For thousands of years the Indian Nations of the Northern Plains have hunted buffalo. In the days before the coming of the horse (about 1730), the people used the buffalo jump as a way of harvesting the buffalo for food and clothing. Once or twice year, several bands would gather together to entice small herds (50 to 150 animals) to stampede over a cliff.
The First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, operated by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, is located near Ulm, Montana (near Great Falls). It is located just to the east of the Rocky Mountains, near the Old North Trail which was used as trade route by the tribes for about 12,000 years.
The gathering of bands at the buffalo jump was a time of social activity, celebration, and ceremony. Long after the buffalo jump had ceased being important to the economy of the people, it still continued to be a sacred place, as can be seen in the remains of the sweat lodges shown above.
The landscape of the Northern Plains once stretched as a vast sea of native grass from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye could see. This was a landscape that was filled with millions of buffalo as well as other animals and plants which were used by the Plains Indians for their subsistence.
As can be seen in the photo above, the landscape has changed over the past two centuries. The vast buffalo herds have been replaced with domesticated cattle; the native grasses have been replaced with neatly plowed fields of wheat; the old lodges have been replaced with modern houses; and the horizon is now dotted with wind-power generation towers.
For thousands of years the prairie dogs (a kind of squirrel) lived in harmony with the buffalo. The buffalo would use the prairie dog towns for their dust wallows. Prairie dog towns, made up of deep burrows with many entrances, could cover hundreds of acres. At the top of the First Peoples Buffalo Jump is a prairie dog town.
The Buffalo Jump:
Shown above is the cliff over which the buffalo were stampeded.
On the top of the cliff to a buffalo jump, Indian people laid out a long runway of rock cairns. Running for miles out onto the Prairies, the people would stand next to these cairns, which were laid out in a long V-shape, waving blankets and robes to move the herd toward the cliff.
Buffalo have poor eyesight and as they approached the cliff, what they saw was simply a small, rolling hill, such as that shown in the photo above.
Shown above is the edge of the cliff where the buffalo would have gone over.
Indian games gave children a chance to develop important hand and eye coordination. While the traditional games were suppressed, and many forgotten, during the boarding school era, in recent years there has been a resurgence among Indian people in playing the traditional games. At the First Peoples Buffalo Jump, the park staff teaches and encourages the traditional Indian games among both children and adults.
The small museum provides some dioramas and displays explaining the interrelationships of the buffalo and the Indian people. Also included are brief histories of all of the Indian tribes in Montana.
One of the common ways of cooking food on the Northern Plains was with stone boiling. As shown in the photo above, a hide would be placed in a small depression, then filled with water and food. Hot rocks would then be added to bring the water up to boiling. (Note: the rocks were not eaten.)
A small, mobile Métis museum was set up in the parking lot. The Métis are the descendents of the European fur traders (primarily French and Scots) and Indian wives. In Canada, they are recognized as a distinct people, a distinct cultural group. In Montana, they are often closely identified with the Little Shell Chippewa, a tribe which does not have federal recognition.
Shown above is a Red River Cart which was used by the Métis. Since they didn’t use grease on the axles, it is said that they could be heard for miles.
Disclosure: When I did my presentation at the park, I wore the red sash that identifies me as Métis.