Society for American Archaeology, Best Book Award, Popular Writing Category, 2009
City of Edmonton Book Prize, Best Non-Fiction, 2009
Calgary Public Library Foundation Literary Awards, Best Adult Non-Fiction, 2009
Alberta Book Publishing Award, Best Trade Non-Fiction, 2009
Canadian Archaeological Association, Public Communications Award, 2009
The Archaeological Institute of America Felicia A. Holton Award for best popular archaeology book of the year, 2012
“Brink combines years of archaeological experience with ethnohistorical research, modern biological knowledge and master storytelling abilities into a potent investigation of an ancient Great Plains phenomenon―the mass bison hunt.”
Ian Dyck, Curator of Plains Archaeology, Canadian Museum of Civilization
“This is a wonderful book. It is written in a way that captures the character and spirit of the great buffalo kills of the Plains. Brink draws together archaeology, Post-Contact historical information, and First Nations perspectives better than any other author I can think of.”
Douglas Bamforth, Professor of Anthropology, University of Colorado at Boulder
“Chock full of First Nations culture, Imagining Head-Smashed-In is unlike most history books you are likely to read … (Brink’s) knowledge about the area (and) his subject is keen and colourful … Brink has done an outstanding job of bringing the past to the present … [written in a] down-to-earth, matter-of-fact style that highlights the author’s brilliant storytelling ability. An outstanding book with a unique tale to tell.”
Alberta Native News
“An important and engaging book … this is an easy-going, almost conversational narrative, but it’s easy to detect the author’s passion and the solid science … I cannot recommend this volume highly enough to professional archaeologists, to Native Americans, and to anybody interested in a good read about the deep history of North America.”
David Hurst Thomas, Great Plains Research
“[The author] presents a deeply felt and frequently poetic narrative in which he not only gives us a solid introduction to the issues of Northern Plains archaeology, but also brings his experience with this magical site into play.”
“Jack W. Brink, who knows more than anyone else about the hunting of buffalo by natives … tells us most of it, and makes this reader grateful for his ability to handle rich detail. In his hands [the story] becomes absorbing, dramatic and almost urgent.”
Robert Fulford, National Post
“The book is scholarly in the scope of its research, but Brink is a rare combination of scientist and storyteller.”
“This profusely illustrated work takes readers on a journey through a history of Head-Smashed-In … Brink’s great depth of knowledge of the site, its history and context, and its development is evident on every page, as is his intense respect for the First Nations people … written in a highly engaging and personal style for a broad audience. Brink makes what easily could be a very dry treatise a delight to read.”
Canadian Journal of Archaeology
Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains
This is for my mother, Jenny Lou.
And for my late father, consummate journalist William J. Brink Jr., wishing that I had the benefit of his keen editorial eye to whip this book into shape.
Long ago, in the winter time, the buffalo suddenly disappeared. The snow was so deep that the people could not move in search of them, for in those days they had no horses … the people began to starve. One day, a young married man killed a jack-rabbit. He was so hungry that he ran home as fast as he could, and told one of his wives to hurry and get some water to cook it. While the young woman was going along the path to the river, she heard a beautiful song … The song seemed to come from a cotton-wood tree near the path. Looking closely at this tree she saw a queer rock jammed in a fork, where the tree was split, and with it a few hairs from a buffalo, which had rubbed there. The woman was frightened and dared not pass the tree. Pretty soon the singing stopped, and the I-nis-kim spoke to the woman and said: ‘Take me to your lodge, and when it is dark, call in the people and teach them the song you have just heard. Pray, too, that you may not starve, and that the buffalo may come back. Do this, and when day comes, your hearts will be glad.’ The woman … took the rock and gave it to her husband, telling him about the song and what the rock had said. As soon as it was dark, the man called the chiefs and old men to his lodge, and his wife taught them this song. They prayed, too, as the rock had said should be done. Before long, they heard a noise far off. It was the tramp of a great herd of buffalo coming. Then they knew that the rock was very powerful, and, ever since that, the people have taken care of it and prayed to it.
