Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Long before the arrival of the white man, the prairies were home to vast herds of wandering bison. The herds were legendary in size—sometimes taking days to pass. Foraging on the plentiful grasses of the plains, bison were the life blood of many of our earliest residents. Ancestors of the Blackfoot nation hunted these giant plant eaters long before the white man introduced horses and guns. These were known as the "dog days" as dogs were the pack animals of choice. Small nomadic bands would move camp as many as 50 times annually to follow the wandering herds. These temporary camps left little trace of their passing and the sediments of time quickly buried these seemingly insignificant sites.
Buffalo were everything to these people, and the best hunting sites were jealously guarded. Since they couldn’t just hop on their horse and shoot a few buffalo, they needed to develop more creative methods of hunting such dangerous animals. One of the most ingenious methods involved the creation of a series of obstacles designed to direct an entire herd towards the edge of a cliff. As they approached the precipice, large numbers of natives would leap from their hiding place, and whip the terrified animals into a frenzy. The panicked bison would then stampede over the ledge. As many as 300 buffalo could die in a few minutes, providing ample supplies of meat and hide for the long western winter. These sites were known as buffalo jumps, and the most famous of all was Head-Smashed-In.
This particular site was unusually popular. It was regularly used for more than 5,000 years. To put this into perspective, it was used a thousand years before the first pharaohs of Egypt were born, not to mention long before anyone ever conceived of building a Stonehenge. These cliffs may have claimed the lives of more than 10,000 buffalo.
Surprisingly, the name "Head-Smashed-In", had nothing to do with buffalo. It describes the story of curious young brave. The Native name for this place is "Estipah sikini kots", which translates into "Where he got his head smashed in". According to the Peigan Indians, about 150 years ago, a young brave wanted to get a much closer look at the slaughter. Climbing into a hollow in the cliff, he had the perfect view of the bison cascading past him to their death. Unfortunately for him, the harvest was unusually good that day and when he was subsequently freed from the cliff, his head had been crushed between the rock face and the carcasses of the buffalo.
Today, the history of the jump comes to life. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Alberta Government has built a $10 million museum right into the cliffs themselves. Almost invisible until you arrive at it’s doorstep, the museum takes you on a trip through time. Staffed by Peigan Indian guides, you hear the history of the jump from the people that actually experienced it. This also helps to provide a much stronger connection to the historical significance of this site. Stand atop the cliffs that provided the last living view for untold numbers of buffalo. Is that the sound of thundering hooves you hear—or just the wind? For more information on the museum, call (403) 553-2731
Nearby Fort Macleod provides all the necessary amenities. The Fort Macleod Museum is also worth visiting as it brings to life a more recent period of history; the arrival of the Northwest Mounted Police. The surrounding community provides a variety of restaurants, gas stations and hotels. If you plan to spend the night, take a walk through Alberta’s first historic district and view more than 30 historically significant buildings. For more information call the Fort Museum at (403) 553-4703