Here’s where you get to be a buffalo or a buffalo runner

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Head-Smashed-In provides very real glimpse at the First Nations buffalo hunt

Joanne Elves

Zen and SnowSeekers brings you a series of #BucketlistAB stories, photos and video, inspiring you to #ExploreAlberta, its beauty, history and adventures. Search #BucketlistAB on social media and check out our Expedition page for more inspiration.

The wind is strong from the east. Our jackets flap, our hair tangles and our invisible scent carries with the wind. If it was our day for driving the buffalo over the edge of the cliff, we’d go hungry. The massive mammals would have smelled us long ago and thundered away. At Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump World Heritage Site near Fort McLeod, you find out just how much that buffalo meant for survival for the Blackfoot Nation.

A visit to this architectural award-winning World Heritage Site is a #BucketlistAB must do – if you can find it. To avoid tampering and disturbing the flow of the landscape, the centre sits camouflaged in the hillside where the foothills of Alberta meet the Great Plains. The sandstone building is recessed into the bluff and many visitors would drive by if they didn’t see the flags flapping in the wind.

Dare To Explore. Plan your trip to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Life on the ancient prairie

Inside, the story of life on the prairie unfolds, following the nomadic life of the First Nations Peoples who based their survival on teeming herds of buffalo. The presentations start on the top floor, displaying how First Nations people survived thousands of years with only their skills, strength and spiritual beliefs. Soft voices speak to you from rocks and wall murals, telling stories of why and how the spirits created the land. Legends suddenly appear on boulders as you walk by, murals flow down the wall so the story doesn’t break as you move through the levels of time. In the background, the soft beating of the drum and songs accompany your journey.

Looking at the artifacts and replicas of the tools of life, you can’t help but appreciate the ingenuity that evolved into the hunting of the buffalo. It took the cooperation of many families and clans to pull off a successful buffalo jump.

Sunrise and smoke

Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump
Photographer: Pam Drover

Every part of the hunt was calculated. Each person had a job. That wind that blew our jackets, hair and scent would be used by the hunters. The kill would be on a day it floated from the west. Draped in smelly buffalo skins, the “buffalo runners” would mask their scent, creep near the herd, inching them into V-shaped driving lanes closer to the cliff. The final drive would be purposely planned for dawn. A small, smoky fire would cause a little panic and just as the sun rose in the east, the buffalo runners would scare the herd towards the cliff. With the blinding sunlight, the buffalo had no idea what was beyond the next step.

“I like to call the buffalo a “four-legged Walmart,” says Quinton Crow Shoe, a spokesperson at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Crow Shoe is a direct descendant of those people that followed the herds.

“Our ancestors used almost every part of the buffalo. Without the annual buffalo hunt, they would never have survived the winter on the prairie. It was a huge part of our culture and we are proud to tell the stories in many ways at the centre. The Pis'kun experience is very popular.”

Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump
Photographer: Pam Drover

Mondays and Fridays in July and August the three-hour immersive experience not only tells you about buffalo hunting, but you can immerse yourself in the experience. It begins with the traditional Blackfoot blessing with the burning of sweet grass, then learning to use an ancient spear thrower followed by tasting dried buffalo meat. You really get a sense of being there.

Then you participate in a mini buffalo jumping, re-enacting roles from buffalo runners to driving buffalo (people get to be buffalo, too) to spearing the animal. Not only is it educational, it’s a fun experience for all ages.

Other special events are held throughout the summer including hikes to the drive lanes where you can see the Rocky Mountains to the west and well, forever to the east. Geocaching, drumming and dancing events, and harvest celebrations are also held. Check the full line of events on the official site here.

Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump is open year-round. Here’s a hint – the quiet winter is the perfect time to slow down and absorb the wonderful displays. Interpreters from the Blackfoot Nation are on hand and have wonderful stories to tell that have been passed on through generations.

Planning your trip

Dare to Explore: Click here for more information to plan a trip to Head-Smashed-In.

Book now: The Ramada Inn Pincher Creek has partnered with local experience operators to offer up some sweet #BucketlistAB packages here.

SnowSeekers and Travel Alberta have partnered to bring you the #BucketlistAB Expedition - explore now.

More information

When you visit Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump, be sure to check out a few other historic sites in the region. Check the Alberta History website to learn about Leitch Collieries, the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre and the Remington Carriage Museum. The Fort Museum in Fort McLeod is also a wonderful learning centre, only 22 km from the Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump.

Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump World Heritage Site is 160 km south of Calgary on Highway 2. Watch for the giant metal buffalo sign at Highway 785. Turn west and at 16 km you will still be looking for the building, but it’s there hidden in the cliffs.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is just one of a series of attractions across Alberta showcasing its heritage and history.  Others include Frank’s Slide Interpretive Centre and the Remington Carriage Museum. Learn more here.

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