Published on August 31, 2014 by Amy
A buffalo jump is a cliff that Native Americans used to kill plains bison. Rather than painstakingly hunting each bison that was needed to feed the tribe, the Native Americans would drive herds of bison off the cliff for mass killings. Once the bison had run off the cliff, tribe members would wait below to begin collecting the animals for their meat, skin and fur. To modern people this may seem wasteful or cruel, but it was the most efficient way to feed the tribe, and if bison were hunted individually, they would learn to avoid humans, making hunting all the more harder.
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Native Americans would typically hunt bison during October, and the buffalo jump was the most ancient and trusted way to capture the animals. To lure the bison to the jump, hunters would create a V formation with rocks. The wide end of the V would begin in the bison’s grazing area while the narrow end led up to a sharp, hidden drop off a cliff. Tribe members would lure the buffalo into the trap by imitating buffalo calves and donning buffalo robes. Once the herd started running toward the cliff, other tribe members surrounding the herd would make noises to frighten them and send them into a frenzy. Scared buffalo could only move in one direction, so they would head off the cliff in the herd. Women waited at the bottom of the cliff to begin skinning the bison because meat would spoil if it was not immediately cut and sliced.
A successful buffalo jump took a great deal of work, but the result would be well worth the effort; each family would have fresh meat for many days to come, and jumps resulted in a hearty supply of bones, dried meat and hides. Native Americans made moccasins, pouches, dresses, shirts, winter robes and many more day-to-day items. Additionally, each tipi used 14 hides. Several months would pass before the tribe could arrange a buffalo jump again; the bison would smell the blood from the jump and would avoid the area, so the tribe had to wait until rain washed away the scent sufficiently.
At one point in history, there were hundreds of buffalo jumps in western America and Canada. Today, there are only a few. Arguably one of the most famous and well-preserved buffalo jumps is Head-Smashed-In in Alberta, Canada. The 1,470-acre site in the Porcupine Hills has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Head-Smashed-In is unusual in that it is a 60-foot drop, so it is only sufficient enough to wound the buffalo; tribe members wait with bows and arrows, lances and clubs.
Famed explorers Lewis and Clark experienced the results of a buffalo jump, and Lewis wrote about the encounter in the pair’s iconic diary in 1805. He wrote that the carcasses of at least a hundred bison created a “most horrid stench.” Only the most active and strongest men could help lure the buffalo to the jump, he wrote, because they faced the threat of getting caught in the stampede and being crushed to death.