Porcupine Hills- one of the many hunting sites in Alberta
Taking in Alberta’s enormous cattle ranches and hector upon hector of cornfields, it’s hard for me to grasp how richly the area is soaked in history. In fact, it never dawned on me at all when I first moved back here in 2003. (I was born in northern Alberta, but my family left when I was just 3.) As it turns out, the province has very strong Native American roots and bragging rights to the largest deposit of dinosaur remains in the world. Discovering these layers of history has become an intriguing way of learning about a world I thought I’d left behind at a very young age. The thrilling Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is just the beginning.
The aboriginal people of the North American Plains were experts in topography and the behaviour of buffalo, and their method of using both for their own survival was ingenious. For nearly 6,000 years, the native people chased the herds of buffalo throughout the Porcupine Hills, southern Alberta and beyond. Why? For food! But catching the ox-like animals, which travel in tight herds led by dominant females, wasn’t easy. Although buffalo have poor eyesight, they have an amazing sense of smell. This made hunting them a challenge; the clever method they developed explains the odd “head-smashed-in” name of the place.
A model of how camps were set-up
“Drive lanes” were decorated with stone cairns, and below the cliffs, camps buzzed with the sounds of boiling pits and the carving of weapons and other tools needed to prepare a buffalo to eat. Once the wind started to blow over the cliffs, towards the basin, it was time. The winds made it virtually impossible for the buffalo to smell the danger ahead, so the North American Plains people skillfully drove them right to the edge of the cliffs – and then off the sides, to their dramatic deaths.
I began my tour of the area with a short walk outside to the very cliff tops where herds of buffalo once met their dramatic endings. The wind up there was insane, and I was the only person out there at the time, which I loved. After a few minutes of being whipped around by the powerful gusts, I walked back to the interpretative centre to walk through the exhibits. I was taking notes about Napi (more on that later) when Little Leaf, an anthropologist and former teacher, approached me. Within minutes, my experience at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump shot from a standard museum/art gallery type visit to an enthralling educational experience that lasted more than two hours.
During our time together, Little Leaf was kind enough to share some Blackfoot history he had recorded on a video. If you have some time, take a look. He’s a wonderful storyteller, and I could have listened to him for hours and hours. Before you click play, think of something Little Leaf said to me before filming: when talking about Native Americans “… It is more than feathers and beads”.
Little Leaf was an entertaining man who took time to speak with me about the Blackfoot people. He talked at length about the difference between today’s Native American children and their ancestors. I found it fascinating, and a little scary, that only 2-3% of modern Native American children know and practice their traditional beliefs. As time has progressed, more and more Native American children are forsaking their own customs in an effort to fit into the Western culture. The result? Native American languages and traditions are dying. This cultural genocide is a horrifying thought. There are so few full-blooded Native Americans still around, and even less who know and speak their language and are familiar with their legends. Theirs is no longer a co-operative environment; things have become more individualistic, more Western. Oh, how I could talk and talk about this topic, but I think it’s best to leave it for another post.
In 1981, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump became a World Heritage Site, and its Interpretive Centre opened its doors in December 1986. Open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the centre is designed for visitors to start at the top and work their way back down, which I found an exciting break from the norm. After viewing the hunting sites outside, I hiked up to Level 1, where visitors learn about Napi, the mythical creator of the Blackfoot people. A series of boards illustrate the creation of life and the nature and habits of buffalo: “After Napi had the earth all made, he took up some mud and made the shape of a buffalo…”
An oversized tipi reigns over the second level, Napi’s People, which boasts various artifacts, like buffalo hide, which visitors are encouraged to touch. Level 3 brings visitors to the Hunt, where one learns about the drives, and Level 4 is Cultures in Contact. There, visitors learn about the Europeans’ affect on native buffalo culture when they arrived in the early 18th century, toting unforeseen wonders like guns and horses. It’s at that time in history that the traditions and culture of the North American Plains people began to change and, in my opinion, started to decline, as they strove to adapt to Western ways.
At the beginning of Level 5 is a small 80-seat theatre, which shows a 15 min re-enactment video about the hunts. (It’s actually suggested that visitors watch the video first, before beginning their tour, so they can picture how the hunts worked.) The remainder of Level 5 focuses on the archeological aspects of the site, with boards on more modern tools, maps and how discoveries were made.
Head-Smashed-In is not just another stop to make on your tourist list; in fact if you’re planning to visit for the sake of saying you were there, don’t bother. You’re cheating yourself if you do. This site is rich in Native American culture and has powerful spiritual ties to its people. If you plan on having an “experience,” you’ve picked the right spot! Go with excitement and an open mind. If Little Leaf is walking around, stop and talk with him, as he’s a wealth of knowledge. The purpose of the centre is to share knowledge and culture, and the staff are more than happy to answer any questions you may have. Who knows, maybe you’ll encounter one of the spirits Little Leaf talked to me about!
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and The Interpretative Centre are located about 16kms northwest of Fort Macleod, Alberta. Admission fees: Adults $9, Seniors $8, Youth 7-17 $5, Family $22 and children under 7 are FREE.
I’d like to take a moment to thank Conrad (the name the government gave him) Little Leaf for speaking with me about the site and Blackfoot and Native culture. If you’d like to learn more about the current struggles of Native American people, refer to the Indian Act here: http://laws.justice.gc.ca/en/I-5/.