View of the kill site at Head-Smashed-In
On my trip to Alberta, Canada this summer, I couldn't resist a stop at "Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump." What a great name! It begged for a visit. Head-Smashed-In is just what is says, a buffalo jump site where people herded buffalo off a cliff so they could butcher the animals and use the meat and hides. Today, this location is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has a wonderful interpretive center, and is well worth a visit.
We were excited to make this stop on our drive from Great Falls, Montana to Banff. There is ample parking at the site. If you don't want to walk from the lots to the center, you can take the shuttle bus.
This beautifully designed multi-level building is set into the hillside and follows the contours of the land. We entered the center and proceeded to the top of the building to begin our visit. We ventured outside to see the top of the "kill site." This is the cliff where the buffalo fell to their demise. The pathway is paved, and it was an easy walk to the overlook.
Walkway to the overlook
Winds blow frequently at this site, and can reach up to 150 km/hour. It was definitely a high wind day when we visited. Since we felt like we were going to be blown away at any time, we decided to have a little fun with it, and practice flying.
The guys try their luck flying in the high winds.
After visiting the top of the kill site we were pretty wind blown and headed back inside to view the movie about buffalo jumps. This film carries a warning about its graphic nature, but frankly, the films I saw about buffalo hunts in elementary school were more graphic and intense. This film is very informative and well done, and we felt it was worth our time to watch it.
Skins used for herding the buffalo.
Buffalo jumps may not be used for generations. Timing and conditions had to be right. If a herd was nearby, and the people were able to set up a camp, then a buffalo jump could proceed. First, a ceremony with the iniskin (buffalo shaped rock) was held to ensure a successful jump. Then, drive lanes were constructed on the top of the cliff area. Buffalo runners would dress in skins (pictured above) and maneuver the buffalo into the drive lanes where they would be funneled down to the cliff face. Once the buffalo fell off the cliff, the hard work of butchering the animals and preparing meat and hides began. Head-Smashed-In was a successful site used over 5,700 years because a spring of water seeps from the sandstone cliff base. Without a water source, it would have been impossible for people to camp and prepare all the buffalo at the bottom of the cliff.
Model of a buffalo jump in the interpretive center.
Head-Smashed-In was a relatively undisturbed site for many years, leaving a great archaeological record. Tools and evidence of camp life in the area help researchers learn more about the buffalo jumps. The current cliff is 10 meters high. However, because of the dense bone deposits here that extend 12 meters deep, it is believed that the jump site was twice as high 6,000 years ago.
Display of buffalo skulls in the interpretive center.
Old photographs and records give some idea of the vast numbers of buffalo that once filled these prairies, and of the numbers killed in successful buffalo jumps. One sign at the center displays this quote: "I never saw such amazing numbers together before...they immediately fill up the place like waves in the sea." --Peter Fidler, 1792. It is hard to imagine today the buffalo extending further than the eye can see. It must have been quite something.
Display of artifacts, including a hammer stone and scraper
The interpretive center has many attractive displays including animal mounts and tools and artifacts. We saw arrow heads, a teepee, and more. Signs give insights into the Blackfoot culture that was dominant in this area. We also heard from a Blackfoot volunteer while we were at the center.
Replica of a Blackfoot teepee.
One of my favorite displays was a "Winter Count Robe." Buffalo robes were used to record important events, including numbers of buffalo. The robe on display at this center is a Piegan Indian winter count robe and covers the years 1764-1879. This is one of the longest records on a buffalo robe. Symbols on the robe indicate things like an outbreak of small pox and the end of the buffalo.
Piegan winter count robe.
After we finished seeing the interpretive center, we headed out on the 1 kilometer walkway to see the buffalo jump from below. Along the way, we saw several cedar waxwings in a bush. They were smaller than I expected, but were beautiful birds.
Again, the walkway was paved and this was an easy walk. The wind was not nearly so strong at the bottom, either.
Family below the buffalo jump.
This sandstone cliff rises from the grassy Alberta prairie. It is a quiet, peaceful place today, but we could imagine it bustling with excitement and anticipation as the Blackfoot people prepared for a buffalo jump. There are other buffalo jump sites you can visit, but we highly recommend Head-Smashed-In. It is a quality experience.
Sign about the Women's Buffalo Jump
Buffalo jumps were used by generations over thousands of years. I think that is one of the things I learned that I had never really considered before...that this process of harvesting meat was handed down and used by many groups over many, many years. I liked this interpretive sign that indicated the Women's Buffalo Jump was the place where men and women decided to live together according to Blackfoot lore. This is a wonderful stop and well worth the drive.
View of the prairie from the top of the buffalo jump.
If you go: Head-Smashed-In is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The location has a cafeteria, a film, and exhibits. Tours are available, and it is wheelchair accessible. It is open daily (except Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year's Day, and Easter Sunday) from 10am to 5pm. There are extended summer hours from July to Labour Day. We saved a little on admission by buying a family pass. Head-Smashed-In is located in southwestern Alberta. It is a little out of the way, but I recommend it.