Visiting buffalo hunting sites inspires instantaneous awe. Imagine yourself on the harsh Great Plains, trying to make a meal of large, fast, athletic animals with horns- animals accustomed to battling wolves and grizzly bears. How would you do it?
View a map to help you visit historic buffalo hunting sites- some in person, some only online. When visiting historic buffalo sites, DO NOT remove artifacts- or even interesting rocks. If you observe something, notify a ranger, find an archeologist –and leave it in place. Photos make great memories!
Plains Indians depended on buffalo for survival, but faced a daunting challenge hunting large animals so well-prepared to fight back. Before Europeans introduced the horse and gun to the Americas, communal hunting was the safest way to bring down buffalo. Families and bands would collaborate to herd buffalo into pens, coulees, and over cliffs. A successful hunt required comprehensive understanding of the land and the animals and many hands. The more buffalo harvested, the more people were needed to process the kill. A failed hunt could mean hardship or even starvation.
At the Commanche National Museum and Cultural Center, you can experience buffalo hunting virtually in an interactive exhibit. From this trailer, you can probably guess most of us today would expire if we were beamed back in time to the Plains.
The buffalo jump represents undoubtedly the most complex and spectacular form of communal hunting. Most of us could not imagine coaxing herds miles sometimes and then triggering a stampede over the cliff. Modern hunters don’t participate in industrial processing to extract food, shelter, clothing, tools and implements from a kill.
Hundreds of buffalo jumps, coulees, pens, and other kill sites were used over thousands of years. A few buffalo jumps feature interpretive centers where you can learn about culture, lifeways, and hunting methods of Plains Indians over time. Some can visited online only. Sites like Rees Heights are located on private property and protected by owners with a strong commitement to preserving cultural resources and history .
Bureau of Land Management archeologists recently conducted a prescribed burn to uncover a unique site in Phillips County, Montana. This site is not accessible, but you can learn about it online. Great video in article.
In the United States, the National Historic Preservation Act has protected historic and archeological sites for half a century. Preservation 50 is a collection of videos celebrating protected sites throughout the country. You can visit this site to find videos in several state with buffalo history. Both Montana and North Dakota feature buffalo kill sites at least 10,000 years old, when ancient buffalo species roamed the land. The North Dakota Heritage and State Museum features a display on the Beacon Island site; here is a superb overview.
Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Located near Fort Macleod, Alberta, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is the best preserved and perhaps most productive site in North America. About 100,000 buffalo met their deaths here over a 6,000 year period.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is also the best place to immerse yourself in Great Plains ecology, natural and human history, and archeology. The interpretive center features five floors of educational and interactive displays. Monthly walks lead visitors along the drive lines that the Blackfeet Indians used to move buffalo from the plains to the cliff. People can view traditional drumming and dance performances and participate in a variety of other events, including Buffalo Harvest Days.
Recently, an intact roasting pit with an uneaten meal was excavated at the site. The earth oven will go on display at the renovated Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, Alberta, when it reopens in 2018.
First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park
Located at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, Ulm Pishkun is possibly the largest buffalo jump in North America. Visitors can hike to the jump, where the cliff face extends for about a mile above the plains. The park includes a Visitors Center with interactive displays and lots of stuff for kids of all ages to touch. You will find a storytelling circle, classroom, gallery and bookstore inside, with an amphitheater and traditional games playing fields outdoors.
Montana features several buffalo jumps that people can visit and learn at. Watch a video about Madison Buffalo Jump, south of Interstate 90 at Three Forks.
Before you go, plan on reading Jack W. Brink’s Imagining Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (Athabasca University Press). Brink walks you through the hunt from an archeologist’s perspective, trying to unravel and recreate the activities of adaptable, observant people who walked the Plains since time immemorial. Vibrant, visual writing makes buffalo jumps real for everyday people like us.