How to Kill a Buffalo (or a Herd of ‘em)

Posted by - May 4, 2012 | Category: Canada, Escapes, North America

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta, Canada

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A place where hundreds of bison stampede to their deaths clear off the brink of a cliff? Then locals carve up every last bit of the carcasses? Well that’s cool – in an grisly, sadistic, do-you-really-need-all-those-buffalo sort of way.

Practiced by natives on the plains of North America for close to 6,000 years, the custom was a huge part of their livelihood, and the proceeds from these mass slaughters resulted in the mainstay of their winter diet.

Buffalo skulls -- Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta, Canada

So what made them stop? Well, in no particular order: horses, beavers, and the white man. And of course, a brink of a different kind – extinction.

But I’ll get to all that in a bit.

Give Me a Plain, Where the Buffalo’s Slain

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So how did the natives manage to lure the buffalo over the edge? The folks at UNESCO (Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981) described it best:

“To start the hunt, ‘buffalo runners’, young men trained in animal behaviour, would entice the herd to follow them by imitating the bleating of a lost calf. As the buffalo moved closer to the drive lanes (long lines of stone cairns were built to help the hunters direct the buffalo to the cliff kill site), the hunters would circle behind and upwind of the herd and scare the animals by shouting and waving robes. As the buffalo stampeded towards the edge of the cliff, the animals in front would try to stop but the sheer weight of the herd pressing from behind would force the buffalo over the cliff.” 

Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC

Wolf Headdress used to scare buffalo

Stuffed bison -- Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta, Canada

The Blackfoot Indians had a keen understanding of the land and the nature of the bison. And the buffalo had two key weaknesses they were able to take advantage of – poor eyesight (they thought the rock formations were solid walls) and parental instinct (their concern for the lost calf).

Indians: 1, Buffalo: 0.

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The tastefully designed interpretive centre at the former kill site is well worth the $10 admission (5 bucks for kids). It’s built into the hill alongside the cliff and meshes perfectly with the environment.

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Buffalo Stance

So how do horses, beavers, and whitey figure into all this? You see white men liked to please white ladies, so they hunted beavers for their fur (well THAT didn’t quite come out right). When beaver numbers dwindled, whitey took a shining to buffalo fur. And since whitey also introduced the horse into mix, making hunting for buffalo a heck of a lot easier, native Indians abandoned the traditional method, and the buffalo numbers took a serious decline.

At one point, estimates had between 70 million to 150 million bison roaming the plains. At their lowest point, less than 1000.

They’re hovering somewhere around 500,000 nowadays.

Buffalo fur coat -- Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta, Canada

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Located about 2 hours south of Calgary, the area around Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump offers some pretty spectacular views. If you want to take your time to explore the area, the closest hotel options are in Fort Macleod, but there are some cozy camping options available closer to the site.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Sign , Alberta, Canada

Quiz Time

So how did Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump get its name?

It’s not what you think.

Legend has it that a young boy wandered too close the bottom of the cliff during one of the hunts. When they found his body…well…you can pretty much guess the rest from there. The Blackfoot Indians called it Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump ever since.

What’s worse? I left here craving a bison burger.

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26 comments
  1. Great post. Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump as been on my Alberta to do list since I was 10. Living in Edmonton I don’t really having any good excuses for having never been there.

    And in another ironic twist I actually had bison burgers for supper tonight and then I go and read this post. I feel like the theme for the Twilight Zone should be playing right now.

  2. Dalene and I visited this just a few years ago. I loved the location and the surrounding scenery, and the history into how they hunted the buffalo was quite amazing.

    The Crowsnest Pass is one of my favorite spots in AB. Enjoy!

  3. I always learned that they didn’t use all of the buffalo and that lots of the meat was left to rot. Which really annoyed me cause I like to think of the native peoples as being stewards of the environment and all. What did they say about it at the visitor centre? Did they say they used all the meat, or if they left lots to rot?
    Jade Johnston – OurOyster.com recently posted…Kununurra Day Trip To Emma GorgeMy Profile

    1. They did indeed use most of the meat. They also used the bone, teeth, skin and fur. They carcass would be left behind for the wolves and vultures to pick at, so nothing was really wasted.

  4. Awww…even though I had a bison burger a few weeks ago, this makes me sad for the buffalo! That would be frightening to be at the edge of a cliff and try to stop, but be forced over by the weight of the masses behind you.

  5. My stomping grounds (I grew up in Pincher Creek). I never how special the Buffalo Jump was growing up, it wasn’t until I was older that I realized how lucky we were to have it right in our back yards.

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