We saw the sign as we crossed the border from Montana into Alberta, Canada. “Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump.” Somewhere in my mind, a little light went on.
“Take the exit to Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump!” Tom and Aubrey and Scott looked at me like I was crazy, but I told them I’d heard about the place. We were this close, why not stop?
Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump is, believe it or not, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located in the plains west of Fort McCleod, Alberta, on Hwy 785.
The buffalo jump was used for 5,500 years by the indigenous peoples of the plains to kill buffalo (American bison) by driving them off the 36-foot-high cliff.
The cliff itself is about 1,000 feet long, and at its highest point drops 30 feet into the valley. The site was in use for an estimated 5,500 years, and the bone deposits at the base of the cliff are almost forty feet deep.
According to legend, the site got its name when a young Blackfoot wanted to watch the buffalo plunge off the cliff from below, but was buried underneath the falling buffalo. He was later found dead under the pile of carcasses, where he had his head smashed in. (Nowadays, we would say that was the Darwin Principle at work.)
These buffalo runs took place long before the introduction of horses or rifles in the West, at a time when the Blackfoot hunted solely with arrows and knives. Young “buffalo runners” dressed as wolves and coyotes would drive the buffalo from a grazing area about two miles west of the site into “driving lanes,” prescribed paths defined by rocks and bushes and people holding bushes, until they ran off the cliffs.
These “buffalo runners” were young men trained in animal behavior to guide the buffalo into the drive lanes. Then, in a panic at full gallop, the buffalo would fall from the weight of the herd pressing behind them, breaking their legs and rendering them immobile on the valley below. At the foot of the cliff, the men of the tribe would kill any animal left alive after the fall and crush of other animals, and the women would set about processing the carcasses.
The carcasses were processed at a camp at the foot of the cliffs provided the people with everything they needed to process a buffalo carcass, including fresh water. The majority of the buffalo carcass was used for a variety of purposes, from tools made from the bone, to the hide used to make dwellings and clothing. The importance of the site goes beyond just providing food and supplies. After a successful hunt, the wealth of food allowed the people to enjoy leisure time and pursue artistic and spiritual interests. This increased the cultural complexity of the society.
The park was established as a World Heritage Site in 1981 for its testimony of prehistoric life and the customs of aboriginal people.
Opened in 1987, the interpretive center at Head-Smashed-In is built into the ancient sandstone cliff adjacent the cliff drive site. As I sat outside the center that September day, there were few visitors to the site, and all I heard was the wind in the grass and the occasional call of a hawk.
The center has two parking lots, with free shuttles running constantly from the lots to the center entrance. In addition, the center offers tipi camping and hands-on educational workshops in facets of First Nations life, such as making moccasins, drums, etc. Each year Head-Smashed-In hosts a number of special events and native festivals known throughout the world for their color, energy, and authenticity, including a special Christmas festival called Heritage Through My Hands, which brings together First Nations artists and craftspeople who display a wide variety of jewelry, clothing, art, and crafts. Visitors can witness traditional drumming and dancing demonstrations every Wednesday from July through August at 11 a.m and 1:30 p.m. at the center.
There are excellent exhibits throughout the center, and the theater has continuous showings of an informative and engrossing film depicting a buffalo run. (Warning: little children might be horrified by the images at the end of the film, as might anyone who doesn’t remember that the images are computer generated.)
It’s not likely people will make a journey to Fort MacLeod solely to see the site, but if you are ever in the neighborhood, make that turn onto Hwy 785. It’s well worth the trip!