George Bird Grinnell, Blackfoot Lodge Tales
CHAPTER 1: THE BUFFALO JUMP
Communal Buffalo Hunting
Not Just Any Cliff
How Long Have Buffalo Jumped?
Blood on the Rocks: The Story of Head Smashed-In
CHAPTER 2: THE BUFFALO
Is it Bison or Buffalo?
In Numbers, Numberless
Tricks of the Trade
The Fats of Life
CHAPTER 3: A YEAR IN THE LIFE
The Big Picture
Science and the Historic Record
The Seasonal Round
The Season of Buffalo Jumping
CHAPTER 4: THE KILLING FIELDS
Points in Time
Back to the Drive Lanes
In Small Things Forgotten
CHAPTER 5: ROUNDING UP
The Spirit Sings
The Nose of the Buffalo
Fire this Time
Luring the Buffalo
The End of the Drive
Of Illusions, Pickup Trucks, and Curves in the Road
CHAPTER 6: THE GREAT KILL
Leap of Faith
Drop of Death
Bones on Fire
Let the Butchering Begin
Bison Hide as Insulator
Back to the Assembly Line
CHAPTER 7: COOKING UP THE SPOILS
The Processing Site
Day Fades to Night
Grease is the Word
High Plains Cooking
Hazel Gets Slimed
Time for a Roast
Where Are the Skulls?
Packing Up, Among the Bears
CHAPTER 8: GOING HOME
Snow Falling on Cottonwoods
CHAPTER 9: THE END OF THE BUFFALO HUNT
The Skin of the Animal
The Last of the Buffalo Jumps
Rivers of Bones
Final Abandonment of Head-Smashed-In
CHAPTER 10: THE PAST BECOMES THE PRESENT
A Beer-Soaked Bar Napkin
Cranes on the Cliff
A Rubber Cliff
And a Rubber Dig
The Blackfoot Get Involved
Meeting with the Piikani
A Painted Skull
Where Are the Blood?
Opening and Aftermath
Of Time and Tradition
EPILOGUE: JUST A SIMPLE STONE
A Thousand Years Ago
Three Months Later
Three Days Later
Sources to Notes
Archaeology on the northern plains spans the second half of the twentieth century. Although people had found objects from the old stone age, the dedicated inquiry that goes with the profession only appeared when universities and museums supported researchers. These curators and professors, such as Richard Forbis (1919–1999) and Marie Wormington (1914–1994), made their occupation the full time search for traces of ancient people. That first generation brought with them the methods of an observational science. Their immediate goal was to systematically excavate through the different strata and record their findings. Their long-term objective was to make sense of the artifacts and features in order to understand the cultural history of the northern plains. Their motivation was to establish a chronology or devise a taxonomy from patterns in the material culture they unearthed. More importantly, they trained the students who would pick up the task of interpreting the archaeological record and find the explanations that fit the data.
From then to the present generation, the sites that persistently pique the imagination are the enigmatic buffalo jumps. Interpreting the archaeological record may seem like trying to find answers in the entrails of a badger. However, archaeologists possess many methods that help them understand the life and culture of people who in ancient times called the northern plains their home. The modern era in archaeology benefits from breakthroughs in other disciplines, but in return archaeologists contribute food for thought. Like many in this profession, Jack Brink feels fortunate that he can conduct research that continuously stokes the sense of wonder that makes his job worthwhile. He also recognizes that there exists strong public interest in archaeological work and that we have a duty to report the results of our inquiries in an accessible manner. Thus he can inject his wry sense of humour into the text to illustrate a point he wants to make.
When Jack began his studies in archaeology he was able to concentrate on that topic at university. As a young student he learned his trade from his elder academics, but he was not content to merely absorb data. He has devoted his career to expanding the knowledge base he inherited from them. Of course the challenge for him was not just to look for answers, but also to look for questions. What re-mains to be done in northern plains archaeology? What questions will preoccupy the current generation of archaeologists? You might well ask. Jack certainly has. He has picked up the task initiated by his intellectual predecessors and continues to look for insights amid the buffalo jumps. The reader will easily find the humanity in both the author and his subject. Nowhere is there a hint of the stereotypical researcher preoccupied with minutiae while ignoring the big picture around him.
