Discovering the trail is magical; unpacking it all is the hard part.
My fourth trip following bison tracks from past to present is over. The unpacking part starts now: not just camping and photography gear, field sketches and notes, but also new perspectives and stories from people who know bison history and bison from intense exposure.
I followed this trail to inform an artist-in-residence project. I have met historians, archeologists, geologists, bison managers, rangers, restorationists, communicators, and interpreters. I have put thousands of miles on my car and truck. And I have only started. Bison trails are more straight and true than their historic path from the Ice Age to today.
It wasn’t until I picked up a book at First People’s Buffalo Jump in Montana that I learned about the Pablo-Allard herd and Canada’s contribution to saving wild bison. It wasn’t until I talked to a historian at Elk Island National Park in Alberta that I learned there was once a Buffalo National Park that failed miserably. At Elk Island, the superb interpreters revealed how challenging it is to manage bison on defined land base within fences. Despite a robust relocation program that most recently airlifted bison to Banff National Park, Elk Island completed public outreach on alternatives to control the population, including hunting in the park.
One constant is the type of people involved with bison. They are passionate, committed, and generous with their knowledge. They want people to be drawn to bison, to make them an integral and eternalpart of our natural heritage. “Bison nerds” are a small but tight international group committed to making sure that these animals don’t disappear forever. They are ecologically extinct — there are no free-roaming herds — but conservation herds shaped by nature still dot the landscape.
Since these large, migratory animals spread across North America, driving grassland ecology, the bison trail leads to a variety of landscapes and places, .
Plains Indian tribes followed these animals across North America, leaving their own trail, including camps, kill sites, and ritual locations. My first visit to a buffalo jump led to places where I could understand communal hunting, from Madison Buffalo Jump to the superb Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. This World Heritage site is the best preserved in the world with a phenomenal interpretive center.
Buffalo led a huge parade of life in their wake as they shaped the landscape. I caught sight of many creatures that followed bison, but wondered about all the animals that disappeared with wild bison.
Along the way, I have met so many wonderful, caring, and friendly people; walked so many beautiful landscapes; imagined the sounds and sights of prairies once teeming with life. It is hard to unpack it all and assemble the important bits into a story that will inspire others to experience the buffalo trail for themselves. But I will try.
I took photos of every piece of bone I saw. I knew from the ranger that burrowing animals would push them to the surface, but they lay everywhere. Water dug bone from the hillside and pooled shards in drying streams of dirt. What looked like rocks sticking out of the soil turned out to be bone. Below the cliff where the buffalo fell, the hillside weeps bone fragments.
“That’s where blood kettles would have been,” she said. “The Indians would line a pit with hide, add blood from the animals, and break bones to get marrow for blood pudding.”
I looked at the hillside, struggling to put myself in that scene. What was it like to process hundreds of bison for every ounce of nutrition and material possible?
Many Americans who eat meat know little about hunting or raising livestock. As travelers, we are sometimes disgusted by people’s diets- even in first world countries.
At First Peoples Buffalo Jump, gaze at the hillside weeping bone shards and reflect. What if we were Great Plains Indians reliant upon our skills and efforts to harvest our own meals?
Our two sentence education on buffalo jumps
My school education about buffalo jumps included the usual two-sentence sense of their nature and purpose.
“Indians chased buffalo off cliffs for food, clothing and shelter. They processed what they could use and left behind the rest.” That gets filtered into “they were lazy and wasteful” in modern conversation.
My inner scientist started questioning those two sentences after that first trip. I know that bison are dangerous, so any mechanical means of harvest reduces risk to people.
I knew the rifle reduced wildlife populations faster than bows or buffalo jumps. Despite communal hunting, 30-60 million bison still roamed the plains we began decimating the herds.
And I figured any leftovers from a kill would not go to waste. A broad range of wildlife and insects would appreciate the remains in spare sage country. The rest would nourish the soils for plants and other animals.
Living on the Great Plains before guns and combines, you would never take food for granted. Communal hunting and fishing would keep people fed and reduce danger. An infographic in this blog article says that one hunt at a buffalo jump could feed 400 people for over 3 months.
Plains Indians developed many uses for buffalo parts and pieces. They used everything from brain to sinew for shelter, tools, containers and clothing. You can experience this and even touch items at the superb First Peoples Interpretive Center.
And don’t call out food waste before reviewing your behavior. Nowadays, we are the pot calling any kettle black on food waste. We won’t buy “ugly food”. We toss 30% of the food we buy.
Food waste is a longstanding problem. A ranger at First Peoples said that white Americans considered buffalo tongue a delicacy. They would fell a one-ton animal for the tongue only- just like sharks today die for fin soup. We blew away bison from train windows for sport, then harvested dried bones when we needed fertilizer.
Eating off the land requires skill and community
We are losing the ability to feed ourselves. Like many, I am adapted to read at close range and to see by electric light. My eyes are becoming hard with age like everyone who lives longer than nature intended. Based on eyesight alone, I would be reliant on community for food.
