Hundreds of years ago, before horses, Native Americans did something quite ingenious in order to feed their families. They would find a herd of buffalo and the fastest runner would start chasing them. Now, you might wonder, what on earth did they think they would do with a buffalo if they caught it? But they had no intention of catching it – their intention was to make the buffalo commit unintentional suicide. That’s right, they expected the buffalo to kill themselves. Again, you may wonder, what on earth would make a buffalo kill themselves, and how could a buffalo possibly kill themselves?
The answer is, by running over the edge of a cliff. Oddly enough, the herd would simply run and follow the leader and when the first one accidentally ran over and off the edge of a cliff, many more bison would simply follow. It was a long fall to the bottom of the cliff and the fall would kill the buffalo. That did the majority of the hard work for the Native Americans and all they then had to do was go to the bottom of the cliff and prepare the dead animals for their families to eat.
There are several of these places in the American west and Midwest and they are now known as “Buffalo Jumps”. Several years ago we visited a site that David had been too many years previously. This particular one is at Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, south of Three Forks, Montana. It’s awe-inspiring to see, this high steep cliff, and imagine buffalo basically falling off of the cliff. You can easily see how it would have killed them.
This site has an interpretive display with information telling all about the site. Before we checked it out, we decided that we wanted to hike out to the cliff. So off we went. Luckily we brought water because while it seemed like a simple, quick hike, it was further than it looked, and it was an extremely hot day. We needed every drop of water.
We hiked the trail that got steeper and steeper, until it was almost straight up. I can’t do straight up. However, David, whom I call my old mountain goat, saw the cliff as a simple challenge. So Josh and I waited while David climbed up to the very top. He said the view from up there was unbelievable.
Heading back down was a little treacherous. The trail was dry and it was easy to slip and lose grip on the ground. But we made it safely back down and took refuge in the shadow of the interpretive center so we could cool down.
While it was fine to see the site from a distance, to really get a taste of the steepness of the cliff and understand how it could kill the buffalo, you really need to hike out the trail to the cliff. From there you will feel sad for the buffalo falling to their deaths but you will also appreciate the ingenuity that the Native Americans had to use the natural landscape and physics to make their lives easier and allow them to feed their families.