Curiosity and wonder drew Jack to the cliffs and crevices that fired his imagination. This memoir of his contemplations about the buffalo jumps, and other artifacts of ancient people, is a synthesis of his life’s work. Together with his knowledge he takes on the role of storyteller, relating the personal anecdotes that spiced up his research. He also poses challenges for the next generation. What research questions will they formulate to imagine the northern plains in ancient times? How will they use the knowledge they gain? Well, that is up to them to determine, but at least they will have Jack Brink’s narrative to guide their thoughts.
The vantage point from his perspective is similar to the expansive view of the plains from the edge of the precipice. His endeavours have culminated with this inspired volume. From his pen flows a quixotic tour through archaeology; with his own practical guide for imagining northern plains antiquity, including all the blood and guts. More than anything, Jack shows us yet again that buffalo do not jump; they have to be pushed!
Dept. of Archaeology/First Nations Studies
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC, Canada
A great archaeologist once told me not to let facts get in the way of a good story. For the most part I have ignored that advice. In the following pages I have tried to make an ancient, dusty, nearly forgotten story come alive. To do so I have had to expand my assumptions and my thinking well beyond the realm of facts. Over twelve thousand years of residency in North America, the Native inhabitants left us no written records of their dreams and aspirations, or of anything else. To put flesh on the skeletons of these people’s lives we have to dream along with them. Capturing people and events that disappeared from our world centuries ago requires a judicious helping of imagination, hence the title of this book.
The book isn’t about what are traditionally considered the great historic achievements of our species. There are no magnificent cities built, no colossal monuments erected, no gigantic statues carved, no kingdoms conquered. It was very much this deviation from classical concepts of “civilization” that motivated me to write this book. Modern society seems to equate human achievement with monumental substance and architectural grandeur. Asked to name the greatest accomplishments of ancient cultures you would certainly hear of the Great Wall of China, Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids, and the civilizations that ruled Greece and Rome. Shunted off to the side are many ancient cultures that achieved greatness through their skill, knowledge, and ingenuity – cultures that managed to survive in demanding environments for extraordinary lengths of time without leaving towering monuments to themselves. In the coming pages I hope to show how simple lines of rocks stretching across the prairies are every bit as inspirational as rocks piled up in the shape of a pyramid.
This is a book about one of the truly remarkable accomplishments in human history. It is the story of an unheralded, unassuming, almost anonymous group of people who hunted for a living. They occupied an open, windswept, often featureless tract of land. They lived in conical skin tents that they lugged around with them in their search for food. A life of nearly constant motion negated permanent villages and cumbersome material possessions. They shared this immense landscape with herds of a wild and powerful beast – the largest animal on the continent. In a land virtually without limits, people of seemingly unsophisticated hunting societies managed to direct huge herds of buffalo to pinpoint destinations where ancient knowledge and spiritual guidance taught them massive kills could be achieved. It was an event that guaranteed survival of the people for months to come, a process that ensured their existence for millennia. Using their skill and their astonishing knowledge of bison biology and behaviour, bands of hunters drove great herds of buffalo over steep cliffs and into wooden corrals. In the blink of an eye they obtained more food in a single moment than any other people in human history. How they accomplished this is a story as breathtaking in scope and complexity as the country in which the events unfolded.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta, Canada, is but one of many places where herds of bison were brought to their deaths by the Native inhabitants of the Plains. It forms the nucleus around which my story unfolds. But this is not so much the story of one place, one people, or one time. It is the story of countless people who thrived over an enormous expanse of time and territory by orchestrating mass kills of bison. There were two reasons I wanted to write this book. First, to bring to a wider audience a story that I felt was so compelling and inspirational that it should not be allowed to fade from contemporary memory. And second, to do justice to the people who orchestrated these remarkable events.