I know I don’t have the right muscles or coordination for hunt or harvest. I spent hours as a child picking berries and processing smelt. I have grown vegetables and helped process deer and chickens. I eat meat, but my modern sense of smell means the odor of burnt feathers and raw blood turns my stomach for days.
I know that without the modern food industry, I would not be here. But even the most fit and keen-eyed among us would have a hard time gathering and processing all our food. In a post-apocalyptic world where rats, pigeons, and cockroaches still roam, it won’t be easy.
It was about culture, too
The Plains Indians recognized the blessing of animals and plants. Like the Inuit, they developed rituals that included a conversation with a food animal. The book title, “I Will Be Meat for My Salish” describes that conversation.
According to the Smithsonian Institute, “Because the bison provided many gifts—from tipis and clothing made from hides to soap from fat and tools made from bones—they were honored as relatives and paid tribute to through songs, dance and prayers.”
Now, my neighbors say a blessing for each meal, whether it is home cooked or take out. They are rare. Most folks in the U.S. take our food for granted. We assume it will always be there. Eating is either perfunctory, or a fitness-enhancing project.
To be fair, it’s hard to connect processed, shrink-wrapped food to the earth. Eating over work at a computer, as I and others often do, means you’re absent-mindedly putting calories in your mouth. A foil-wrapped energy bar or vitamin drink seems more appropriate for the lab than the land.
We don’t have rituals to recognize the blessedness of food in our lives. We don’t create a structure where our food can agree to be part of us; we presuppose it.
“In addition to the use of their physical body, American Indians modeled social behavior from observing bison, such as how to live in a healthy and productive manner. Some of the important lessons were breastfeeding offspring, valuing both young and old, being physically active, respecting both the female and the male, healthy eating and using resources wisely.”
In this country, we grow increasingly weighty. We revere celebrity on dubious merits. We fear marginalization and even abandonment as we age. Enough said. Maybe we need a few chats with those bison.
Moving past those two sentences
Our old school books were likely colored by hypocrisy, historical guilt, a tinge of racism, and almost complete separation from nature.
It is well worth a visit to a buffalo jump to challenge that education. Stand there and imagine what it is like to rely on yourself, your community, and the land for sustenance.
If you spend time at a buffalo jump, you begin to see the landscape differently. You find yourself gazing over the plains at hillsides. You think “Hey, couldn’t you chase a bunch of buffalo over that cliff, too?” You begin to recognize grazing and driving areas, and good features for a jump- flat space below, and water.
You see beyond those two sentences you learned in elementary school. Now you understand why some hillsides weep bones.
May 2017- The road trip is my salvation. I live a typical West Coast life, with long work days peppered by emails or filled with meetings. Every day I commute for a long time on a slow train, having long ago tuned out the automatic announcements about feet on the seats and unattended packages. There is always something undone at work or at home.
Driving a big, lonely interstate across three states means a chance to unwind in the continuim of big scenery winding by. I can mull over my life, let the daily chores go, shed the herky jerky of everyday life.
Of course it would be quicker to fly, and maybe more sustainable, in the parlance of green guilt. But the airport experience would mirror my everyday life and I would arrive too quickly, as preoccupied as when I left home.
And if I flew, I would miss humanity’s roadside expressions. Displays catch the eyes of passing travelers, whether to declare a position, share history, prompt a laugh, send a greeting, or mourn a tragically departed loved one. You may be just a make, model, color, and license plate passing by, but everyone knows that for the near future, there is still a human being in that vehicle.
So I drive for two days each way to visit Montana and Wyoming. For some distance, I take Interstate 90 to cruise through spacious, sunny Eastern Washington, unraveling. By the time I hit Idaho, I’m gone. I’m just an anonymous person with no real concerns except good tires, a reasonably full tank, and a place to sleep that night. I have food and camping gear if the last part of the equation falls apart.
On the first day of my May road trip, hardware worked into one of my dealer tires on their last jaunt before an upgrade to better tread. I ended up at an Osburn, Idaho gas station on a Saturday evening by the air hose, listening to a faint hiss. A nice gentleman in a worn truck, worn coveralls, and beatup work boots kindly offered to show me how my can of fix-a-flat worked. He said he would drive on the stuff for weeks and I believed him.
Within 1/3 mile rolling forward, the gel expanded, the low tire light turned off, and I was back on my way 100 miles at 70 mph to Missoula. At Walmart on Mothers’ Day, I cooled my heels over an atrociously salty and fatty breakfast while the tire shop repaired the breach. I wondered which rocket scientist though biscuit gravy went well with eggs, brilliant orange cheese, and tater tots. I wondered why I ordered it.
The repair cost me $10, I never got to meet the tire center manager- apparently Johnny Depp.
Real life intruded once more on a remote gravel road in Montana. My cell phone started ringing, a surprise considering my location; apparently cell phone towers really are everywhere. I answered it because the area code was home, hoping my horse was not in trouble. Instead, I found myself on the side of the road talking to my county’s prosecuting attorneys office about the upcoming trial for the young woman who, inebriated and traveling at high speed, clipped the plastic bumper cover off my car. The accident was a lucky miss- if she tried to navigate the corner I would likely be dead, not parked among curious cows in open range country discussing trials and restitution.
