PRAIRIE PAST AND PRESENT The cliffs of long-ago buffalo jumps linger on Alberta’s landscape
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 head-smashed-in.com and albertaparks.ca. 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.
The Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park, which is located 100 km southeast of Red Deer.
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.