For the most part I have built my story around the fascinating accounts of early explorers, fur traders and missionaries who roamed the Great Plains and witnessed the final episodes of traditional hunting. That these important records are flawed is a given; the authors often felt compelled to embellish their stories and to overlay their own social values on the Native people they encountered – seldom in a way that favoured the Aboriginal characters. Yet they provide a richness of detail that the archaeological record alone could never supply. There is nothing quite comparable to the words, reactions, and sentiments of those who were at the scene of the great buffalo kills. When Henry Youle Hind stood beside the rotting carcasses of a Cree buffalo pound in the 1850s and remarked, “it is needless to say that the odour was overpowering, [with] millions of large blue flesh flies, humming and buzzing over the putrefying bodies,” nothing that I could imagine, or add, could convey this in the sense of his own words. Notes at the end of the book provide reference for the citations. A much more extensive bibliography, organized by chapter, is available at www.aupress.ca.
While there is an authority and immediacy to historical records, using them comes with a cost. Aside from the obvious issue of bias, reliance on historical records compresses the element of time. Europeans witnessed bison killing on the Plains for little more than a century and a half; a mere fraction of the span of Aboriginal history. By telling the story from a historical perspective, I am essentially telling how the last hunting of bison took place. In so doing I mask some important events that transpired on the Great Plains over many millennia. Animal species changed, populations rose and fell, severe droughts came and went. The buffalo hunting that I describe is true to a period and a place. It is not the only story of buffalo hunting on the Plains. It is not likely the one that consumed the bulk of the time people in which have occupied this region. What the long view of archaeology teaches us, that historical records cannot, is that nothing ever persists unchanged over great spans of time. Stretching over six hundred generations of Plains life, we should expect nothing less than an ebb and flow of different people and different cultural adaptations across the vast prairies.
Perhaps as well as any bison kill site, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump documents the complex, fluid nature of prehistoric life on the Great Plains. Herds of buffalo were first driven over the cliff at Head-Smashed-In nearly six thousand years ago; a time when no other buffalo jump in North America was being used. How do we explain such an early use of this site? In short order Head-Smashed-In was abandoned, possibly for as long as two thousand years. What’s that all about? Why would people walk away from an ingenious trap, the tricks of which they had clearly mastered? Then about two thousand years ago, Head-Smashed-In became a veritable cornucopia of bison killing. So rich in bones and artifacts are these more recent kill events that some (including me) have argued that the great buffalo kills had evolved into “factories,” producing bison products beyond the immediate needs of the people, products destined for trade to distant regions of North America.
These are stories that document the unceasing flux of ancient life across the Great Plains and beyond. They are important and incredibly interesting, but I can’t address them all. I have directed my efforts to capture just a snapshot of the saga of buffalo hunting in North America. Snapshots have inherent limitations – they freeze a moment in time, failing to illuminate a subject in the moments before and after the captured event. The rest I leave to another author.
Finally, the pages that follow document a personal journey – one of exploration, bewilderment, and exhilaration. In an academic sense the journey is unconventional; it is filled with my own experiences, many of them part of my own process of discovery. And it begs the reader to traverse the vastness of the Great Plains and the cultures of its Aboriginal inhabitants along with me.
It has been a long journey, taken with the help of many people. None more so than Dr. William J. Byrne. Bill first hired me as a staff member of the Archaeological Survey of Alberta and gave me the opportunity to take on the Head-Smashed-In project. Without Bill’s years of friendship and support I would never have been in a position to write this book. Dr. Frits Pannekoek, then the Director of the Historic Sites Service, gave me free reign to pursue research and development at Head-Smashed-In. Later, as President of Athabasca University, Frits was instrumental in getting this book to press.
Thorough and thoughtful reviews of the entire manuscript were undertaken by Drs. Douglas Bamforth, Bill Byrne, and Ian Dyck. Colleagues who read and commented on select parts of the book include Susan Berry, Sheila Greer, Bob Hudson, and Wes Olson. All of these folks improved the book and kept me from making a number of mistakes. Thanks to Drs. Brian Reeves and Brian Kooyman for their important work at Head-Smashed-In allowing my use of information I have gleaned from their studies.
I have benefited greatly from the writings of and conversations with Dr. George Frison. His impressive knowledge of bison, bison hunting, and buffalo kill sites has influenced my thinking and my writing in ways I no longer recognize. Norm Cool, Dr. Cormack Gates, Dr. Bob Hudson, Wes Olson, and Hal Reynolds have aided me immeasurably in my understanding of bison behaviour and biology.
