ULM (AP) — The view from the height of First Peoples Buffalo Jump leaves little to the imagination. The ochre cliffs where bison tumbled, the Great Plains rolling eastward, the cliffs of Square Butte rising to an impossible sky — even famed Montana artist Charlie Russell couldn't have painted a more complete picture.
You can envision the great buffalo herds feeding on the tall grass, hear the echo of Native voices on the wind, sense the commotion of the hunt. It was here that numerous Native American nations, including the Nez Perce, Assiniboine and Bannock, gathered to hunt buffalo. The American bison provided food, shelter and a spiritual presence.
First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, just west of the Missouri River near Ulm, celebrates the culture and history of the Great Plains. Park visitors can learn about the Montana prairie and the important role bison played in the lives of the First Peoples who hunted here. The park is now on track to become a National Historic Landmark.
"The significance of First Peoples is that it is one of the oldest, largest and best preserved buffalo jumps," said Montana Parks Heritage Resources Coordinator Sara Scott. "Many of the buffalo jumps were mined for fertilizer in the 1940s. There is a huge part of First Peoples that was preserved. This site is so significant that it needs to be listed as a National Historic Landmark."
First Peoples Buffalo Jump lies in an ideal spot for hunting bison. The Missouri River Valley borders the jump to the south while the Sun River Valley runs north. The rivers provide plenty of water and good grass, everything a big buffalo herd would need for survival.
The jump rises gradually from north to south leading from broad plains to an abrupt precipice. The jump is horseshoe shaped, so if the wind or bison weren't cooperating hunters could adjust their plan to drive the bison in a different direction and still achieve a successful hunt. More than 10,000 bison perished at the site in the 900 years it was used.
"You don't know the jump is there until it is too late," Park Manager Rick Thompson said. "The main kill zone was the south facing cliff and that is where most of the jumps took place."
In 2008, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commissioned an archaeological survey of First Peoples Buffalo Jump. The work, conducted by Aaberg Cultural Resource Consulting, was set to take two weeks, but grew into a more involved project.
Among numerous artifacts, the survey found McKean projectile points. The points are more than 5,000 years old, indicating that First Peoples may have been one of the earliest buffalo jump sites used by Native Americans on the Northern Plains.
The survey also discovered 1,300 rock cairns, 42 archaeological sites and 33 drive lines where people had stood by the herds and driven them over the cliffs.
To hunt bison on the Northern Plains was a dangerous affair. Prior to the arrival of the horse in the 1700s, Native Americans would hunt bison at close range with bows and spears. A fatal blow could be achieved if a hunter struck a bison behind the ribcage, one of the few points of vulnerability. An injured bison presented a grave threat and could travel great lengths before succumbing to the wound.
Buffalo jumps were a more efficient way to slaughter bison, but required careful planning and were no safer.
An ahwa waki — or buffalo runner — was an integral part of the hunt. Dressed in a calf robe, the buffalo runner would lure the lead cow toward the jump. The herd, always following the lead cow, would advance toward the runner. Additional hunters, wearing wolf hides, would push the herd toward the precipice.
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Stone cairns were constructed in a driveline a mile from the jump. Hunters hid behind the cairns and startled bison toward the jump.
Ahead of the stampede the buffalo runner would race toward the cliffs, 2,000-pound bison chasing after him. The runner would leap from the cliff to a stone ledge out of harm's way. The bison, driven by the instinct of the herd, would cascade over the jump to waiting hunters who would finish off wounded bison with spears.
Then began the hard work of butchering the bison and processing the hides. Tribes would generally use the jump in the spring and fall, when cooler conditions provided more time to process the meat. The entire community participated in a grand celebration after a successful hunt.
Bison hunting was a communal affair. Nations that fought one another at different times of year would come together for the bison harvest. Thirteen nations used the jump, mostly from Montana.
"This was a place of peace and cooperation," Thompson said. "The various tribes, whether they planned to meet here or it was spontaneous, when they were here they were working together."
Use of buffalo jumps waned across Montana with the arrival of the horse on the Northern Plains around 1720.
"Once they had the horse, they could hunt bison at will," Thompson said. "Planning still went into a buffalo hunt, but it did not require quite the organization that a jump required."
First Peoples Buffalo Jump remains a sacred site for many Native American nations. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and Nez Perce bring high school students to the jump to teach traditional ways, cultural and historical significance.
In February, the National Historic Landmark Review Committee approved nomination of First Peoples Buffalo Jump for landmark status. A National Park Service committee is set to meet in May to discuss the nomination. If approved, the nomination would be sent to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell for approval.
National Historic Landmark status would allow the park to receive funding through the National Park Service. Funds could be used to further preservation efforts and to conduct addition archaeological research. A final decision on landmark status is expected late this summer.
"This is a sacred site for native people, both then and now," Thompson said. "We encourage people to come out and experience the site, and we try to instill a sense of awe and of reverence."
Information from: Bozeman Daily Chronicle, http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com