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Uncovering the past...The Buffalo Jump

Article Origin


Jeff Morrow, Windspeaker Staff Writer, Ft. Macleod Alberta







Page 12

The buffalo don't roam the southern Alberta prairies any more. But for the Blackfoot Indians, who once thrived on the near extinct animal for survival, the spirit of the hunt lingers on.

Only now they're hunting for answers.

The history that lies buried deep beneath the base of one of North America's greatest cultural sites is being preserved for modern civilization which has forgotten what it's like to depend on its inherent instincts.

And at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre near Ft. Macleod, Alberta, the younger Blackfoot Indians are also searching for the clues to how their forefathers fared on the treacherous, pre-Canadian plains.

There are no diaries or documentation to leaf through for answers.

There is no longer anyone alive to give a detailed account of the mass killings of buffalos to feed the tribal families. But what the early hunters and gatherers left behind tell a story no book could ever reveal.

"It's something the kids need to learn about in order to get the depth of their existence," said elementary school teacher Steven Harris during a guided tour with five students from the Blood Tribe in Stand Off, Alberta.

"Just because you're Native don't mean you know about all this stuff."

The stuff he was referring to was the history laid out by the all-Native staff at the centre who explained the prehistoric existence of the earliest Blackfoot people.

Being at the buffalo jump site seemed more like an adventure than a school-sponsored excursion for 10 year old Sonny Crazy Boy.

A student at the Kookonnoni Elementary School near the Blood reserve, Crazy Boy said he was learning more about the history of his people than he ever has before.

"I'm really excited about being here. I never knew about the buffalo. No one ever told me," he said.

"I'm going to come back again."

It's not only the local Native who are interested in learning about the prehistoric survival tactics used by North America's Aboriginal cultures.

"The whole world is finding it fascinating," says the centre's chief interpretative officer Ken Eaglespeaker.

When the nomadic hunters stalked the buffalo during the "Dog Days" of the 1700s, Eaglespeaker said they were leaving a legacy of skill and technology that were to be adapted by their descendents.

As Native people became acquainted with the lifeways of Canadian society, and the buffalo slowly disappeared from the area, the Blackfoot Indian no longer needed to rely on the mass kill for survival.

But Indian people still hunger for the traditions handed down by Napi, the Great Spirit who created man and provided guidance during the hunting periods.

The Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre was officially opened as an historic site in 1987 to give the entire world a glimpse of ancient Native history, and Eaglespeaker says a steady flow of visitors proves there is a genuine need to

come to grips with mankind's beginnings.

"People don't come here by accident. We're too far off the main roads. They come here because they really want to know," he says.

Mare than a quarter million people have passed through the centre's halls since Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson were on hand for the grand opening.

Eaglespeaker insists the center, which was designated a world heritage site by the United Nations Education and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), is not considered a museum because if offers a more personalized explanation of past events.

The centre was developed by the Alberta Cultural and Multiculturalism department.

Eaglespeaker says the 14 member staff are made up of Blackfoot Indians trained by Native elders and archeologists to explain how the traditional hunters and gatherers tracked and killed their prey on the rolling prairies of southern Alberta.

"We're interpreters. We explain things through storytelling and films. It's an educational experience," he says.

The site, located 165 kilometres south of Calgary, isn't North America's only buffao jump, Eaglespeaker says, "but it is the most popular and well-preserved."

Alberta, which had the largest buffalo population in North America, became the prime hunting ground for the Blackfoot Tribes.

Archeologists have uncovered the remains of tribal hunting camps and a wide range of tools and hunting weapons.

One of the most intriguing discoveries has become the layers of well-preserved buffalo bones at the base of the cliff, says Hugh Dempsey, curator of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary and cultural historian.

He said the southern Alberta site is the "classic" buffalo jump and serves as an educational vehicle for both the public and science world.

"The buffalo jump is better than any history book. You're able to see just how Native people lived," he said.

Dempsey noted that the buffalo drive lanes, which are used to herd the animals off the cliff, are intact and easily displayed.

"This makes it the best preserved buffalo hunting site anywhere," he said.

The drive lanes are a series of well-placed stones resembling a funnel that leads to the cliff.

After the ancient hunters would hold rituals and prey to Napi for successful kill, "buffalo runners" dressed in animal skins would attract the herding buffalo to the lane.

Other hunters, hidden from the buffalo's view, would cause the huge animals to stampede to their deaths, 15 metres to the rocks below.

"There is still much more to find there," Dempsey said. "There are wonderful methods of excavation being developed all the time."

Larry Lewis, from Visalia, California, was on vacation in southern Alberta with his family when he heard about the buffalo jump.

"I'm a history buff, so when I heard about it, I had to come. I want my children to learn about Canada and its Native people," he said.

While the centre's average visitor is non-Native, Eaglespeaker says there are an increasing number of Native childrens' groups and adults coming to the site to learn about their ancestors.

There are a wide range of clsses and guided tours for schools and social clubs wanting to uncover the past.