Thanks to Wes Olson and Johane Janelle for permission to reproduce drawings and photographs of bison from their personal collection and from their beautiful book, Portraits of the Bison. Thanks also to Clarence Tillenius and Shayne Tolman for permission to use their artwork. And to Jeannine Green at the University of Alberta, Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, for permission to use images from their fine collection.
Archaeologist Bob Dawe has worked with me on the Head-Smashed-In project from the moment it began. His contribution to the development, archaeological excavation, and on-going operation of the site is immeasurable. Milt Wright worked with Bob and me through the early years of the project. Milt turned in yeoman’s work on the excavation and site development, always with a sense of dedication and humour that has no equal. Dr. Caroline Hudecek-Cuffe helped me excavate at Head-Smashed-In, and decades later helped even more by shepherding this book towards publication. Initially conscripted to assist with images, Caroline morphed into a researcher, editor, fact checker, indexer, late-night email confidant, and most importantly – after being the very first person to read the manuscript – a believer. I hope that finally seeing this in print is partial compensation for the enormous contribution that Caroline made in getting it there. When the book was still in its infancy, Dr. Claire Allum was the second person to read it. Her comments, encouragement, and kindness are remembered. Karen Giering helped in many ways as I struggled towards the finish. Thank you, Karen.
Staff of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump have been my comrades in arms for more than two decades. It would be impossible to name all that have passed through my life and through the interpretive centre during this time, but I have to single out a few and hope that those not named will know that they have all been a part of this great story: Delorale Brown, Ken Carson, Ian Clarke, Alan Collar, Quinton Crowshoe, Ken Eagle Speaker, Linda Eagle Speaker, Dennis Erich, Blair First Rider, Ronald Four Horns, Trina Healy, Susan Koots, Terry Malone, Jim Martin, Pat Ness, Leo Pard, Louisa Crowshoe, Florence Pilling, Travis Plaited Hair, Trevor Kitokii, Angie Provost, Dean Smith, Jacinta Wells, and Chris Williams. Special thanks to the late Walter Crowshoe, the kindest man and greatest ambassador the site has ever known. And to the late Lorraine Good Striker, the great matriarch of the jump, whose vision and dedication we are committed to honouring. Reg Crowshoe became a friend and instructor in Blackfoot culture. Reg, and the late Sam Good Rider, were instrumental in helping me during interviews with Blackfoot elders, and in telling jokes in Blackfoot at my expense. Thanks to Billy Strikes With A Gun and Nick Smith for sharing so much.
Likewise, I can’t name all crew members who worked on my digs over the years but want to single out a few: Harley Bastine, Rita Morning Bull, Hazel Big Smoke, Jody Dersch, Chris Hughes, Caroline Hudecek-Cuffe, Karie Hardie, John Priegert, Maureen Rollans, Dennis Sandgathe, Tim Schowalter, Craig Shupe, and the volunteer efforts in the field of the late Armin Dyck and his wife, Gerry, and in the lab Morris and Elsie White.
Cattle ranchers living close to the jump treated my crews with courtesy and friendship that can’t be described until you reside in ranching country. The Dersch family, Harvey and the late Collette and their children, opened their home, barbeque, arrowhead collection, and beer fridge to us, and shared their long history of three generations’ living next to the jump. Jim and Denise Calderwood, and their land managers Paul and Patty Runion, treated us with grace, respect, and made their land our land. John and Donna Viens of Fort Macleod invited my crew to their home for countless pizza dinners and games of bocce. To Connie and Don at the Sunset, I am your guest forever.
The late Joe Crowshoe and his remarkable wife, the late Josephine, welcomed me into their home, their lives and their culture. Joe and Josephine influenced me – and hence this book – in ways that I may never fully appreciate. Their spirit lives on inside and outside the great buffalo jump. I am indebted to Josephine Crowshoe and Lisa Monsees for appropriation of their character and their spirit. I thank the staff of the Royal Alberta Museum for their support.
