This centre is an UNESCO World Heritage Site (1981) which features Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a prehistoric custom that was practiced by the aboriginals in the area nearly 6000 years and explores why this hunting custom was carried out through their knowledge of bison behaviour. I enjoyed looking around the centre and getting to know more about the culture and the aboriginals' lifestyles.
Please see Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump for further insight on the ecological, archaeological and mythical themes of this custom.
The actual 'hunt' at HSIBJ required the efforts of the whole community to achieve a successful result. The terrain here was ideal for achieving a mass stampede of the Buffalo, starting from a bowl-shaped area on the ground above the cliffs. The herd was coaxed into position by using long rows of stone cairns stretching for many miles, and enhanced by fires, brush and branches as the time for the hunt neared. Individual warriors lined both sides of this route as others disguised in wolf skins gradually drove the animals toward the cliffs. Once enough animals had been concentrated there, the herd was stampeded up the gentle slope (which blocked any actual view of the cliffs) by others waving blankets and shouting as they tried to keep the herd between the rows of guiding stones (which are still visible today). As the lead animals came over the rise and suddenly saw the drop-off in front of them, they were unable to stop because of the weight of the herd behind pushing them forward. Other warriors were waiting below the cliffs to ensure that injured animals were quickly killed and to make sure that none escaped. Over the thousands of years that the site has been used, the skeletal remains of the Buffalo have grown to lie up to 36 feet deep at the base of the cliff.
On the flat ground below the cliffs was located the camp where women and children helped with the processing of the vast amounts of meat that had to be dealt with. This was done by means of pits of water in which hot stones were used to boil the meat taken from the animals. The tougher meat would be dried on racks for later use by the tribe. A number of traditional tipis are located on this area today.
In the photo, the cliff in the foreground is the Head-Smashed-In site, while another series of cairns directed animals to the distant cliff in the centre of the horizon, known as the Calderwood killing ground. The small peak on the horizon at the left is today still a sacred meditation site for the local Blackfoot population.
An excellent highway leads to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, with ample parking at the foot of the cliffs. The modern interpretive centre, opened in 1987, is entered at the foot of the cliffs and costs C$9 per adult (US$8). Although the centre looks from the outside like a World War II concrete coastal gun emplacement, it is unobtrusive to the environment and is very nice inside. Next to the entrance booth is a small theatre with a short film explaining the background of HSIBJ, well worth watching before continuing onward. A series of stairs and/or elevators takes visitors to the upper level of the cliffs where a walking trail leads along the cliff to the right in this photo. The actual place where the Buffalo took their final plunge is the rocky area just above the right-hand tent roof. It is a good idea to start your tour off here, where there are plaques describing how the hunt was carried out.
Upon entering the top floor again, the exhibits are arranged on four different levels as you descend back toward the entrance. Displays explain the Blackfoot way of life, the archeological digs at the site, history of the Buffalo and other local animals and how things changed with the coming of the European explorers.
The site also contains toilets and a small restaurant/snack bar.
When Europeans first arrived on the western plains of North America, the herds of buffalo (or American Bison) were so huge that they stretched for as far as the eye could see. The number of animals is estimated to have been more than 60 million and herds roamed all of central North America from the Rockies to Pennsylvania. For thousands of years, these herds had provided native Americans with food, clothing, shelter, tools and religious objects.
However, with adult males standing over 6-feet tall and weighing about 2000 pounds, a successful bison hunt in a herd of thousands of animals was not a trivial task for the aboriginal inhabitants of the continent. After all, the horse was not introduced to the native people until the 1700s in the form of wild Mustangs derived from horses that had originally been brought across the ocean by the Spaniards in the mid-1500s. Prior to this, lacking both firepower (just spears, arrows and a few stone clubs) and mobility, the buffalo herds could not be seriously hurt by any hunting activities that the aboriginals could mount. It was for these reasons that the native Americans developed the techniques that enabled them to take advantage of natural land formations such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump where many animals could be killed in one major blow, providing them with months of supplies.
Archeological evidence from sites such as HSIBJ shows that 'cliff hunting' had been used for almost 6000 years before it was abandoned in the last 200 years for the far easier method of horseback riding with rifles once this technology had been introduced by the white explorers.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is located in an area where the gently rolling Prairies suddenly rise up into the Front Ranges of the Rocky Mountains. This view shows the small hills in the foreground, due to soil deposited from glacial moraines following the melting of the large ice sheets thousands of years ago. In the background are the beginnings of the Rocky Mountains, with Chief Mountain in Montana on the left and the ranges of Waterton National Park in Alberta in the centre right. As the Prairies suddenly change into mountains, the Porcupine Hills produced an area of small cliffs ranging from about 10-18 meters high which, combined with other geographical features, presented a unique location where herds of Buffalo could be tricked into a stampede over the cliff.
The Buffalo provided native Americans with just about everything they needed to survive life on the Prairies, in both winter and summer. This included buffalo skins used to cover the poles of their tipis, skins and furs for clothing, boiled and dried meat for food, bones for tools and dishes as well as cememonial artifacts used by the chiefs and medicine men.
As a result, the large hunts that took place at HSIBJ were communal affairs, with many natives coming together to organize the hunt and then recover and process the bodies of the Buffalo so everything possible could be utilized in preparation for winter. The interpretive centre had a number of very interesting exhibits of native life and various artifacts recovered from diggings at the site. I was surprised to be reminded that, prior to the arrival of the horse, dogs were the only animals the natives had to help them lug things from one camp site to another.
Don't go up the towers at the museum in Ft. Macleod if you are scared of heights! You can walk all around the fence surrounding the museum on the catwalks built a long time ago. And yes, they sweak, and its scary. But worth it! You can see the river, the town, and the museum from up there.
When we visited the museum in Ft. Macleod, there were no other people there, which was great. It meant we got to explore the museum and exhibts more closely. We also went behind the rope to get a first hand view. I wouldn't recomend that if there are people around the catch you, as its a big no-no!
The NWMP (North West Mounted Police) Museum in Ft. Macleod is great. It was cheap to visit ($11 for 3 adults), had some great things in the gift shop ($0.35 per postcard!), and was fun. Because it really is the off season in May, we didn't see anyone else there. You get to go into the buildings, up in the towers, and walk around the grounds. They also have a musical ride, where the mounties come out and ride the horses, but that only takes place on certain days, so if you want to see it, check with the museum first.