Thursday, December 20, 2012

First People's Buffalo Jump

Buffalo Jump in foreground with Square Butte in background
The First People's Buffalo Jump, the largest of its kind on the North American continent, lies to the west of Great Falls, Montana.  A low lying butte with sandstone cliffs ranging from 10 to 30 feet and extending along three of its sides, this place is revered by all the tribal peoples - Blackfoot, Crow, Salish, Kootenai, Bannock, Nez Perce, Shoshone, Assiniboine, Gros Ventres - who gathered together and hunted in this area long before the arrival of Europeans.  Richard Hopkins, the affable and visionary director of the State Park preserving this site, explained to me how the rich soils deposited on the high prairie surrounding the Jump during the last ice age sustained grasses having an unusually high protein content.  The harshness of the weather and the lack of trees may not remind a current day observer of the biblical paradise, but in many senses these rolling hills were one.  Immense herds of bison, along with a coterie of their predators, including coyotes, grizzlies and wolves, flourished here.  And humans too.  

At the Jump, the stories involving buffalo and humans lie buried 6000 years deep.  In ravines carved out by seasons of rain and snowmelt, one can sometimes spy weathered bones returning to the light after a long sojourn in the earth.  As I followed the paths lacing the hills below the cliffs on a cold October day, I came to realize the very earth upon which I stood was built up from the once living bodies of buffalo now resting below my footsteps. And not only buffalo died here.  Humans too continually risked their lives to hunt buffalo during what are called "the dog years" by tribal elders, the years before the horse entered into the world of tribal peoples.  Hunting buffalo before the horse was a dangerous activity that required all the tribal peoples of this area to work closely together.  As a result, the Jump is still acknowledged as a place in which a great power resides, the power of peace and survival, a place where the intertwined stories of Buffalo and humans were lived out and now reside.  Even if the bison have departed, their stories and so their spiritual presence on the face of the earth remain palpable here.

But in our time and place, the bison have departed.  By the end of the nineteenth century only two thousand remained.on the entirety of the North American continent.  Once they had numbered in the tens of millions. As I walked along the path overlooking the cliff face, I felt a peculiar loneliness.  For here precisely where the stories of bison reside most powerfully in the Montana landscape, no living animal was to be found.  This disjunction is a painful one, a persistent reminder that this place under the sun, even as it remains sacred, has been subjected to immense violence, to a genocidal impulse that flooded over the high prairie during the last two centuries with the the arrival of my European kin, their guns, their booze and their railroads. Even today a minuteman missile silo housing a nuclear payload just a mile or two down the road from the Jump site is a powerful reminder of the modes of life dealing in death that still persist here. Yet today a resurgence in the numbers of bison is also afoot.  One walks these hills hoping that in the not too distant future, buffalo will again graze the grasses and keep company with the prairie dogs living on the top of the butte.  What a story that would make.

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