The Blackfeet call the site Estipah-skikikini-kots. Located where the foothills of the Rocky Mountains start to emerge from the prairie 11 miles northwest of Fort Macleod in Alberta, Canada, lies a series of cliffs. It was here thousands of years ago, as Blackfoot legend has it, a young member of their nation wanted to get a different vantage point during the Blackfeet’s legendary buffalo jump. For over 5,000 years, the Blackfeet drove buffalo from their grazing area in Porcupine Hills about two miles west into “drive lanes.” It was here where the buffalo rumbled hard past what appeared to be rows of predators such as coyotes and wolves. But this was part of the Blackfoot plan, dressing up hundreds of cairns like predatory animals to keep the buffalo galloping at full speed. The 1,000-foot long cliff was impossible for the buffalo to avoid, so they stampeded right off it, breaking their legs and immobilizing themselves for the Blackfeet hunters. The young Blackfoot who wanted a novel perspective from which to view the action chose poorly; he stood below the cliff. Once the Blackfeet had removed the buffalo to a nearby camp for processing, they found their young charge. His head was smashed in.
The Buffalo jump was a vital part of the Blackfeet’s life and was a major reason they were such a advanced and complex society by the time Europeans came into contact with them in the 19th century. When the buffalo broke their legs during the fall, the Blackfeet sprung into immediate action and used every part of the animal—they crafted tools, utensils, and sewing needles out of their bones and used their tendons as fasteners and binders. They used the hides for clothing, like robes and moccasins, as well as to cover their tepees, the skins having the benefit of being helping them stay warm in winter and cool in the summer, as well as shield them from the harsh plains winds. They rendered bison fat to make soap, cleaned and prepared the bladders and stomachs for storing liquids, and used dried bison dung to fuel their fires.
And of course, the Blackfeet used the buffalo for food. They got such an overwhelming amount of food out of these buffalo runs (they boiled, roasted and dried meat for jerky, which lasts for a long time), that the Blackfeet were able to enjoy something that helped shape their culture; leisure time.
With enough food to last for a long time and no reason to hunt, the Blackfeet were able to pursue artistic and spiritual interests, and build a complex, artistically and spiritually rich society.
Today, the history of the Blackfeet at Head-Smashed-In (which was made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1981), can be experienced at the Interpretive Center, the $10 million interactive learning center built inton the ancient sandstone cliffs. The interior of the center is made up of five distinct levels which depict the mythology, lifestyle, ecology and technology of the Blackfeet with accompanying archaeological evidence. Vistors get a chance to explore the delicate ecology of the Northwestern Plains, the lifestyle of prehistoric Plains peoples, going into detail on their rich culture and way of life, their process of food gathering, their family life and their ceremonies. There is, of course, an exhibit describing exactly how the buffalo jump worked, from pre-hunt ceremonies to the hard work of gathering and driving the buffalo and concluding with the dramatic kill at the cliff. Another exhibit explores the introduction of the horse and the gun into Blackfeet society, drastically changing the way they hunted buffalo.
There are a few special events coming up that are worth mentioning:
On May 4th, there’s a “Hike to the Drive Lanes.” Here you can join a Head-Smashed-In site archaeologist and Blackfoot guides and “walk back in time to when the early plains people hunted the mighty herds of buffalo.” This hike takes you to the 5,700 year old drive lanes and explains how the buffalo runners lured the buffalo towards the jump.
On June 19th there’s a celebration recognizing First Nations’ contributions to Canadian society. The day will include Blackfoot drumming and dancing, guided facility tours, storytelling, arts and crafts displays, and traditional food sampling.
Starting on July 6th and ending on August 31st, there will be dance performances on the plaza of the center from First Nation dancers.
For more information, click here.