Road Trip, Part 3

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This is a cliff in southern Alberta, Canada that is called the Head Smashed-in Buffalo Jump. It is a bit off the main highway and I never would have thought of going there but for the nice lady at the visitors center in Cardston, Alberta. We had stopped there to ask about roadside attractions and a fellow traveler and her husband recommended it. By the way, Cardston has it’s own attraction near the visitors center called the Remington Carriage Museum that houses a fine collection of meticulously restored horse drawn conveyances of every size and description. It’s worth a stop if you’re driving through. But the buffalo jump is on a whole other level, seeing as how it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The native people (or what the Canadians refer to as aboriginals) who inhabited the area before the arrival of Europeans used the cliff to harvest buffalo as an alternative to hunting them. There is a great museum built into the side of the cliff and your visit starts with a short film that explains how they did it. It turns out that buffalo have poor eyesight, which, combined with their tendency to protect the youngest of the herd and to stampede when faced with a perceived threat, allowed the aboriginals to trick the herd into running over the cliff.

The methods used by the aboriginals were precise and involved a fair amount of danger to the participants due to the necessary proximity to the stampeding herd. The preparation started with the construction of lanes made of rocks and plants to form a visual barrier that would guide the herd toward the cliff when the stampede began. The tribe would stand outside of the lanes to reinforce the barrier by making noise. Two braves would dress in animal skins; one disguised as a calf and one as a wolf. The “calf” would stray from the herd in the direction of the cliff while the “wolf” would approach from the other direction. The herd would move toward the calf as a protective measure and stampede when frightened by the wolf approaching from behind. This worked because buffalo have poor eyesight, but also because the braves disguised their scent.

Once the stampede began the brave dressed as a calf would jump outside the lane to safety, but as you can imagine the timing wasn’t always perfect and a brave would get trampled to death on occasion. But that’s not how the place got its name. The name comes from a story of a particular brave who waited at the base of the cliff during one of the harvests, thinking that he could view the event in safety behind the waterfall of buffalo. But as the animals piled up at the bottom he was crushed and later found with his head smashed in.

The museum is dedicated to the pre-European culture of the aboriginals who inhabited the region, which existed for thousands of years. It is the one museum I’ve attended with my child that held her attention longer than it held mine. Learning occurred. For me, the most profound insight is that the aboriginal culture was based entirely on the buffalo. Almost everything used by the people was made out of buffalo, including clothing, housing, weapons, ornaments, you name it. Of course, the buffalo also provided the primary source of food. Once the herds of buffalo disappeared after the arrival of the Europeans, the culture of the aboriginals was destroyed. The saddest part of the story is that most of the buffalo killed by Europeans were killed for sport and hides. Most of the buffalo was wasted, in direct contradiction to the aboriginal way.

I recommend visiting Head Smashed-In if you happen to be in Alberta. It’s well worth leaving the main highway.

Speaking of stampedes, our next stop is the greatest rodeo on earth, the Calgary Stampede.

 

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