Here's where you get to be a buffalo or a buffalo runner
The wind is strong from the east. Our jackets flap, our hair tangles and our invisible scent carries with the wind. If it was our day for driving the buffalo over the edge of the cliff, we’d go hungry. The massive mammals would have smelled us long ago and thundered away. At Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump World Heritage Site near Fort McLeod, you find out just how much that buffalo meant for survival for the Blackfoot Nation.
A visit to this architectural award-winning World Heritage Site is a #BucketListAB must do – if you can find it. To avoid tampering and disturbing the flow of the landscape, the centre sits camouflaged in the hillside where the foothills of Alberta meet the Great Plains. The sandstone building is recessed into the bluff and many visitors would drive by if they didn’t see the flags flapping in the wind.
Life on the ancient prairie
Inside, the story of life on the prairie unfolds, following the nomadic life of the First Nations Peoples who based their survival on teeming herds of buffalo. The presentations start on the top floor, displaying how First Nations people survived thousands of years with only their skills, strength and spiritual beliefs. Soft voices speak to you from rocks and wall murals, telling stories of why and how the spirits created the land. Legends suddenly appear on boulders as you walk by, murals flow down the wall so the story doesn’t break as you move through the levels of time. In the background, the soft beating of the drum and songs accompany your journey.
Looking at the artifacts and replicas of the tools of life, you can’t help but appreciate the ingenuity that evolved into the hunting of the buffalo. It took the cooperation of many families and clans to pull off a successful buffalo jump.
Sunrise and smoke
Every part of the hunt was calculated. Each person had a job. That wind that blew our jackets, hair and scent would be used by the hunters. The kill would be on a day it floated from the west. Draped in smelly buffalo skins, the “buffalo runners” would mask their scent, creep near the herd, inching them into V-shaped driving lanes closer to the cliff. The final drive would be purposely planned for dawn. A small, smoky fire would cause a little panic and just as the sun rose in the east, the buffalo runners would scare the herd towards the cliff. With the blinding sunlight, the buffalo had no idea what was beyond the next step.
“I like to call the buffalo a “four-legged Walmart,” says Quinton Crowshoe, a spokesperson at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Crowshoe is a direct descendant of those people that followed the herds.
“Our ancestors used almost every part of the buffalo. Without the annual buffalo hunt, they would never have survived the winter on the prairie. It was a huge part of our culture and we are proud to tell the stories in many ways at the centre. The Piskun experience is very popular.”
Mondays and Fridays in July and August the three-hour immersive experience not only tells you about buffalo hunting, but you can immerse yourself in the experience. It begins with the traditional Blackfoot blessing with the burning of sweet grass, then learning to use an ancient spear thrower followed by tasting dried buffalo meat. You really get a sense of being there.
Then you participate in a mini buffalo jumping, re-enacting roles from buffalo runners to driving buffalo (people get to be buffalo, too) to spearing the animal. Not only is it educational, it’s a fun experience for all ages.
Other special events are held throughout the summer including hikes to the drive lanes where you can see the Rocky Mountains to the west and well, forever to the east. Geocaching, drumming and dancing events, and harvest celebrations are also held. Check the full line of events on the official site here .
Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump is open year-round. Here’s a hint – the quiet winter is the perfect time to slow down and absorb the wonderful displays. Interpreters from the Blackfoot Nation are on hand and have wonderful stories to tell that have been passed on through generations.
Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump World Heritage Site is 160 km south of Calgary on Highway 2. Watch for the giant metal buffalo sign at Highway 785. Turn west and at 16 km you will still be looking for the building, but it’s there hidden in the cliffs. Click here to access the map.