Tuesday, 20 October 2009

On Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

It has taken me a while to figure out exactly what my impressions of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. I guess part of the problem was that I already knew too much about it. Especially the story about why it got its name. I got rather bored hearing and reading about it. (What I would like to know is how the Crowsnest Pass got its name.)

One of the things that the site did teach me was that not only did the First Nations drive the bison over the cliffs, but that they also lured them over. If I may explain, to my mind driving them means scaring them away from where they are or might go. In contrast, luring means attracting them in a given direction. The technique in question involves one (or possibly more) people dressing up in a bison calf skin and making what he hopes are reasonably accurate distressed bleating noises in the hopes of appealing the maternal instincts of the bison. At the same time, people in wolf skins approach on the opposite side of the herd causing them to head towards the "distressed calf". The guy in the calf skin then runs in the direction of the jump leading the herd into a funnel of other people. Ideally, the herd will be panicked down the funnel and over the cliff, where some other people will cheerfully smash their brains out with a stone headed club. In truth, this technique involves both driving and luring the bison, but it is the luring bit that fascinates me.

Another aspect of the museum that intrigued me was the uneasiness I saw in the interpretation of the realities of the bison hunt and the uses the First Nations put the products of the hunt to. There is something of a cliché that the First Nations used every bit of the bison, leaving nothing to waste. This makes them sound like environmental poster boys, but unfortunately, the evidence isn't there, at least to my cynical mind. Unless the groups of First Nations people were much larger than I envision, if they were to drive a herd of bison over a cliff, they would have more dead bison than they would be able to process. Bison ain't small. While the First Nations had uses for every bit of bison, they don't need to use every bit of every bison if there are a couple of dozen dead bison lying around. As well, if you have killed a few dozen bison in one go, try as you might, some of them are going to start rotting before you have time to butcher them. Even if you do butcher them all, you aren't necessarily going to use every last bit. The testament to came be seen in the immense (10 m deep) pile of assorted bison bones that tells the tale of the place: if they were using every last bit, why all the "garbage"? (Yes, I am arguing semantics.) While the site didn't belabor this point, it did quietly admit it. However, there was a certain unease about this admission as making it has the effect weakening the eco-political position of the First Nations the site seeks to honour.

1 comment:

Margo and Chris said...

Crowsnest Pass Naming:


It is hardly definitive but the sentence:

" While there may be some truth in the story, historian Merrily Aubrey believes its more likely the name simply refers to nesting of crows or ravens at the base of the Crowsnest peak. "

For what it is more likely than ... see the link.


PS We used the internet in VERY fine public library in Nova Gorica, Slovenia today.