For anyone interested in First Nations culture, I can hardly think of a better place to visit than Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. In fact, it’s so special that it’s one of Canada’s 19 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, helping to preserve more than 6,000 years of Blackfoot cultures and traditions that happened here in the North American plains.
Upon arriving at the site, it doesn’t look like much, which is actually a good thing. The amazing architect who designed the building did so by building it right into the Earth, allowing it to provide visitors with an incredible interpretative centre without taking away from the natural area around it. It’s such a great design that it won the Governor General’s award for Architecture back in 1990.
Upon entering the interpretive centre, we knew we were in good hands. Everyone was so friendly. They joked around and took pride in their heritage. The museum has a variety of artifacts and displays, as well as a wonderful movie that re-enacts the buffalo hunt, a must-see for anyone visiting the site. This will help make the jump come alive for you. Without watching the movie or taking a tour, it would just look like a cliff. You’d lose the magic that comes from knowing the history that made this into one of the world’s 1,000+ World Heritage Sites.
Three Ways to Experience Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
There are a variety of ways to experience Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. From guided tours to full-on unique experiences, the interpretive centre has developed many ways to get visitors involved. Here are three ways to get the most of your visit.
Take a General Tour
If you happen to miss one of the tours or just feel like doing it at your own pace, a general tour is still a great option. Before going out to see the actual cliff where the buffalo ran off, take your time to watch the buffalo jump re-enactment video and spend an hour or more looking at the various artifacts and exhibits, and learning about the culture. It will really help liven up the experience for you. Then you can go out and see the cliff while having the background knowledge to see it for what it once was. It’s beautiful.
Piskun, the Buffalo Jump
This 3-hour immersive experience takes visitors back in time to learn the basics of buffalo hunting, get deeper into the Blackfoot culture, and get a much better appreciation of the site. First, an elder gives everyone a traditional Blackfoot blessing, a truly special and heart-warming experience in and of itself. You’ll then move out into the museum to get some insight into what this site is all about. We learned about the teepee’s, the wolves they tamed and used for work, the types of food they ate, and how they survived as a community, despite the harsh conditions of the prairies. We then moved outdoors to see the actual buffalo jump, where hundreds of thousands of buffalo were herded off the 36-foot cliff and to their demise throughout the centuries. What’s truly incredible about the buffalo jump, however, is how they managed to do it. Next, you’ll get to go down to an area below the cliff to dress up like a buffalo or a wolf for a chance to re-enact the buffalo jump in a light-hearted way. You’ll also get the chance to throw an arrow and have a look at various tools and weapons they used back then. If it’s happening on the day you arrive, we highly recommend it.
Hike to the Drive Lanes
Anything you can do with a guide is a special experience. It’s a great way to meet people from the Blackfoot culture and ask them any questions you might have. You’ll also get to hear stories first hand and leave with a much deeper experience. One of these experiences is called “Hike to the Drive Lanes”. A guide takes visitors to the place where the plains people hunted the mighty buffalo, partaking in a 4-hour off-trail hike. Both the Piskun experience mentioned above and the hike are not offered every day so check in advance if it’s something you’d like to do.
One of Alberta’s Top Attractions
Whether you take in one of the unique experiences offered or just browse the museum at your own pace, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump will easily become one of the most interesting places you’ve ever visited. Between the uniqueness of the area, the skill of the buffalo hunt, the wonderful presentations offered throughout the interpretative centre, or just the general awesomeness of the staff, this is an absolute must-do attraction for anyone with even a slight interest in indigenous culture and human history.
If You Go…
Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump is around two and a half hours south of Calgary, near Fort MacLeod.
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