Southern Alberta Renewal: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
I love the open prairies in the summer and the incredible view that these open hills display. They rejuvenate the worn and weary traveler. My friends and I knew that a visit to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump views would do wonders. An odd but very descriptive name, the jump area is in the Porcupine Hills near the town of Fort Macleod, Alberta. As the Alberta Heritage brochure explains, it is one of the world’s oldest, largest, and best preserved buffalo jumps.
The use and history of the site is amazing. The buffalo jump is called in Blackfoot estipah-skikikini-kots (“where we got our heads smashed”). It was used for over 6,000 years by the First Nations Blackfoot tribespeople to kill buffalo, by driving them off the 10 metre high cliff. The Blackfoot drove the buffalo from a grazing area in the Porcupine Hills about 3 kilometres west of the site to the “drive lanes,” lined by hundreds of cairns. Then they drove them at full gallop over a cliff. At the bottom of the cliff the buffalo carcasses were moved to a nearby camp for processing.
This practice ended with the European settlers’ mass destruction of the buffalo, wiping out the massive herds with over-hunting. Loss of buffalo and other animals had a negative impact on the local ecosystem, and the people who depended on it. The area became farming and ranching land which permanently altered the soil and introduced non-native plant species that pushed out the local flora and fauna. After over 100 years of development, preservation efforts finally began in the 1960s.
Connecting With People Is More Interesting Than Museum Plaques
George (not his real name), a local Blackfoot elder, greeted us at the entrance of the beautiful Buffalo Jump complex. To be honest, I was more interested in getting his take on the place and its ongoing significance, rather than visiting the interpretive centre, which all of us had already seen.
George told us, “I was a school teacher, and my family were ranchers, but I’ve always been interested in archaeology. I decided when I retired to help out here. It’s been ok. Sometimes though it’s weird like someone in your house.” He continued, “I just stress to visitors that this is also a sacred site. The hunt was a spiritual thing – a big ceremony with medicine women to make sure the hunt was successful. We honored and respected the buffalo. It’s a cliche to many, but our lives did depend on it so we had a deep spiritual link to it.”
Sitting outside over the course of half an hour, George related the tensions that existed between the Canadian province, the tribespeople, and the land developers in the 1980s. While the area was designated as a park in the 1970s, the government continued the push to have it designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump was given World Heritage designation in 1981. Then the argument arose that, no matter what, the site needed to be accessible to the Blackfoot. It was sacred land, and they needed to be involved in all decisions, from the architecture of the interpretive centre, to retaining people like himself to be involved.
Dwindling Support Creates Difficulties
However, that’s not what has happened today, George said, because the young people aren’t as interested, and agreements were not kept. “Now the new Blackfoot Crossing has brought in some involvement,” he noted, “but when the young can make money elsewhere, why stay here?”
I remember my ex-husband telling me the same thing about the archaeological digs that he went on as an undergraduate student in the mid-1980s. Local Blackfoot people (members of the Siksika and Pilkani Band) were to be involved in the interpretive centre, as well as all aspects of the dig, which was to be continuous.
The reality over 30 years later is radically different. There is no ongoing dig. The local involvement now is minimal, except for during September when the Buffalo Harvest Days are held. Then, thankfully, it feels like a vibrant celebration with elders and locals all coming together.
Awaiting the Return of the Buffalo
George also spoke to us about the effects of intensive farming and ranching prevalent across most of the land. He believes that a re-introduction of buffalo would rejuvenate the health and spirit of the land and the people. They are all originally part of the same world. But with the disappearance of the buffalo for over a hundred years, both have suffered greatly. Realistically, George knows that the original wealth of biodiversity can never be fully restored, but he hopes at least to see a level of long-term sustainability return to the land and her people.
We thanked George for the visit and hiked out to the buffalo driving lanes. As usual out here, the wind whipped us around and made sure we knew we were intruders. A deer wandered nearby, and a hawk spied a tasty field mouse. The indigenous buffalo grass competes with the crab grass for growing room. Despite being a busy summer day, everything was silent. I could imagine the buffalo, the people, and the life that use to exist out here. It would have been far from quiet.
I learned after this visit that the first buffalo are being brought back in to the area to see if their re-introduction will have a positive effect. I hope it works. This environment is not just a place from which to take things, or into which to construct buildings, or even to declare its worth by UNESCO. This is a sacred space, with intricate relationships binding humans to its environment, and binding both to the indigenous animals. The buffalo must return.
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