Monday, August 5, 2013

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

I had one more stop to make in Canada before crossing the border back into the U.S. and I chose it because the name intrigued me: "Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump." I have also combined two adventures here because they are related in subject--the Canadian Buffalo Jump and the National Bison Range in Montana.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump near Fort MacLeod, Alberta was placed on the World Heritage list in 1981 as a site of outstanding universal value forming part of the cultural heritage of mankind.

The Prehistoric plains Indians, in highly organized communal hunts, stampeded herds of buffalo over "jumps" such as this cliff, and then butchered the animals killed or injured by their fall.  This site was used by at least four successive Indian cultures over 5700 years and preserves a deposit of bones and artifacts over 30 feet thick.  

The Interpretive Center here was one of the best I have seen anywhere. Hourly the Blackfoot Indians staged elaborate native dances and explained the symbols and significance of each dance.

The Fancy Dance, the Traditional Dance, the Owl Dance, the Round Dance, the Snake dance, the Crowhop and the Chicken Dance (yes, I wondered if it was the one that's played at company parties--thank goodness not)

Married women wear two feathers in their hair, Single women wear one feather.

The Jingle Dress Dance was my favorite.

As I walked out onto the cliff I saw this sign, Promises! Promises!

He was the wildest thing I saw that day. 

Situated in south-west Alberta, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the most important hunting sites identified to date. At the edge of a landscape of hills and of highlands cut by natural passes, a high sandstone cliff falls off to the east. This coastal relief lends itself ideally to primitive hunting methods.
For thousands of years the native people of the plains hunted the North American bison. The plains Indian lifestyle became dependent on hunting buffalo, and they adapted numerous hunting techniques to obtain their livelihood. The most sophisticated technique developed by the native people to kill buffalo was the buffalo jump. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the oldest and best preserved sites of this kind with its elaborate drive lane complex and deep archaeological deposits still intact.

The site was used for the slaughter of bison from 3600 BC to 2600 BC, then intermittently towards 900 BC, and finally, continuously from AD 200 to 1850. Explored for the first time in 1938, it has since 1960 been the object of systematic excavations which have considerably enriched the knowledge of prehistoric arms and tools.
West of the cliff lies a large drainage basin 25 miles in extent.  This natural grazing area attracted herds of buffalo late into the fall.

To start the hunt, 'buffalo runners', young men trained in animal behaviour, would entice the herd to follow them by imitating the bleating of a lost calf. As the buffalo moved closer to the drive lanes (long lines of stone cairns were built to help the hunters direct the buffalo to the cliff kill site), the hunters would circle behind and upwind of the herd and scare the animals by shouting and waving robes. As the buffalo stampeded towards the edge of the cliff, the animals in front would try to stop but the sheer weight of the herd pressing from behind would force the buffalo over the cliff.
Below the cliff kill site are deep stratified deposits that contain evidence of use going back more than 5,700 years. These deposits have accumulated to a depth of over 30 ft.

The flat area immediately below the kill site was where the hunters camped while they finished butchering the buffalo.   
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is associated with human survival during the prehistoric period and bears witness to a custom practised by the peoples of the North American plains for some 6,000 years.  

The hunt would fail if any of the necessary conditions were not met.  Making mistakes or ignoring rituals brought bad luck. If a man hunted early, he could scare away the herd.  The buffalo might escape if drive lanes were badly prepared, or if there were too few people to man them.  Too few buffalo meant the kill would be small and the camp would go hungry.  When natural conditions were right, careful preparation by the entire camp would ensure a big kill; sometimes enough meat, fat, hides, bone, horn and sinew to last for months.

Other buffalo jumps were scattered across the Plains and if that was where the buffalo were, that was where the hunt would be.
Head-Smashed-In might sit unused for generations, until only a pile of sun-bleached bones  remained.
When the buffalo returned to the area,  the camp was ready and the weather was right, the medicine people would build a sod altar and begin the ceremonies that prepared both people and buffalo for the next jump.

By the beginning of the 20th century, fertilizer and explosives firms wanted buffalo bones for their phosphorus content.  Soon both new settlers and plains Indians were mining killing sites for their centuries-old accumulations of bone.  Sites in Canada from the 20's to the end of WWII were mined for bone that was used for making munitions.  
And this is where the name 'Head-Smashed-In' came from:      
About 150 years ago, according to legend, a young brave wanted to witness the plunge of countless buffalo as his people drove them to their deaths over the sandstone cliffs. Standing under the shelter of the ledge, like a man behind a waterfall, he watched the great beasts cascade past him. But the hunt was unusually good that day and as the bodies mounted, he became trapped between the animals and the cliff. When his people came to do the butchering, they found him with his skull crushed by the weight of the buffalo. Thus, they named the place "Head-Smashed-In."

A week after leaving Canada I found this spot just south of Kalispell, Montana.

The National Bison Range was established in 1908 to help save the American Bison from extinction.  Today populations are secure and bison roam in Parks, Refuges and on private ranches throughout the country.
(The words 'Bison' and 'Buffalo' are used interchangeably, though Bison is more scientifically correct.  The French incorrectly named them 'Buffalo' in the 1600s and the name stuck.)

When the first Europeans reached North America, the Bison was the most abundant large mammal on Earth.  They were distinctly American ranging from Canada to Mexico and from Oregon to Pennsylvania, Virginia and Georgia.  Prior to the 1800s it is estimated that upwards of 60 million bison roamed the prairies.

Buffalo Skulls, Michigan Carbon Works, Detroit, 1880

In less than a 40 year span in the late 1800s the herds of bison were decimated, first by diseases brought by the cattle that were being introduced to the range; then followed the new demand for leather clothing; the indiscriminate killing of buffalo for sport (they were even shot from train windows and left to rot in the sun) and finally the huge demand for leather belts to run the machines of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution.

When this Bison Refuge was formed there were less than 100 wild unconfined bison known to exist.

A number of ranchers and several native Indian tribes worked hard to re-establish a herd that would survive.

Today the herd in the refuge holds between 300 & 500 animals.

It took me two hours to drive the loop around the refuge.

Some of the drive was very steep and more than a little scary...

....But lovely.

"...all things share the same breath--the beast, the tree, the man.
...the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.  The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth.  This we know.  All things are connected like the blood which unites one family.  All things are connected."
                                                              ....Chief Seattle

It was especially nice to wildlife that did not run at the sight of a human.

From an Indian Legend....

 "After Napi had the earth all made, he took up some mud and made the shape of a buffalo.  When he had made it, he breathed on it, and the buffalo came to life. 

He made another buffalo to keep it company.  Napi set the two buffalo on a mountain, but they tripped and skidded down away from him.  One ran north to the forest, and the other stopped on the plains.  Napi thought that maybe it knew  best, and he left it there.  Pretty soon buffalo covered the plains as far as his eyes could see. "

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