When I was in grade 4, my class and the other grade four classes at Louis Riel Middle School in Calgary went on a field trip to the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Centre. We had all been so well-behaved for weeks, because in grade 4, field trips were everything. We had two yellow school buses to take us and our volunteer parents to the site. We were so excited it was as if we had bathed in coffee that morning.

Located 18 km north & west of Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada, Head-Smashed-In (HSI) is the world's oldest and best preserved buffalo jump site. It has been used by the aboriginal people of the area, the Blackfoot, for almost six thousand years.

The use of HSI was simple: herd the buffalo close to the cliff and drive them over the edge, the fall killing or incapacitating them. Harvesting of the buffalo parts was easy and was done on a huge scale, as the Blackfoot didn't let any of the herd escape because it was believed that the survivors could warn other herds. Countless buffalo (bison) were herded over the edge of the 10m to 18m cliffs. At the base of the cliff today are buffalo skeletal remains, in some places 11 metres deep. Close by is the remains of the butchering camp, a kilometre-wide expanse pocked with the remnants of meat caches and cooking pits, and itself underlain with up to a metre of buffalo bones. The area on top of the cliff was (and still is) a wide reach of prime grazing range.

The beginning of the herding reached as far away as 10 km from the cliffs, to start buffalo into the drive lanes approaching the precipice. People used small fires or waving cloth set in cairns to guide the buffalo along. A full-grown buffalo can sustain stampeding speeds of 50km/hour, and once the buffalo were at that speed in a herd, not much could stop them from running directly off the cliff.

The interpretive centre is actually built into the sandstone cliffs and is used as a larger Native Peoples centre in addition to its archaeological focus. There are camping and tours and a focus on the entire history of the people and the area, the Blackfoot and how they lived and how they used the jump.

In 1981, the site was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The proper name for the site in Blackfoot is estipah-skikikini-kots : where we got our heads smashed. According to legend, a few hundred years ago, a young man wanted to watch the buffalo falling from the bottom of the cliff. Standing under the shelter of a ledge, like a man behind a waterfall, he watched the buffalo cascade past him. But the hunt was unusually good and as the bodies mounted, he became trapped between the animals and the cliff. When his people came to do the butchering, they found him with his skull crushed by the weight of the buffalo. So they named the place "Head-Smashed-In."

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