Where the buffalo roam(ed)

Toronto Star, Oct 29, 2016: FORT MACLEOD, ALTA.—The elder scoops the smoke from the little pile of burning sweetgrass and moves it over either side of her body, careful to touch her heart and the bottom of her bare feet. “You’re asking the creator to look over you,” explains Joann Yellowhorn as she performs a smudge ceremony. “And your feet carry you.”

We’re sitting in a teepee below the cliffs where roughly 100,000 buffalo stampeded to their deaths over the course of 6,000 years. The smudge ceremony, and the stories that come with it, are the beginning of an afternoon touring Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and taking the Run Amongst the Buffalo experience.

As we emerge from the teepee, our guide Marcus Healy quips that it’s “the first ever mobile home.” For millennia, Plains Indians would fold up camp, leaving the poles and stones behind for others to use and follow the buffalo herds to sustain themselves.

In the fall, about 500 Siksika First Nation members from different clans would come together to drive a few hundred buffalo off cliffs for winter provisions. Healy leads us into the interpretive centre built into the landscape to see a 15-minute film dramatizing the elaborate hunt (no animals were hurt due to deadly editing and animations).

Healy’s dad and brother are among the actors on screen who show us how the Siksika would mark off lanes with rocks and plants. As the buffalo fed, a couple hunters would don wolfskins and carefully nudge the herd into the drive lanes. A “buffalo runner” would put on buffalo calf hide and trick the herd into running after him toward the cliff. Down below, at the kill site, everyone would work to process the animals in a few days — tanning hides, boiling bones and grinding meat with berries and grease to make pemmican.

Well primed on the hunt, we head to the top of the interpretive centre and out to see the cliffs.

As a couple of yellow bellied marmots sun themselves on the precipice, Healy tells us the last buffalo jump was in 1840. “My great grandfather’s grandfather was chasing buffalo off this cliff,” he says. “I have that same blood.”

He points east toward the Oldman River and the silver windmills that line the horizon. “That’s where my people camped over the winter,” says the young man who spends his winters working on pipelines.

A couple arrowheads found at the site date back 9,000 years. Archeologists first excavated the site in 1938, with several major excavations to follow. “My great grandfather annoyed the archeologists,” Healy says with a smile. “They’d come to him asking ‘What is this? What is that? And he’d tell them ‘You can’t work until you smudge, it’s a sacred site.’”

We make our way back through the interpretive centre, down flights of stairs carpeted with little black buffalo and past a few big stuffed ones. We walk through displays about archeology and buffalo behaviour and see a Department of Indian Affairs treaty book and red stamp. In front of the building, Healy stops us under a choke cherry tree to point out the fruit was used in pemmican and the wood made great spears.

Walking along a trail below the cliffs, we brush up against sage that hunters would use to hide their scent and we stand on the rocks of an old teepee ring. There are hundreds of rings on the nearby Piikani reserve where Healy hunts: “It’s a really good feeling in that area.”

He shows us the tools his ancestors used to hunt and process the buffalo — some arrowheads were made with North Dakota rock, indicating long-ago trade routes. We all try, and mostly fail, to throw spears at a big black buffalo target.

And we recreate the hunt. A couple little kids are delighted to drape wolf hides over their T-shirts. A boy dons the buffalo calf hide, hunching over to lead the unwitting buffalo, the adults. Others stand along the side of drive lanes shaking buffalo hides. We all run through the field where the Siksika would camp, playing our parts and laughing.

We end the day back inside the interpretive centre. Under a portrait of Joe Crow Shoe Sr. in a white headdress, his great grandson wears a Blue Jays cap, long ponytail and a big grin as he gives us each a little sweetgrass to take home to protect us.

Three little strands are braided together to represent our mind, body and spirit — all of which are enriched after an afternoon learning about the buffalo and the people who hunted them.

When you go

Do this trip: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is about 160 kilometres south of Calgary. It’s a pretty drive along Hwy. 2 with gorgeous views. Admission to the interpretive centre is $15 for adults, $10 each for kids 7 to 17, or $40 for a family. The three-hour Run Amongst the Buffalo experience is an extra $20 per person. It ran twice a week in the summer of 2016. Check with Head-Smashed-In to find out 2017 dates as space is limited and you must register in advance.

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