Wahkpa Chu’gn- Signs of innovation on the Great Plains

If you drive through Havre, Montana on Highway 2, you see what we consider signs of technological innovation:  buildings, paved roads, utilities.  You drive by big box stores selling everything from food to cell phones and computers. Satellites whiz by far above us in space.

We sometimes see innovation as accelerating in our time, but the foundation of innovation has remained the same throughout history:  try something new, see if it works, see if it sticks. It can be risky, but the consequences of failure are limited in modern days.  The Holiday Village mall in Havre is an example.  Malls, once a bright new idea to attract shoppers, are falling across the country to online retailers. At Holiday Village, increasing shops have closeout sale signs and fall vacant and someday, the buildings may get torn down. Today, the mall’s only saving grace today is air conditioning on a 96⁰F day.

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Behind the fading Holiday Village Mall in Havre, MT, is a gem of an archeological site. Don’t let the GPS lady send you to the electrical cooperative, lower left.

Hidden behind Holiday Village Mall is a gem of an interpretive site, Wahkpa Chu’gn. Here you can become an archeologist,  viewing firsthand the signs that people experimented with advanced hunting techniques long ago.  Wahkpa Chu’gn is the Assiniboine name for the Milk River, which flows by the site. You can enter a fenced area by the unassuming interpretive center building and look down to the coulee where people harvested bison over a 2,000 year period.

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Havre and Wahkpa Chu’gn are located along the Milk River, in the watershed that includes the Frenchman, Milk (or Middle) and Missouri Rivers. This was rich hunting area for Plains hunters. Photo from Grasslands National Park, 70-Mile Butte hike interpretive sign.

In your mind’s eye, tear away what people have built since the 1800’s. Imagine this scene without the mall, the pavement, the railroad below. You will see an ideal location for hunting:  a place to trap animals in pounds and snowdrifts and drive them over cliffs. It had high spots for camping and abundant water below. The mall masks the likely trajectory of drive lines, where hunters could funnel a buffalo herd to the coulee.

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The mall parking lot paved over the likely drive lines that Plains hunters used to herd unsuspecting buffalo to their deaths in this coulee.

This historic site was discovered in 1961 by a teenaged John Brumley, who heard from a local that railroad construction had unearthed massive amounts of buffalo bone. The Milk River Archeological Society, trained amateurs, began a pioneering effort to conduct controlled excavations at the site. They put four seasons of work into the site, and some work has occurred since. Brumley went on to a career in archeology.

DYK? The Milk River Archeological Society originally coined the name “Too Close for Comfort” for this site because they were afraid people would find out about it and put the site at risk for looting and vandalism.

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Buildings protecting excavations at Wahkpa Chu’gn. There may be remnant camps on the hills above (private property). By Smallchief, from Wikimedia Commons

Today, Hill County owns the site, where buildings protect open excavations.  You can stand in those buildings and see what the MRAS volunteers saw over half a century ago.

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Successful buffalo hunts produce large amounts of bone, giving the impression that sites were industrial killing fields.  Some, like Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump, were in fact very productive: around 100,000 animals died at that jump alone, and remains are buried at least 30 feet deep. Others may have thick bone beds resulting from a handful of events that harvested animals only in the hundreds.

 

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A box of ancient bison teeth from Wahkpa Chu’gn.  You can touch them and instantly travel back to an ancient time when buffalo meant everything to people.

Wahkpa Chu’gn wasn’t used as frequently, despite the amount of bone unearthed by railroad construction, exposed in protective buildings, and still lying beneath the earth. The Besant peoples visited the site beginning 2,000 years ago, hunting here fall to spring. Then a 300-year period passed where no kills occurred. The following Avonlea peoples showed scant presence here, another 300-year quiet period occurred, and then the Saddle Butte (Old Women’s) Phase set in, finally ending about 4-500 years ago.

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HavreOldWomansAvonleaFindings in the Saddle Butte Phase demonstrate the creativity and experimentation that occurred across the Great Plains as hunters became more skilled and built on institutional knowledge of their ancestors.  Peoples constructed pounds to trap and kill buffalo.  These massive mammals are strong enough that they can crush modern-built structures, so how would they build natural barriers that could hold them?

HavreBuffaloPoundIn fact, these observant peoples recognized long ago that they could confine buffalo herds merely by illusion. Drive lines and pounds capitalized on the naturally poor eyesight of buffalo.  Their senses of smell and hearing are acute, but they are nearsighted.  They will shy away from dense areas that may hide a predator ready to pounce. Put a dense area on either side of a herd, stay calm, and you can move them in a direction, through drive lines.  Put a dense area all around them, and they will stay within.

