PRAIRIE PAST AND PRESENT The cliffs of long-ago buf­falo jumps linger on Al­berta’s land­scape

Calgary Herald New Condos - - Front Page - AN­DREW PEN­NER

min­utes be­fore I cross the foot­bridge over the grassy banks of Fish Creek, the skies open up and un­leash their fury. Loonie-sized hail plas­ters the park and thun­der rum­bles down from the heav­ens. Thank­fully, by the time I scurry to “the spot” — an an­cient buf­falo pound lo­cated just 15 min­utes from my house in Cal­gary — a beau­ti­ful blue sky pre­vails.

Al­though no vis­i­ble signs of this mass killing site re­main, no doubt be­neath the ground lie se­crets — ar­row­heads, buf­falo bones, tools — of an an­cient way of life on the Great Plains. And, no doubt, the thun­der of to­day echoes the stam­ped­ing hoofs of years past.

For thou­sands of years on the windswept prairie, peo­ple gath­ered and they hunted. The many abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples who thrived on the plains re­lied, largely, on the bi­son — tens of mil­lions used to roam the rolling prairie — for nearly ev­ery­thing needed for sur­vival: meat, tools, cloth­ing, blan­kets, and uten­sils.

While many buf­falo hunt­ing tech­niques have been doc­u­mented and passed down through the gen­er­a­tions, such as us­ing buf­falo pounds, or en­clo­sures, to cor­ral and kill the an­i­mals, one par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous and dra­matic tech­nique stands out among them: the buf­falo jump.

This an­cient tech­nique in­volved ma­noeu­vring the an­i­mals into drive lanes and stam­ped­ing them over cliffs, killing them in mass num­bers. Ap­prox­i­mately 300 an­i­mals, or more, could be slaugh­tered on a suc­cess­ful jump. A good re­sult could guar­an­tee the sur­vival of many peo­ple for a full win­ter. How­ever, in or­der for it to work, many con­di­tions — in­clud­ing the wind, the di­rec­tion of the sun, the height of the jump and the con­di­tion of the herd — had to be just right.

More than 108 dif­fer­ent jumps have been dis­cov­ered in Al­berta, and it’s likely that more ex­ist. Al­though the rel­a­tively un­known Fish Creek buf­falo pound (given the fairly steep bank, it could have been uti­lized as a jump at one time) has his­toric im­por­tance, it’s by no means the most sig­nif­i­cant site in south­ern Al­berta. That hon­our is held by the amaz­ing Head-Smashed-In Buf­falo Jump — a UNESCO World Her­itage Site — near Fort Macleod.

Lo­cated on an ex­posed east­fac­ing slope on the south­ern edge of the Por­cu­pine Hills, the fa­mous Head-Smashed-In jump fea­tures all the nec­es­sary com­po­nents for a suc­cess­ful hunt. The site is close to wa­ter, there is am­ple room for pro­cess­ing, the pre­vail­ing winds are of­ten favourable, the cliff faces east (away from the set­ting sun) and healthy buf­falo herds were of­ten found nearby and could be ma­noeu­vred into the lanes.

In his book, Imag­in­ing Head­S­mashed-In, au­thor Jack Brink writes: “And of all the buf­falo jumps known from across western North Amer­ica, there is per­haps none more im­pos­ing, more per­fectly de­signed, more con­sis­tently ex­e­cuted, more lethal than

When vis­it­ing, please keep in mind that tam­per­ing with or re­mov­ing any­thing from any buf­falo jump or sa­cred hunt­ing site is strictly pro­hib­ited.

For more in­for­ma­tion, visit and al­ber­ta­ Head-Smashed-In.”

Thank­fully, un­like other jumps, it has also been exquisitely pre­served.

In ad­di­tion to the out­stand­ing, seven-level In­ter­pre­tive Cen­tre, which re­cently cel­e­brated its 25th an­niver­sary, the site also boasts in­ter­pre­tive trails and a va­ri­ety of pro­grams through which vis­i­tors can soak in the his­tory.

Hik­ing around the jump — trails take you be­low the jump to the pro­cess­ing ar­eas as well as along the top of the cliff where thou­sands of buf­falo plunged to their deaths — is a sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence. To top it off, the panoramic views of the vast prairie that un­folds as far as the eye can see are sim­ply stun­ning.

An­other worth­while ac­tiv­ity at the jump, on the first Satur­day of the month, is their “Hike to the Drive Lanes.” This guided, four-hour hike takes you to sa­cred lo­ca­tions above and be­side the jump that were vi­tal for the hunt. Along the way, you’ll see an­cient pic­tographs and rock cairns, and hear amaz­ing sto­ries from your knowl­edge­able Black­foot guide.

Al­though Head-Smashed-In of­fers by far the most com­plete ex­pe­ri­ence when it comes to vis­it­ing Al­berta’s sa­cred buf­falo hunt­ing sites, there are other im­pres­sive lo­ca­tions you can visit.

Dry Is­land Buf­falo Jump Pro­vin­cial Park, lo­cated near Trochu (ap­prox­i­mately 2.5 hours north­east of Cal­gary), is an­other beau­ti­ful and his­toric site with plenty to of­fer hik­ers and na­ture lovers. With bad­lands, a won­der­ful va­ri­ety of birdlife, and gor­geous land­forms throughout, a visit here, es­pe­cially in the fall when the colours ex­plode, is highly mem­o­rable.

Vis­it­ing Al­berta’s his­toric buf­falo hunt­ing sites and strolling through the sa­cred grounds is both re­ward­ing and ed­u­ca­tional. Whether it’s south of the city at Head-Smashed-In or north at Dry Is­land — or right next door to your house, per­haps — there is much to gain from First Nations cul­ture and the in­cred­i­ble his­tory of the Great Plains.

Travel Al­berta

The Dry Is­land Buf­falo Jump Pro­vin­cial Park, which is lo­cated 100 km south­east of Red Deer.

Pho­tos: An­drew Pen­ner/for the Cal­gary Her­ald

A plaque marks the spot of an an­cient hunt­ing site in Fish Creek Park. The meadow in the fore­ground was the pro­cess­ing area.

A lone teepee stands at Head-Smashed-In, while the sel­dom-used Calder­wood Buf­falo Jump can be seen in the dis­tance on the left.

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