throughout the winter. It was a well-oiled machine, factory.
The cliff, from this angle, does not really convey the magnitude of the jump, but if you look closely there is a person wearing a red jacket walking on the bottom path. The genius of choosing this precipice is that the approach is flat and unprepossessing. Prior to the hunt, there is much preparation as young men and boys built stone cairns as sort of a “fence” or area, so that the buffalo would go in the correct direction.
It wasn’t as easy as just having the herders encircle the animals making them run off the cliff. Making sure they had buffalo, and even killing as many as they did, it didn’t put a dent in the buffalo herds. This didn’t happen until the white man came and hunted the animals only for fun and their pelts.
The Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre was such a pleasure to explore. First of all, I love a museum with a “path” that walks you through the history, the exhibits in a meaningful progression. Upon entering the building, we were at once sent to the theater when we watched an informative film. From there, we walked the top path, taking us out to the jump cliff. You could see for miles!
From there you make your way to the bottom floor, experiencing through multi-media exhibits, life on the plains, the aboriginal people, what happened once the white men arrived on the scene, and of course everything to do with the scientific method of the buffalo hunt itself. The center easily took a few hours.
Archaeological finds in the area really show parts of the process, and one thing that they found were piles and piles of bones. You really get the sense of how large the animals were, and how difficult a task it was to process their winter food and clothing.
To find out more about Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump you can visit their website. It is a drive, and you will need a car to get there from anywhere that you are. The closest place from Canada is Calgary at 185 km. (about 2 hrs.) and from the States you could go up there in conjunction with a visit to Glacier National Park which is 85 mi. (about 1.5 hours). It’s worth it.
Have you been to Alberta? Do you like these types of interpretive and historical places? What are some of your favorites?
Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.