Every writer savours the moment when a new development emerges on a story they are already working on. Last year I was working on a feature for the Canadian Rockies Annual about Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump when an archaeological site discovered 26 years prior was finally excavated.
What was so significant about it? The site was an oven, deep in the earth, with a 1600-year-old meal still contained inside it. What could it tell us about the Blackfoot people who used to reside there? What does it add to the story about Head-Smashed-In?
Of course, you’ll need to read the piece to find out why (!), but here is an excerpt:
Standing amidst the tall grasses that carpet the base of the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, I close my eyes and try to imagine the buffalo stampede approaching. An inescapable dust cloud forms as their hooves pound the earth, sending a shockwave of thunder through the landscape. The herd’s panic is palpable as it is rushed to the cliff edge, driven by their hunters. Then it happens: hundreds of beasts hurtle over the cliff, cascading to their deaths in a massive heap. Soon the pungent smell of smoke, blood and flesh permeates the air as the Blackfoot work swiftly to preserve the meat for the long winter ahead.
I open my eyes. Centuries of erosion have worn away the base of the cliff, shortening the drop and burying layer upon layer of bones – 11 metres worth – beneath a jumble of soil, grass and rubble. To the untrained eye, the cliff looks… unimpressive. But time has changed the landscape. And what now appears to be a non-threatening tumble used to be an 18-metre-high fatal drop.
There is more than meets the eye at Head-Smashed-In, not only with the buffalo jump, but also with the award-winning interpretive centre constructed into the adjacent cliffside. From the exterior, the structure disguises itself well, blending inconspicuously with the exposed sandstone that extends from the grass-covered escarpment. Enter the seven-tiered building, however, and a world of discovery is revealed.
The cliffs and plains that make up this buffalo jump have an intriguing story to tell – one that continues to unfold today.