I finally got back on my way to daydream and to get used to being a human being again. I had two weeks to be that way before the long drive home, and re-entry to the universe.
When I re-enter, I am not the same person who rocketed away. The road trip shapes and shifts me a little bit each time, and I come back subtly transformed. One day, maybe, that transformation will be a complete shift into another universe. Forever on the road, thoughtful and watching humanity reach out from the roadside.
September 2016- Visiting the buffalo jump at American Prairie Reserve was a little like falling down a rabbit hole. I’m positively the worst for spying something new (to me at least) and following it where ever it goes. I already heard about buffalo jumps a couple years ago from a state park employee and fellow workshop trainee. After my first visit to the APR jump, the rabbit in the waistcoat appeared, and after him I went.
What’s a buffalo jump? For thousands of years, Plains Indians staged complex, collaborative efforts to lure bison toward a carefully selected cliff, then trigger a stampede that would send them running over it to their deaths. Runners were trained from youth, like Olympians. Their hunting life may have been equally short.
Buffalo jumps hold their secrets. Maybe the practice started with bison, as legend tells it, or perhaps early humans hunting woolly mammoths figured out it was safer to trick them into plummeting over a cliff than hunting them on foot.Use of North American buffalo hunts supposedly ended 1500-1700-ish, when horses allowed year-round hunting of bison, but there is at least one later account that involves horses and guns. Earliest hunters used less of the animals than later groups, and there is evidence of “gourmet butchering” at an early Folsom site.
The details will be worried over by academicians and tribes, but you can skip the intellectual discussion, visit the places and fire up your imagination. I was lucky enough to find Madison Buffalo Jump State Park completely abandoned on a September Tuesday and spent a few hours hiking and imagining the dramatic hunt.
Montana State Parks did a great job with the language on the signs: one walks through the entire process, from pre-hunt rituals to buffalo runners luring grazing bison forward, running them into drive lines with buffalo “frighteners” on either side, then causing them to stampede over the cliff to a slope below. The front runners would have to leap to safe places on ledges below. The bison that survived the fall would be finished off and then a mass effort to process commenced.
It’s obvious in this Google Earth aerial what made the Madison Jump a good site, but I suggest going there and walking it to imagine the logistics and danger involved first hand. After all, the Plains Indians didn’t find the site on the internet, and neither should you.
And if you’re blessed to find yourself without other people distracting you, the lonely site is a perfect place to walk and imagine you’re wearing a buffalo runner disguise. You can hear the bison herd vocalizing in low rumblings that drift in from far away.
Your walk begins at the end of the hunt. As you hike up the old buffalo trail leading around the north side of the cliff, look at the processing area and imagine groups of women killing bellowing, immobilized bison after they’ve fallen. Imagine a staging area for processing, with the same women energetically removing hide, meat, organs, sinew for housing, clothing, tools, and food.
Farther up the trail, the grazing and driving areas start coming into view. You can see the natural ramp that winds toward the jump and imagine runners luring the animals forward, careful not to start a stampede too soon and lose the whole herd. Rock cairns along the way would guide the animals and hide “frighteners”. The animals would be restless, unsure, but move forward warily. They would be twitchy, ready to bolt and turn the whole herd into a boiling mass of big brown bodies, horns, and hooves.
And then toward the top, on the last rist to the cliff, the frighteners would make thunder happen. Runners disguised by wolf hides would leap out whooping, yelling, scaring the animals into a blind stampede. Runners up front might have to leap to ledges below and out of the way as the pounding herd ran straight for the cliff edge and over. As you stand with a bison’s last view, you understand. You can feel your blood pounding in your ears, hear the bellows and people shouting and grass and insects and dust kicked up into a storm around you. You hear the thuds below.
It would be quiet afterward once the last animal bled out and expired. The hunters would be drained, completely spent from exertion and adrenaline. Maybe some would be injured. Maybe part of the herd balked, peeled away, and stampeded away to safety, or ended up in the forested bowl below the other side of the cliff.
I sat on the cliff and drank a bottle of water, gazing at the expansive view as the imaginary hunt faded in my mind. A few hunter-leery deer tip-toed into view before they caught sight and scent of me and bounded away. The loud rattling calls of sandhill cranes rose from the river snaking through the Madison River Valley past green crop circles.
These jumps were abandoned long ago by native hunters, and then excavated for bone to use as fertilizer. I’m sure artifact pilfering has been common.
But the feeling of the place is powerful enough that it will draw me back. I’ll read some books, look for documentaries, research Native American perspectives on the jumps. I’ll go to First People’s Buffalo Jump in Ulm the next trip. I’ll walk where the bison walked, be the animal next time, and not imagine myself as a specatator of a movie in my head. It’s that crazy rabbit hole again.