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From H. Earl Clack Memorial Museum, currently next door in the Holiday Village Mall, moving in 2019 to a new building.

The natural fences at Wahkpa Chu’gn have a distinct feature unique to this site (to date, anyway):  whole bison skulls lodged at posts.  Archeologist propose that this addition indicated ceremonial intent and a sophisticated culture.

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Plains hunters used natural fences to guide animals toward cliffs and traps. At Wahkpa Chu’gn, whole buffalo skulls were wedged at the base of the posts, likely for ceremonial purposes.
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Medicine wheels found on the Great Plains are additional evidence of a sophisticated, ceremonial culture.

Hunters here also drove buffalo over the coulee edge into snowdrifts, where the danger of approaching them for a kill would be reduced as the animals floundered in the snow.

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The frame in the green patch on the right covers an excavation of an area where a snowdrift kill occurred. 

Pottery shards have been unearthed at this site, in a style that indicates Saddle Butte peoples carried forth from Avonlea peoples before them, or learned through trade.

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Link at left for photo and info!

Saddle Butte hunters adopted side-notched projectile point forms hundreds of years before surrounding cultures began regularly using them to kill buffalo.  Once the animals were finished off, people used bison mandibles (jaws) with socketed teeth as choppers in the butchering process. Mandibles with this pattern of damage are not found at Besant sites or in surrounding sites of other cultures.

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These processing points were found at the site.

 

Innovaitve start-ups fail in our time, forcing workers to find other jobs and investors to lick financial wounds. Failure on the Great Plains had more serious consequences, and hunting failure was not an option.  Innovation and continuous improvement, buzzwords in today’s corporate world, meant life or death for people whose food, shelter, clothing, and tools came entirely from free-ranging animals.

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Horses completely changed buffalo hunting.  This Caitlin painting is a little exaggerated, and hunters were likely not chasing bulls, but instead, cows with much needed fat. 

Eventually, the adaptability of Plains peoples to new technology resigned jumps, coulees, and pounds to history and memory. After Spaniards re-introduced horses to North America, Plains hunters quickly appropriated this new transportation technology to conduct year-round hunts and select desirable animals (usually higher-fat cows) from the herd. Traditional hunting sites fell quiet as wind and flood waters buried them in soils and silts.

At Wahkpa Chu’gn, a budding young archeologist and serious citizen scientists pioneered research into an important historic site. They uncovered layers of earth, revealing how hunting improvements unfolded over time. It’s all there for you to visit and experience firsthand.

 

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Over the centuries, hunters found more uses for buffalo parts in their everyday lives. Credit South Dakota Historical Society.

HavreInterpCenterReference:

Wahkpa Chu’gn: Smaller-scale On-site Interpretation of a Northwestern Plains Bison Kill. Brumley, John H. and Emmett A. Stallcop, in Pisskan: Interpreting First Peoples Bison Kills at Heritage Parks, Leslie Davis and John W. Fisher Jr., eds. University of Utah Press, 2016.

Visitng Wahkpa Chu’gn

This is an amazing site to see open excavations firsthand. Your guide will assure you these are real in situ finds, not planted artifacts! Check for events on site in addition to the 1-hour tours.

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Wahkpa Chu’gn is open during summer hours. The very spare Web page provides a number for you to call.  Call ahead to make sure it is open.  Admission fee to tour the protected excavations is well worth the $10 fee; there are few sites where you can see bones sticking out of layers as an archeologist would find them, and the interpreters do a great job explaining aboriginal hunting techniques and the site.

Tours are accessible for people with mobility limitations.  The guide can drive visitors in a covered ATV (with seatbelts, thankfully) down a steep and exciting path to the buildings below. The drive is popular with kids due to the steep grade.

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The drive down to the buildings is steeper than this photo looks- a slow and steady Disneyland experience. On the way, you learn how moving the river to build the railroad unearthed buffalo bones at the site.

The interpretive center is small but very informative, with a good collection of books and displays (and it is a respite from the summer heat).  You can even donate $2 and take home a piece of bone from the site. These bones have no scientific value, but it’s an amazing feeling to hold one in your hand and image a hand breaking them for marrow a thousand years ago.

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You can see a replica excavation in the interpretive center, but really, take the tour and see the excavations for yourself. 

For as long as it continues, the Holiday Village Shopping Mall is the best landmark to find Wahkpa Chu’gn. GPS programs send you to the electrical cooperative down the road.  Drive into the mall parking area and watch for a lane that goes around the back of the mall to the east.  You will find  a signed facility behind.

IMG_3861Do consider even a small donation, and let Hill County know if you visited this site.  In an era of interactive museums and ranch rides, precious sites like this can lose funding  if people don’t visit.

Watch a video on this site: