Head Smashed-in Buffalo Jump, Alberta: a UNESCO heritage site to visit
I hope you are having a good week wherever you are. I had an awesome day attending a
conference on Indigenous health care practices and traditional practitioners in a longhouse. Singing, drumming, hoop dancing and starting 30 minutes late…. the Native way of doing a conference you know 🙂 Now that I am back home, I wish to discuss a heritage site located in Alberta (90 minutes south of Calgary), Canada. The name of the place is Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Let’s see what the buzz is about.
Why the name?
Let’s be real, it is a weird name. In order to understand it, one has to look at the history of the place and what it meant for our ancestors. For our ancestors, buffalo meant food, it meant survival. A land where buffalo was plentiful was a happy land, just like the happy hunting grounds or the vision Wovoka had that led to the Ghost Dance. However, do you have any idea how difficult it can be to catch and kill a buffalo?? Think about it for a second. They are big and fast and could easily crush you. And our ancestors did not have guns for the most part. So they were at a disadvantage physically. Therefore, they had to outsmart them.
How does one do that? By enticing herds of buffaloes over the edge of the cliff, hence the buffalo jump. Meh I could do that you say? Well let’s look more closely at this 6000 year old practice. First off, buffalo runners, as they were called, were trained in animal behavior, studying their habits and lifestyle. They would entice the herd by imitating the cry of a baby calf who was lost. Not taking any chances, buffalo hunters would also build “lanes” made of rows of rocks directing the buffaloes toward the cliff. Once the animals would be within the lanes, the hunters would circle them from behind and on each side, screaming and yelling, trying to scare them, thus pushing them to go toward the cliff. The animals ran toward the cliff, trying to stop at the last second once they realized the massiveness of the cliff. But with the herd behind pushing everyone forward, there was no stopping. And buffalo would go plunging head first over the cliff. Hence the name.
To this day, bones are still found and evidence suggests that the cliff was used for over 5700 years. Buffalo were butchered below the cliff and hunters would camp on the flat area, finishing their carving and butchering there (hanging the meat to dry in the sun). Every part was used from fur to bones (for the marrow or boiled to render grease). A bit barbaric yes but impressive nonetheless.
What is there to do and why is it a heritage site?
I will be frank here. When I first heard about the Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, my first thought was: who would go see that? I mean really what is there to see? “Here is the cliff where the buffalo jumped. Done”. But the more I read about it, the more I realized the importance and meaning of the place. It has a huge significance for the Canadian Plains Indians, whose ancestors were the buffalo hunters. It reminds us of the intelligence and resourcefulness of our ancestors, as buffalo were their main source of food and survival (especially in the winter). Considering the size of buffalo, you can imagine that killing a few buffalo would mean enough food for a few months…
Moreover, if the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) made it a heritage site, it is worth seeing. It is a testimony of human survival at a time where survival was not to be taken for granted. According to UNESCO, it is one of the most important hunting sites known. And it is a reminder of a sophisticated hunting technique used by our ancestors.
The site is more than a cliff. Because really would you go otherwise? It has an interpretive
center full of activities for kids and grown ups as well as a guided tour of the site. It also hosts special events embedded in the Native culture such as drumming and dancing and a celebration of the change of season or Aboriginal day on June 21. Blackfoot Elders are also present to tell stories about the plains buffalo culture. Finally, obviously, Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is a favorite of schools for a nice field day trip. Different tours can be offered to kids and youth including tours related to tipis, living off the land or stones and bones. I don’t know about you, but as a kid, I would have liked to have a field trip in which I could help set up a tipi and learn about the tools and technologies used by our ancestors.
So there you have it, a UNESCO heritage site that is much more than a cliff and is a testimony to the resourcefulness of our ancestors, to their determination to survive and live off the land. For more info on location, prices and hours, see this site. Has any one of you been to Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump? Is this a place you would like to visit? Let me know below!
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