Saturday, July 14, 2018

Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump (June 28)

On the morning of June 28 we headed to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump to meet up with my parents and visit the interpretive center there. Andrew was rather excited to go when he learned that it's a UNESO World Heritage site, due to it being "one of the oldest, most extensive, and best preserved sites that illustrate communal hunting techniques and the way of life of Plains people." Other buffalo jump sites were, to put it politely, prematurely "excavated" (read: raided) by settlers who didn't care about preserving a record for history (or about allowing the aboriginal people access to their hunting lands). Often railroads would run along cliff sides, which is where the jumps occurred. Head-Smashed-In, however, was a more remote location so it remained untouched—and in use—until about 200 years ago.

I didn't take many pictures, but that's alright because Benjamin thoroughly enjoyed the experience and has obsessively been drawing pictures of it ever since. Here we are getting our wrist bands at the entrance to the museum:

heDsmahst ni bafulo jump

You tour the museum from the top floor down, from the past to the present. At the top you also walk out on an observation deck to look at the cliffs, which are now only 10 metres high (about 32 feet).



When the hunts began, thousands of years ago, the cliffs were 20 metres high but they're a bit shorter after having thousands of years of debris built up at the base of the cliff. It really is quite a surprising drop in the middle of the prairie:


There's a little hiking trail along the bottom of the cliff as well, but we didn't do that hike because it was cold and windy and rainy and none of us had warm enough jackets for that.


Once inside we got to hear some aboriginal tales about the hunt and the seasons and things. They were illustrated stories (on a screen) and the children were riveted.


The "menu" for the stories was pretty neat (it wasn't really a menu because I think the movie played on a continuous loop, so perhaps it was more like a contents of sorts). I think it must have been based on a "count robe," like this one, which keeps a history of things that have happened to the tribe (working from the inside, out, in a circle):

Don't worry; Zoë is leaning on the glass, not touching the robe
There were different symbols on a virtual blanket and each time a new story began, a different symbol would be highlighted and then the blanket would spin into a new story. It was pretty cool.

Here's Zoë interpreting some of the symbols she saw on the count robe:



Here are the kids with Bumpa and Naanii by a teepee:


And here is Zoë talking to some poor buffalo who are about to go off a cliff:


Can you guess who my museum buddy was? If you guessed Zoë...you're probably right, since she's in nearly every picture I took. 

We saw a very interesting movie about how the hunts would happen. The people would build rock cairns forming a funnel-like alley leading to the cliff. They'd stick branches in the cairns, whose leaves would rustle in the wind, making the buffalo feel it was a solid, impenetrable wall. A couple of hunters would dress in wolf skins, to make the herd feel uneasy, and one hunter would play the role of a buffalo calf. When the winds were just right, the faux baby buffalo would start bleating as if it were in danger, then the wolves would start chasing the herd from the rear, and hunters hiding behind the cairns would jump up and start whooping and waving blankets in the wind. The pandemonium would set the buffalo stampeding toward the edge of the cliff (where other hunters waited so they could kill any buffalo that didn't die on impact).

There is everything in this picture, right down to the branches in the cairns.
It seems pretty dramatic to take an entire herd in one fell swoop, but that was much more sustainable than hunting buffalo nonstop by the thousands...like the European settlers did when they started taking over. Believing that buffalo, like everything else on the plant, were a sustainable, inexhaustible resource given to mankind, buffalo were hunted into near extinction (which threatened the way of life for tribes, such as the Blackfoot, who were then coerced into signing treaties with the settlers in order to simply survive). Fun times, history was.


In the most modern exhibit featured a little excavation pit and a lot of discussion about piecing together history. From soil samples, they've discovered nearly 6000 years' worth of buffalo jumps (different types of arrowheads would be used in different times, etc). There's even, randomly, a period of approximately 1000 years where no buffalo jumps took place (with only theories as to why that was).


Learning why this particular jump is called Head-Smashed-In was interesting. I'd always assumed it was because that's what happened to the buffalo's head when it fell off the cliff, but I was wrong!

The legend is that many, many years ago one of the hunters decided he wanted an exciting, unique view of the hunt, so he climbed out on a ledge of the cliff so that when the buffalo stampeded they would pass right in front of him, like a waterfall of buffalo. Unfortunately, it was an abundant year so there were many more buffalo than he had planned on. The carcasses of the giant beasts stacked up higher and higher until they had smothered this poor hunter. By the time he was found he had been smashed up against the cliffside, the weight of the buffalo having...smashed his head in.



It's only a slightly gruesome tale, and one which fascinated Benjamin, of course. He didn't quite understand that the young hunter was on the face of the cliff, rather than on the ground below, but he did manage to get him into the above picture. Can you spot him?



These are the type of pictures my little boy draws during sacrament meeting now. He likes to give his drawings away to random people but I always rifle through his stack of papers prior to him running off and remove pictures like this (leaving only rainbows and sunshine and things like that) because I don't know that any recipient would really understand what was going on in these gruesome, violent-looking pictures.

It's not Benjamin's fault. He just loves buffalo now.



He and Zoë spent the rest of our vacation pretending the were buffalo, pretending they were hunting buffalo, or pretending something else was either buffalo or hunting buffalo. It's still not uncommon to find them leaping off the couch shrieking, "Jump off the cliff! Jump off the cliff!"

Anyway, here's Miriam walking back down to the parking lot with me:



Everyone was rather hungry by the time we'd finished with our tour. We could have eaten at the cafe on site, but one buffalo burger goes for about $16 (or 12 USD) so we decided to just head to High River (only about an hour away) to eat at Tim Horton's (worth it). I'm not sure I could have eaten a buffalo burger, anyway. I have this thing about game meat...

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