​Canada150 Road Trip: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

In 2017, Canada is celebrating 150 years of confederation: being an independent(ish) country in the Western sense. However, as many First Nations and historians remind us, 2017 is not Canada’s 150th birthday, no matter how pithy the expression “Happy Birthday Canada!” is. “Canadian History” did not begin on July 1st, 1867. This summer, I want to highlight some excellent, intriguing, and thought provoking Canadian historic sites and monuments. I thought it appropriate to begin with one that really emphasizes just how far back Canada’s history goes: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump UNESCO World Heritage Site. I can honestly say it’s one of my favourite museums of all time and definitely has the best name. (A distant but beloved second in the category of “historic sites with awesome names” is the Demons’ Hand Print on the Rocks Shrine in Morioka, Japan.)

Head-Smashed-In interprets 6,000 years of buffalo hunting by Indigenous peoples and is comprised of the buffalo jump itself (an archaeological site) as well as an amazing interpretive centre. It tells an archaeological story, but also shares Blackfoot culture with visitors. As far as I can tell, all of the site’s interpretive guides are Blackfoot. They’re telling the stories of their own people and heritage, which is very powerful. The museum does an excellent job of weaving oral history, Blackfoot perspectives, the natural history of the region, and the archaeological record together in a cohesive, respectful, and absolutely fascinating way.

Replica Medicine Pipe Bundle

Replicas were sometimes on display where, for example, actual medicine bundles would have been inappropriate for the public to view.

The museum building was built into the cliff itself, making it feel a natural part of the landscape. What I really love about this site is that they really give you a good sense of place. The story would not be nearly so powerful if told elsewhere. They encourage you to start your visit with a view from the top of the cliff: the top of the buffalo jump itself. Before you even read any interpretive panels or look at any historical images or artifacts, you look out at the landscape itself and get a real feel for the immensity of the buffalo jump.

While we were admiring the view, we met one of the Blackfoot interpretive guides, Stan Knowlton, who has lived in the area his whole life. He shared some amazing stories about his encounters with buffalo; rancher-owned buffalo in the area sometimes escape and he once memorably encountered a bull and a few cows at the top of the buffalo jump’s cliff. (They ran off after snorting at him.) He parsed meaning from the landscape for us, pointing out, for instance, spots where buffalo used to cross the river. We followed him inside the museum and learned some of the deeper symbolism of the Blackfoot tipi and Blackfoot place names for this region. Stan blew my mind when he made the connection between the Belly River, the Elbow River, and other sites explicit; they are all the body parts of the Old Man who is lying down on this land. For some reason I had never stitched those disparate place names together before! What I am saying is that I heartily enjoyed listening to him speak and spark connections in my mind. While the artifacts and the displays were very informative and well-designed, I always believe that it is the staff that bring really meaningful connections with visitors.

 

We finished our visit after the museum building closed with a walk at the base of the buffalo jump. We bought the $2 walking tour pamphlet which helped us understand what we were seeing. We stood on the spot where hundreds of bison were butchered. We saw a tipi ring that was left behind by people an age ago. We learned that while the cliffs are now “only” 10 metres high, they were once twice that tall; the ground is composed of layers and layers of buffalo bone beds, covered with dirt blown by the fierce prairie winds. We saw berry bushes in bloom which are still used by Blackfoot people today. We saw deer browsing on bushes, ground squirrels scurrying through the long grasses, marmots posing on boulders, and Northern Harriers gliding in the strong wind. The atmosphere of the wide open space was incredible. And in the distance, in some rancher’s paddock, just barely visible to the naked eye? A small herd of buffalo.

Historic sites and nature preserves are not separate, in my mind. All natural places have a history. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump does an excellent job of blending history, natural landscapes, and contemporary cultures.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is just 15 minutes West of Fort MacLeod, conveniently on your way between the city of Calgary and Waterton Lakes National Park.

Further Resources

  • Brink, Jack W. Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2008. (The definitive published work on this buffalo jump. Free ebook PDF available on the publisher’s website if you can’t get a hold of a hard copy.)
  • Bryan, Liz. Stone by Stone: Exploring Ancient Sites on the Canadian Plains. Edmonton, AB: Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., 2015.
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