There is, perhaps, no other place in Montana that captures the mysterious spirit and tragedy of the American bison more than the The First People's Buffalo Jump State Park in Ulm, Montana.
For two thousand years the many native tribes from Montana and Idaho came to this sacred site of peace and gathering to drive herds of buffalo over the cliffs. Buffalo were not only the tribes' primary food source, every portion of this great animal was used. Its brains aided in hide preparation, the skull used for ceremonies and prayer, the horns were fashioned into spoons and cups, its rawhide for containers, clothing, buckets and drums. It took 12 hides for each tipi and they lasted one year. There are over 300 bison jumps in Montana, but this site, formerly known as Ulm Pishkun, is the largest bison jump in North America.
"Many of the other bison jumps were only able to handle small numbers of bison," park manager Richard Hopkins says as we walk the 3 1/2-mile trail up to the sandstone cliff. But this one is a mile long and entire herds, from 75 to 250 bison, were harvested in a single run. The vertical drop of this jump varies from 30 to 50 feet. Still, they had to have a number of people down below to finish off those that did not die from the fall or from the crush of cascading bison that stampeded after them. Hopkins stops, as we're walking this historic trail, to allow a well camouflaged, though shedding, bull snake slither off the trail so we can continue.
Hopkins brings the site to life by pointing out that we're looking at three deep kettle's varying in size from 18 inches to a little over 2 feet in diameter. Scattered about the kettle remnants are rocks fractured from the heating and cooling of the hot fires they held. Here, well below the jutting cliff above us, was the assembly line for processing - where the natives dug deep holes and lined them with rocks to make, what Hopkins tells us, was their high-protein bar of the day - blood pudding.
The buffalo jump was one of the most efficient ways for native Americans to survive on the wide-open plains. This crafty and dangerous method took patience, guts and skill. A young man would don a buffalo calfskin and meld in with the herd. Once he distinguished the leader - the oldest female - he would circle in front about 25 feet away. The runner would imitate a runaway calf with noise and movement and the leaders' instincts would be to get the calf and bring it back into the herd. Once the buffalo runner got the leader to move after him he would start running then slow and repeat this process until the whole herd begins to follow. With wolf skins covering their bodies, the runners' companions would prowl the back of the herd and thus the group would nudge the group of bison toward the top of the jump. Here, other members of the tribe had built V-shaped rock cairns. When the herd approached this drive line, the buffalo runner picked up speed as does the thundering herd behind him. Timing was essential, as bison run over 35 mph and the average human trots at around 12 miles per hour. The runner would also jump over the cliff, maybe rolling into a crack or hugging the cliff's edge, while the bison, flew over him to meet their destiny below.
The 1,800-plus acre park near Great Falls is an important archeological site, though it is still parceling out its secrets only to those with a keen eye, avid imagination and a love for Montana's untamed history. Archeologists have conducted only a handful of digs, however, from those completed it has helped us to understand how the Native Americans used the bison jumps and the era of usage. Digging down through over 13 feet of buffalo bones in some places, they have dated the site from 900 AD through 1500 AD. (The later date being considered the Dog Day's of the Plains Tribes because they used dogs, or wolf pups, to pull their travois. Horses had not yet made their presence on the plains. Pictographs can be found across the sandstone face of this historic site. Left as an offering to the spirits, fragments of old sweat lodges pierce the grassy knoll above the jump. Their willow skeletons provide a small visible link to this site's historic past.
Today, tribal members are actively involved in the park's management and make annual treks to pass down their ceremonies and traditions. Two tipis near the visitors' center are used in these endeavors. Inside the visitors center, an exhibition hall wonderfully captures what life was like for the plains people during their sacred time at First Peoples Buffalo Jump. The cultural exhibit, storytelling circle, gallery and classroom with their view of the jump heighten your senses and make the three and a half mile hike up to the sandstone cliffs that much more real.
From the top of the jump, this wide-open area offers spectacular views of the Rocky Mountain Front, the Big Belt mountains, the Little Belt Mountains and the Highwood Mountains. You'll find plenty of opportunity for wildlife viewing, especially a great variety of birds.
The only buffalo wandering the park are in spirit. Yet, standing out in the fields among the craggy cliffs with the wind howling and the sun beating down upon you, look and you might see them.
IF YOU GO
The First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park is located 10 miles outside of Great Falls, Montana on Interstate 15. For more information visit fwp.state.mt.us/parks or call 406-866-2217