Sylvia Vance edited this book, but she also championed it, massaged it, coaxed it (and me) along. To you, Sylvia, my heartfelt thanks. Walter Hildebrandt, Director of Athabasca University Press, welcomed this unconventional “academic” book and embraced it as a project for his press. Erna Dominey, Senior Editor at AUP, helped in myriad ways. She tightened up my bloated prose, caught mistakes, defended my rights as author and – most astonishingly – made it fun. Many thanks, Erna.
The opinions expressed in this book are strictly my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer, the Government of Alberta. I receive no remuneration from the sale of this book. Royalties normally directed to the author have been redirected to the Cross Cancer Institute, Edmonton, Alberta.
To Jonathan Thatcher and Arryn Bronson who stuck with an absentee father.
The Buffalo Jump
[The prairies are a] vast and worthless area … a region of savages and wild beasts, of deserts … cactus and prairie dogs … to what use could we ever hope to put these great deserts? – Daniel Webster cited in Lewis Henry Morgan, 1859–62
These great Plains appear to be given by Providence to the Red Men for ever, as the wilds and sands of Africa are given to the Arabians. – David Thompson, 1784–1812
A couple of dusty pickup trucks ease their way off the gravel road onto the hard, baked prairie. The archaeology crew drops to the ground, dressed in hi-tech hiking boots, white sport socks, shorts made of space-age material with countless pockets and zippers, T-shirts and ball caps emblazoned with a variety of logos, dumb jokes, and names of rock bands. Shovels, pails, and toolboxes in hand, they shuffle over towards the imposing sandstone cliff, setting up for another day of routine work. Within moments their casual stride has them standing on soil where, long ago, people once ran frantically in all directions, their hide clothing covered in blood and guts, shouting instructions, whooping with excitement, sometimes crying in anguish, all trying to kill buffalo and to get out of the way of the wounded ones determined to kill them first. The screens for sifting soil from the dig are hung from tripods made of two-by-four lumber, set up at the same place where tens of thousands of bison came flying over the edge of a high cliff – the thundering of the deadly stampede ending with an eerie moment of silence as the animals became airborne, followed immediately by a series of horrible thuds, bellowing, and groans as the massive bodies slammed onto the earth and into each other. The crew members swing their legs into the excavation pits, dragging their simple digging tools with them, inspecting the dense layers of smashed bison bones they were working on the day before – the very same bones that once supported the mighty buffalo whose blood flowed into the parched soil and whose subsequent butchering left behind mounds of steaming entrails, wretched stomach contents, and stinking excrement. As you set up a lawn chair and pour the first cup of coffee from your thermos, it can seem a little incongruous. Welcome to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.
The archaeological crew and the ancient buffalo hunters occupied the exact same place on the earth, just separated by time. When you become attuned to studying the past, it can be a strange and humbling experience to know that you are walking on the very same patch of earth as did people who, not such a long time ago, were of an utterly different culture and walked it under such unimaginably different circumstances.
There may be no other type of archaeological site that can match the drama, can fire the imagination, and has a story as utterly compelling as that of a buffalo jump. Certainly the archaeological richness of the globe – pyramids, temple mounds, ancient cities, and great stone monuments – is one of imposing structures and fantastic stories. But I wonder if any can compare to the sheer excitement of watching a buffalo jump or pound (a wooden corral) being used. Eyewitness accounts of mass bison kills reflect the horrific moment. “A dreadful scene of confusion and slaughter then begins,” wrote Henry Youle Hind in 1857, “the oldest and strongest animals crush and toss the weaker; the shouts and screams of the excited Indians rise above the roaring of the bulls, the bellowing of the cows, and the piteous moaning of the calves. The dying struggles of so many huge and powerful animals crowded together, create a revolting and terrible scene.”
It is surely one of the great dramatic stories in the course of human history. If a herd of one hundred bison were run off a cliff at a single event (a number considered average), there is nothing in the four million years of human evolution when a comparable amount of food was procured at one time. Elephants, mammoths, rhinos, giraffes, and other animals larger than bison have been preyed upon for thousands of years. But these were usually killed individually or, at most, a few at a time. Caribou and various members of the deer family have been killed in great numbers by hunters over various regions of the earth, but the resulting biomass of the carcasses would never approach that of a bison kill. Even the killing of a huge bowhead whale by the Inuit of the Arctic, the largest animal ever hunted by indigenous people, would yield less meat and fat than an average buffalo jump. Through millions of years of adaptation, mass killing of bison on the Great Plains of North America, using jumps and wooden corrals, was the most productive food-getting enterprise ever devised by human beings.
