The casual traveler, en route from Calgary to somewhere in Montana, may be startled to see a sign on the right hand side of route 533, not far from Fort MacLeod, which reads “Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump – World Heritage Site”. The name is arresting enough, but what could possibly be in the wilds of Alberta that would have persuaded UNESCO to give it World Heritage Site designation? The answer is a fascinating insight into the customs and culture of the fiercely independent Blackfoot Indians. These fierce warriors controlled an area reaching from the North Saskatchewan River south to the Yellowstone River in Montana, and from the Cypress Hills to the Rockies.
Their main resource – for food, clothing, shelter and trade – was the American buffalo. The near extinction of bison in 1881meant a loss of their food supply and the Blackfoot had to adapt to a new way of life.
For perhaps 6000 years previously, the Blackfoot and their ancestors had “harvested” buffalo by driving them towards the edge of a steep cliff. Of course, the animals did not jump voluntarily, they were pushed. The cliff was high enough that few survived the fall, and the carcasses were then processed for meat and leather.
The head that was smashed in was not, however, that of the unfortunate buffalo. Legend has it that a foolishly curious teenager wondered what it would be like to see all these magnificent animals tumbling off the cliff and smashing into the ground below. Unfortunately, he chose his vantage point badly and was later found under the heap of buffalo bodies.
As with all UNESCO sites, this one has a discretely situated interpretation center where one learns how the hunters camped below the cliff while they butchered the buffalo. The meat was thinly sliced then hung on racks to dry in the sun. The nutritious marrow was retrieved from large leg bones by more smashing, and then the bones were boiled to render grease.
One leaves the site with an acute awareness of an ancient way of life lost to European intrusion.