At one point in our history, more than 60 million buffalo roamed the continent’s Interior Plains including the wide-open grasslands of Alberta’s fertile province, Today, those numbers have perished but Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, located just 18 km northwest of Fort McLeod along highway 785 in the south end of Alberta, is home to the museum of Blackfoot culture and a trip back to a time when the buffalo ruled the area.
Translated from estipah-skikikini-kots in the native language of the Blackfoot people, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump tells the story of a 9,000-year-old ritual of hunting buffalo. The historic site is 1,500 acres, named and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, putting it in the same company as the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge and the Galapagos Islands. A walk through the museum and along the paths worn into the historic grounds will bring to life the history of the great buffalo herds and the aboriginal people whose lives depended on risky hunting skills to support their families.
The Blackfoot Nation or Niitsitapi, meaning original people, consists of four distinct nations, who share a common cultural and historic background but have separate leadership. The Siksika Nation, whose name literally means Blackfoot, the Akainawa Nation who are also called Kainai or Bloods and the Piikani or Peigan Nation all make Alberta their home. Montana is home to the fourth group, the Blackfeet Nation, that make up this family. Because these nomadic plains hunters shared a common language and culture they worked together to build treaties of mutual defense and very often intermarried.
Southern Alberta’s grasslands make for great grazing and in their day, buffalo were drawn to the area in large numbers. Before the modern invention of irrigation, the local soils were much too dry for farming so the Blackfoot peoples relied on their strong knowledge of topography and buffalo behavior to prosper as successful buffalo hunters and for half of the year these nomads would follow the herds. They set up camp in ideal hunting locations, such as at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, and the Blackfoot people worked together to feed and clothe their families.
On our trip to the heritage site, we started with a walk along the lower trail that wound through the area, once bustling with families setting up base camp in the excitement of what was to come from the great cliff above. And the view up from these lower trails, toward the top of the vast face of the cliff, it is possible to imagine the sights and sound of the spectacle as one after the other; the buffalo would crash down from the great height to their death at the bottom.
Through the camp, a stream that once flowed, clean and fresh, from a nearby spring was the source of water used for cooking and drinking by the Blackfoot people. We could feel the presence of the spirits of both the brave hunters and their powerful fallen prey and the serenity of the grounds made it easy to imagine yourself among the busyness of the community that worked together to share the great task of cutting grinding and pounding all the useful parts of the fallen buffalo into the food and clothing they would need to survive the long, cold winters.
It was in this stream, long since dried up, that the oldest evidence of prehistoric occupation at Head-Smashed-In was found. A rancher, walking along the dry creek bed in 1940 discovered two ancient spearheads called Scottsbluff. The tools, known to date back some 9,000 years, are among the artifacts that can be found in the interpretive center, an unassuming building that that blends naturally into the ancient sandstone cliff.
The Head-Smashed-In Interpretive Center
The Head-Smashed-In interpretive center is a building with five levels of beautiful displays and in-depth history that describe, in vivid detail, how the community of Blackfoot people lived on the land and interacted with the buffalo and other wildlife. It reveals the great stories of the ecology, mythology, lifestyle and technology of the Blackfoot people and the in-depth history lesson blends the viewpoints of the aboriginal people with archaeological science.
The 80-seat theater on the third floor was my favorite stop. The amazing re-enactment of the buffalo hunt is played out on the screen and viewers are taken along on the hunt thanks to the technology of computer-generated graphics. From the theater, with the vivid details of an adrenaline rushing hunt fresh on your mind, you can climb a little further through the interpretive center to the top of the building and through the door to the outside. Here you find yourself looking down from the top of the vast cliff. The view down will stop your heart as you imagine the chaos at the exact spot where the lead buffalo of the heard realized there was nowhere left to go, and with the stampeding heard pushing forward from behind plummeted to their death below.
The Blackfoot people have two principal deities; the Sun, and a supernatural being known as Napi, ‘Old Man’. Napi taught the Blackfoot people that a group of hunters must be ready at the bottom of the cliff to kill all the buffalo that did not die because of their fall. If any of these buffalo survived the fall according Napi’s stories they would return to their heard and share the story of the great hunt with the rest of the heard who would then be wiser, more informed and less likely to be as easily lead in the future.
By the early 1900’s the buffalo became extinct and the Blackfoot people struggled to find their way of living without them. They eventually turned to farming or cattle ranching and these resilient peoples were able to adapt and they became strong again. There are approximately 14,000 Blackfoot peoples living in the area today.
Hours of Operation
From Labour Day, which is the first weekend in September through to May 14, the hours of operation are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, seven days a week. The crisp, quiet of the historic site in winter adds to the solemn feeling, but if Southern Alberta winters are too much for you, don’t worry, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump has both indoor and outdoor exhibits. During the summer, from May 15th to the Labour Day weekend, operating hours are extended by an hour to open at 9 a.m. And the interpretive center is only closed for four days all year; on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and Easter Sunday, but be sure to check before you head out because severe weather may lead to temporary closures.
The following admission rates are a great value for your money and will provide an experience you will never forget:
Categories Daily Admission
Adult (18-64) $15.00
Senior (65+) $13.00
Youth (7-17 ) $10.00
Child (0-6) FREE
A family pass is available for 2 Adults and up to 6 youths for a price range of $40.00 to $120.00 and Canadian Military and their family, by presenting a CFOne card are entitled to free admission. If you are planning a group tour of 15 or more people, the historic site offers a 20% discount on pre-booked admission. All these prices include G.S.T.
You can purchase an Experience Alberta History Annual Pass and for one full year, you will gain unlimited access to a network of provincial historic sites, museums and interpretive centers around Alberta.
Places to Stay
The area around Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is rich with history and unique experiences and depending on the off-site experience you are looking for, there is something for everyone. Relax at a Bed and Breakfast, stay in a heritage motel or hotel or if you’re up to it there are great camping experiences in the area.
The Fort Motel, in Fort McMurray, is only a 18 km trip from the site and an 8-minute walk to the Fort Museum and Empress Theatre and the Fort MacLeod Airport is just 3.5 km away.
Or for a more historic feel, you could become one of more than 500,000 visitors to Pincher Creek each year. Just a 45-minute drive along highway 3 from Head-Smashed-In, the historic town is nestled in the natural beauty of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and offers a year-round destination.
A little further west along highway 3 and you will find yourself in the Crowsnest Pass and more great accommodations as well as a whole new vacation’s worth of amazing history and scenic tours, but that is a story for another day.
Authored by Caroline Steman.