Saturday, September 1, 2012

Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, Alberta - UNESCO World Heritage Site


For the Siksika or Blackfoot people of the Northern Plains, buffalo was as critical to their survival as their blood. The primary way of killing buffalo was the buffalo jump. There were many buffalo jumps but the one at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump (or estipah-skikikini-kots in Blackfoot) is the best preserved, biggest and oldest example in the Northern Plains. 


This method was not in any way wasteful. Quite the opposite. It condensed the hunt down to several intense days or weeks. Every part of the animal was used. Meat for food, hides for clothing and shelter, sinew, bone and horn for tools, and dung for fires. Also, they honoured the buffalo because they knew that their survival depended them.


At the base of the cliff today are 6,000 years of accumulated skeletal remains, in some places 11 metres (36 feet) deep. Close by is the site of the butchering camp, a kilometre-wide expanse pocked with the remnants of meat caches and cooking pits, and itself underlain with up to a metre of butchered bison bones. Prairie grasses and shrubberies have claimed this debris and made it part of the landscape


The Interpretive Centre has been designed to blend into the landscape and is built right into the cliff. Visitors can proceed at their own pace with video and audio commentary provided with the exhibits. According to Wiki, the name Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump came from a story where a young brave lost his life because he was standing at the bottom of the jump when the buffalo started falling. When he was discovered, his head was smashed. More on the jump here.

Edwin, Siksika or Blackfoot aka Sage Whisperer

Quite a few of these photos are mine because I got to visit a couple of years ago. It was unexpectedly absorbing. It's quiet there and almost restful if it weren't for the righteous indignation most of us felt when learning what happened to the buffalo.

On the day we were there a First Nation Interpretive Guide was answering questions about the jump and anything else someone happened to think of. His Christian name was Edwin and he told us his Indian name but I can't remember what it was. His voice was deep and rich and I could have listened to him forever. Edwin also worked as a guide for fishing and hunting groups and went on lone camping trips into the mountains as part of his spiritual routine. He offered to take us on a brief tour outside and helped us to identify wild sage which comes in male and female varieties and which they use for almost everything. He even took us off the trail to do it! Coolest thing ever. 

A recreation of the jump

The UNESCO web site says:
The significance of the landscape of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump lies in its cultural, archaeological, and scientific interest. The deep layers of bison bones buried below the cliff represent nearly 6000 years of use of the buffalo jump by Aboriginal people of the Northern Plains. This landscape is an outstanding illustration of subsistence hunting techniques that continued into the late 19th century and which still form part of the 'traditional knowledge base' of the Plains nations. It throws valuable light on the way of life and practices of traditional hunting cultures elsewhere in the world.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the oldest, most extensive, and best preserved sites that illustrate communal hunting techniques and the way of life of Plains people who, for more than five millennia, subsisted on the vast herds of bison that existed in North America.

Big skies and sweeping plains...

...which were filled with Buffalo not that long ago

One of the most disturbing images I saw was a photo with piles of buffalo skulls that had been killed by Europeans. Those wanting the plains to graze cattle encouraged the senseless slaughter of buffalo.  Buffalo were ridiculously easy to kill and were often the target of people traveling on trains. They were easy to kill because a buffalo will stand and face an attacker. This works when your enemy is a pack of wolves, but not when your unseen attackers are using rifles.

Buffalo didn't disappear. They're right here. In this pile
and the hundreds of piles just like this one.

The animals were skinned and the carcasses were left to rot on the land. 

Buffalo were killed, stripped of their hide and tongue and left to rot. Buffalo were eradicated with the blessing of government in a concerted effort to remove from the Plains Indians their way of life and move them onto reservations. *slow clap* Well done.

Sun Dance Ceremony

Something else that was interesting was something I noticed during a video reenacting the procedure for how buffalo was herded and stampeded over the cliff. The actors were taken from among the First Nations people and many of the young men had severe scarring on their chests. I asked Edwin if this was from a ceremony where a young brave is suspended from hooks placed in his chest and he confirmed this. He also said he has done this himself. Some traditions are alive and well among the Blackfoot in our area.


I'm going to apologize now for errors. It seems when I check for mistakes, I can only find them when I'm away from the computer and looking at the post on my phone.  Sadly, I can't edit from my phone. So they will get fixed but probably tomorrow.

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