And of all the buffalo jumps known from across western North America, there is perhaps none more imposing, more perfectly designed, more consistently executed, more lethal than Head-Smashed-In. It has been recognized by the Province of Alberta as a Provincial Historical Resource, by the Government of Canada as a National Historic Site, and by the UNESCO World Heritage Organization as the premier example of a bison jump in North America. It is, if I may use the phrase, the Mother of all Buffalo Jumps.
This book is the story of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. But it is more than that. It is the story of tenacious people in their relentless pursuit of an extraordinary way of life. With few exceptions these people were, and still are, nameless and faceless. They exist in a land of shadows we call the past, a period as vast as it is murky. It is a period that, despite its intrinsic opacity, never fails to stir our curiosity and imagination. The past is the ultimate abyss. We can venture to the moon, to the bottom of the oceans, penetrate the deepest jungles, and explore the far reaches of the universe. We can never go to the past; hence, we can never truly know it. We can only approach it obliquely: poking, prodding, conjecturing, and mostly puzzling, as if peering around corners through the narrow lens of a periscope – seeing only little pieces of the past at any one time. But it is important to peer into this abyss. Because it reflects, mirror-like, what it means to be human. Because we learn about what human beings have been and of what they are capable. And because, if we look back far enough into this shadow land, we are all one.
People who are anonymous need not be unknown. It is the role of archaeology and history to breathe life into those whose voices have been stilled by time. Studying the past comes with many serious obli-gations, just one of which is to engage in what is admittedly speculative when creating reconstructions of what life might have been like in ancient times. It can be a daunting prospect, knowing that you have to speak for people who are no longer here to speak for themselves. A great weight can descend upon you as you wonder if you have represented these voiceless cultures fairly, accurately, respectfully. But to not speak up would certainly be a disservice. It would condemn great amounts of information about ancient peoples to dusty library shelves and arcane academic publications, and deny most of humanity the knowledge of spectacular triumphs and dismal failings of our fellow humans. More importantly, it would be a disservice to the history of a people who left no written history – people who deserve, as much as any of us, to have their story told. Why else study the past if not to bring it back to life?
For more than twenty-five years I have been linked with Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Sometimes, just as a visitor, I have walked along the top of the cliff where so many bison plunged to their deaths, and strolled through the Interpretive Centre where two million people have experienced the story of the jump. But mostly, Head-Smashed-In has been my career. As an archaeologist I directed excavations at the site for ten years, was a member of the team that planned and developed the interpretive centre, and I have stayed involved in the research and operation of the site. It is a place to which I continuously return: helping to train new guides, leading public tours, giving lectures, assisting with renovations to the display galleries. The story of the jump, and all that went into making the great bison kills possible, has captivated me. It’s a story that should not be left, like the bones of the mighty beasts, to fade and decay with time.
The saga of hunting and killing buffalo at Head-Smashed-In is a paragon for the many stories from across the reaches of North America and beyond. At its core it is a story of courage and cunning, of violence and bloodshed, of survival and defeat, of a people’s mighty struggle, spanning thousands of years, in one of the most challenging environments on earth. Before the development of agriculture and, eventually, industrialization, Aboriginal people all over the world hunted game animals as the staple of their ancient way of life. But none did so in a more spectacular fashion than the Aboriginal people of the Great Plains when hunting bison. The lesson from this story is simple; there is practically no limit to the depth of creativity human beings have brought to bear in order to make their world liveable. The ingenious solutions these hunters devised to stalk and kill mighty herds of bison were little known to archaeologists to begin with – existing in obscure and out-of-print historic literature and in the memories of Native elders – and are in danger of fading completely from modern knowledge. This should not happen. The story is simply too compelling, too inspiring, too important. It needs to be remembered for what it was – an astonishing triumph of intelligent humans over circumstances stacked overwhelmingly against them.