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I learned to stampede a herd of bison off a cliff, and you can too

Author: Jennifer Allford

When Jennifer was a kid in Edmonton, her mom used to get her out of bed to go outside and watch the Northern Lights. She’s been waking up to the wonders of Alberta ever since, sometimes still in her PJs.

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Travel Alberta / Jeremy Fokkens

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Will you be the wolf, or the baby bison? Think hard.

Every autumn for millennia, Blackfoot hunters would gather at the top of a cliff in southern Alberta. Each had a specific role to play in an elaborate hunt that ran hundreds of buffalo over the cliff to their deaths.

Now, it’s up to you. As you help re-create the hunt at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, you’ll have to decide whether you want to drape the wolf skin over your back and play the menacing animal on the edge of the herd, or put on a baby buffalo skin and run full speed through the prairie grass tricking buffalo into stampeding behind you.  

During my recent trip to experience Piskun, the buffalo-hunt re-enactment at this unique interpretive centre in Alberta, those starring roles as a baby bison (another name for the buffalo) went to the kids in attendance. Everyone else got a chance to play one of the hapless beasts stampeding to their death, like the roughly 100,000 buffalo that tumbled over in the course of about 6,000 years. Not to worry: you won’t fall off the cliff like they did.

We played beast on the safe and sacred ground below the cliff, where about 500 Blackfoot from different tribes would gather during the days of the buffalo jump. They would set camp, wait for the hunt and, after the buffalo dropped, process the meat into a long-lasting source of protein called pemmican. “My great grandfather’s grandfather was chasing buffalo off this cliff,” guide Marcus Healy told us. “I have that same blood.”

The last buffalo hunt here was in 1840. The area was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. During our experience, we climbed up through the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre to the top and the cliff.  On the way, we saw a buffalo hide with little drawings telling the history:  In 1771 “bears came into camp.” In 1879, “the buffalo disappeared.”

Here’s, roughly, how the hunt worked: When the wind was just right and the buffalo were munching grass in the “gathering basin,” hunters would mark off “drive lanes” with plants and rocks. A couple of them would put on wolf skins and hang around the edge of the herd, making the buffalo nervous and nudging them into the drive lanes. Then, the star “buffalo runner” in a calf skin would take off as if he was in danger. The matriarchal herd would start running toward him. The runner would duck out the side between people shaking buffalo skins and the herd would keep going, over the cliff.

Down below, archeologists have found arrowheads that date back 9,000 years. In 2016 they excavated an underground roasting pit that has been there for 1,600 years. The archaeologists started back in the 1930s. “My great grandfather annoyed the archeologists,” Healy said, grinning in his Blue Jays cap and long black braid. “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.’ ”

Our  modern adventure started with that smudge, a spiritual cleansing smoke bath, and an elder asking the creator to look over us while inside a tipi, something that Healy describes as “the first ever mobile home.” Healy handed us little arrowheads and showed us how to whip a spear at a giant buffalo-shaped target. When I missed by a mile, he showed me again.

We put the hunting tools away and the little kids grabbed their animal hides and posed for pictures with big smiles. I felt feel like a kid too, running under the big blue sky pretending to be a doomed buffalo while everyone was laughing, the hot sun on their faces.

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