On a breezy, fall day around 6,000 years ago on the grasslands of southwest Alberta, the dusty earth trembles underfoot as a herd of around 300 bison, some weighing as much as a small car, stampede towards a foothills cliff. Skilled indigenous hunters work together to execute a communal hunting technique honed over the centuries. Using shared knowledge of the land and bison behaviour, they capitalize on the bison’s weaknesses: its instinct to protect its young and its poor eyesight.
Strong, fit young men, dressed in wolf skins and covered in wolf fat to mask their scent, approach the grazing herd. Mimicking predators, they periodically sniff the air. Their disguise allows the hunters to get close to the herd and gently spook it toward drive lanes. These parallel stone piles are aligned for kilometres, narrowing toward the cliff edge. Another hunter, dressed in a bison hide, waits at the mouth of the drive lane and imitates the cry of a lost calf to lure them along. Once the herd is in the lane, other members of the hunting party rise as one from behind stone cairns, shouting and waving sticks to spark a stampede. The hunters follow behind as branches anchored in the stones sway in the wind, casting shadows to further ensure the bison don’t stray from the path of their demise as they charge over the cliff and fall for 20 metres.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located northwest of Fort Macleod and just two hours south of Calgary, is the oldest and most well preserved of its kind. Piikani elder and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump interpreter Conrad Little Leaf suggests indigenous people approached this brutal, but necessary hunt with suitable reverence. “We wouldn’t cheer at the end of the buffalo hunt,” he says. “We’d just killed 300 buffalo. People would be respectful.”
The site’s interpretive centre offers seven floors of indigenous history and heritage. In its theatre, visitors can view a short film that recreates the bison drive. Outside, Upper Trail offers a dramatic view of the rolling, honey-coloured prairie with its fescue, grasses and shrubs. Look to the west to see the cliff edge and the kill site below and watch for animals such as yellow-bellied marmots and northern harrier hawks.
Back inside the interpretive centre, learn about the ceremonies, traditions and rituals of the Plains people and how the bison was quickly butchered and processed to make pemmican (pimîhkân), a nutritious, seemingly imperishable food that sustained these hunters throughout the harsh winter months.