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Buffalo Jump provided a tool for Aboriginal survival

Article Origin


Barb Grinder, Windspeaker Contributor, Elnora Alberta







Page 10

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of Alberta's best known archaeological attractions. Like other bison jumps, it's a tribute to the ingenuity and skill of the early Aboriginal hunters on the plains.

It's also a mecca for thousands of summer visitors from all over the world.

Dry Island Buffalo Jump is almost unknown, but it's equally worth visiting. Located on the bald, flat prairie of central Alberta, almost due east of Olds, the site lies at the edge of the Red Deer River. Here, glaciers have carved a broad valley, more than 650 feet deep, a kind of mini Grand Canyon with sculpted sandstone cliffs and steep buttes. In the middle of the valley, a broad tree-covered butte has been created by the river, which has since receded across the valley, leaving the butte as a high, dry island.

Now a provincial park, the site has long been recognized as the most northerly and steepest of all the buffalo jumps. Jack Brink, head of the archaeological survey at the Provincial Museum in Edmonton, said that unlike Head-Smashed-In, where the animals were often only wounded, and thus had to be dispatched by the hunters, the bison driven over the edge at Dry Island were always dead when the reached the bottom. At the buffalo jump site, the cliffs reach about 160 feet to the prairie above, just enough to kill the animals without pulverizing the meat.

Buffalo jumps were such a successful means of killing large numbers of animals, that they were used for thousands of years. The basic system seems easy. Drive the buffalo over a cliff, then slaughter them. But the actual operation required bravery, skill, and strategy.

The hunters needed intimate knowledge of the bison's behavior and the local landscape, and often had to put themselves in dangerous situations to move the animals in the right direction. Once the bison were wounded or killed, the people had to work quickly to process the meat and hides before they could spoil. It was also messy work - the Blackfoot word for buffalo jumps is piskun, or bucket of blood.

"At Head-Smashed-In and the other buffalo jumps, we find lots of spear heads and arrow points in the archaeological digs. At Dry Island there are almost no killing tools. Most of the tools we find are those used for skinning the animals and processing them," Brink added.

To reach Dry Island Buffalo Jump, take provincial Highway 21, which parallels Highway 2. The turnoff to the park lies between the tiny towns of Elnora and Huxley, and is well marked with a provincial sign. Head east on this mostly paved road about 12 miles, to reach the park boundary. The view from the top of the valley is spectacular and interpretive signs are well placed at the edge of the cliffs. The road down into the valley is reasonably good, but is unpaved and very steep. Leave RV units at the top. The road into the valley is closed when it's wet.

Though there are picnic tables, there's no camping in the park itself. A private campground is nearby, but no other tourist facilities are available.