Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump may be UNESCO caliber but I would like to suggest that the Wahkpa Chu’gn Archaeological Site is a more authentic. What you see at this site is not protectively behind illuminated glass cases. There are no wall diagrams tracing the history of Native Americans or theaters showing a History Channel style video. There were no security guards telling you not to touch the artifacts or surveillance cameras. What you see at the Wahkpa Chun’gn Archaeological Site is “the most extensive and best preserved buffalo bone deposit in the Northern Great Plains.”
The Wahkpa Chun’gn Archaeological Site is located west of Havre, Montana behind the Holiday Village Shopping Mall. We stopped here because Ed had been driving hard all day and wanted to take a nap. He found a shady spot in the shadow of the mall building where he parked the coach. My-sister-in-law Betty Anne and I found the mall entrance. Our friend Mimi, who has a keen interest in the Native American culture, went off to investigate the Archaeological Site.
Because it was a Sunday, the Mall closed at 6 PM. One hour still gave me enough time to buy a new pair of shorts and shirt at Maurice’s. Betty Anne debated the merits of spending her vacation cash on a new ring. She and I were sipping on the ice coffee treats, our last purchase before the mall closed, and strolling back to the coach, when a white van pulled up and stopped beside us. Mimi sat in the passenger seat; a stranger was driving.
“Get in!” Mimi urged. “We can see the buffalo jump. Just hurry!”
Betty Anne and I hesitated. “Ed is probably ready to leave,” I gave as a weak excuse to pass on the tour.
“He’s not leaving without all three of us,” Mimi trumped my logic so we hopped in the van’s backseat.
I didn’t have high hopes for this place as our guide unlocked the entrance gate behind the mall. She led us to a tiny trailer – the site office, admission booth and gift shop. She collected our $6 entrance fees. Then, she offered to shuttle us through the site on a golf cart since we appeared to be in a hurry to continue our road trip. The woman giving us this exclusive tour turned out to be Anna Brumley, the wife of the man who discovered this 2,000 year old buffalo jump site.
Back in 1962, John Brumley’s habit of wandering around this area between the Milk River and the Bear Paws Mountains of Montana gave way to a discovery. He came upon artifacts that suggested the historic presence American Indian Tribes. With the help of some amateur archaeologists, the group unearthed the original cache of buffalo bones. The Montana State Archaeological Society eventually worked the site too. Then, in 1992 John and Anna took over the day-to-day operations of the site. They continued with work on the archaeological digs, developed access to the site, offered interpretive programs, and managed to preserve the site.
Anna told us about her husband and the historical significance of the Wahkpa Chun’gn Archaeological Site above the hum of the golf cart motor. As I listened, my hurry up attitude faded to one of hushed awe and an appreciation for how truly privileged we were to be at this ancient buffalo jump.
The last tribe abandoned the buffalo jump site some 600 years ago. If you let your imagination run, you can still see hunters driving the bison in a stampede through drive lanes and over the hillside where the animals tumbled to their death. In an exhibit house, we saw layers of buffalo bones that these early people striped and discarded. At depths as low as 20 feet below the ground surface, we stood surrounded by bones.
“You are standing on earth 2000 years old.” Anna stunned us with this fact adding, “It’s ground from the time Jesus waked this earth.”
Anna used a laser light to point to the layers of soil and explain their significance. One dark stain represented a grass fire over 600 years ago. We also saw two areas where the Native Americans prepared the meat. One was a stone boiling pit. Hot rocks would be put in a skin-lined water-filled pit. The rocks would heat the water cooking the food. The Indians also used a roasting pit. Here the meat was placed in the hole with fire and heated rocks, covered with grass, twigs, and earth, then left to roast all day.
Before leaving the Wahkpa Chun’gn Archaeological Site, Anna invited us to try our hand at buffalo hunting. She let us take turns taking aim at a mock buffalo using a spear-like weapon called an atlatl. We tried multiple throws before accepting defeat. We would need more practice before becoming successful buffalo hunters.
At Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, you will not touch the atlatl or stand on 2000 year ground. Please understand that I think travelers should visit this world heritage site, but stop at Wahkpa Chun’gn Archaeological Site too. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974 and should be on the UNESCO list too. Look for the small highway sign on U.S. Highway 2 west of Havre, Montana and pull into the mall. Forget shopping. The buffalo jump well worth a visit.
July 6, 2008
Tours by appointment anytime, call 406-265-6417