Monday, August 18, 2008

Learning About Our American Indians

Makah Cultural and Research Center

Cameras are not permitted in the Makah Cultural and Research Center in Neah Bay, Washington. And, that is okay. I left this museum with something better than a disc full of photos.

Kirk Wachendorf, the Makah Museum Interpretive Specialist, made himself available to me. I learned more from him about American Indians in that short afternoon stroll among the displays than I ever picked-up in my American history books in Pennsylvania schools.

As I quietly walked alone through this tribal museum, I paused for a long time at the picture of an elderly woman. Children clung to the hem of her dress, a dress that reminded me of my own Grandmother’s casual appearance. A close look at the woman in the photo revealed there was a chain of safety pins dangling from a spot over her heart. My Grandma also wore a chain of safety pins there. These pins could fix anything – a popped button, a torn shirt pocket. Pins could make a pair of pants that were too big at the waist fit just right. A jab with a pin could pop a blister or remove a splinter. Were the cultures of these maternal women so far apart?

Kirk approached me as I wondered about this woman, her family, her past and the future. He fell into step and walked with me at each exhibit allowing me to absorb the history. He’d comment on how things are today for his people.

I had come to the Makah Museum with a notion of what an American Indian person looked like. The old woman in the photo looked like I expected an American Indian woman to appear. When Kirk told me he was American Indian, I challenged him. His appearance did not fit the characteristics; his last name sounded German. He explained that historically many American Indians married out of the tribe to European immigrants. We talked further about how difficult it is becoming for the lineage to remain pure as the population decreases. He remembered as a young man his acceptance of that fact that practically every woman on the reservation was a cousin, making marriage practically impossible. He explained that some young people in the tribe are seeking mates in tribes elsewhere.

You will not find the marriage issue discussed in a museum exhibit. Nor will you find other contemporary issues front and center here. Tourists do not come here to confront the issues. Nevertheless, Kirk and I discussed the socio-economic challenges faced by the tribe, the poverty in Neah Bay, and the lack of support by the US government to provide fair opportunities to the American Indian peoples here and elsewhere. We talked about the struggles to keep the Makah language alive in homes and schools, while elsewhere in the country accommodations have been made for Spanish speaking people. He gave me a perspective beyond what I expected in this look-and-see museum.

I will say that I was impressed with the artifacts from the Ozette collection, uncovered from a Makah village partially buried in a mudslide nearly 500 years ago. I was impressed by the full-size replica longhouse and four cedar canoes. And, I enjoyed the whaling, sealing, and fishing gear, basketry, and tools on display. I marveled at the artistry of the Makah whale saddle, inlaid with over 500 sea otter teeth, and all the other items preserved by the unique conditions created the mudslide.

But more than anything, I marveled at the intense desire of Kirk to inform, educate and address the tough issues with me, non-Indian descendent, educated but so very uninformed about our nation’s American Indians past and present.

I wish to thank and acknowledge Kirk for his honest and

thorough interest in giving me a fuller understanding of the Makah people.

Makah Cultural and Research Center – Makah Museum

(360) 645-2711

Neah Bay, WA 98357

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

If the name alone: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump does not capture your attention, then the question: What is a Buffalo Jump? will certainly arouse your curiosity.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the oldest, largest and best preserved buffalo jump sites in North America. The term buffalo jump refers to a natural cliff used by the native people to kill bison. At this location in Alberta, Canada, Plains Indians systematically lured the bison toward the precipice sending the animals plunging some 59 feet to their death.

The name of this place draws from a legend about a young boy who wanted to witness the plunge over the sandstone cliffs. He stood under the shelter of the cliff’s ledge to watch the beasts fall. As the bodies mounted, the boy became trapped between the cliff and the carcasses. When the hunters came to butcher the bison, they found him with his skull crushed by the weight of the killed animals. They named the place Head-Smashed-In.

Archeologists estimate that the North American Plains Indians first used this area for killing bison at least 5,700 years ago and perhaps as early as 10,000 year ago. Throughout the 1,470 acre site, they have found the cultural remains associated with communal buffalo hunting – drive lane cairns, projectile points, butchered bone, fire-broken rock – stratified to a depth of nearly 33 feet. Their study has traced the evolution of communal bison jumping here from its earliest beginnings to the eventual abandonment of the site sometime in the 19th century.

Today, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is preserved and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This cultural property received the designation in 1981. Visitors can tour the indoor Interpretive Center exhibits and programs. There are outdoor interpretive trails as well.

When I entered the Interpretive Center, I accepted the good advice from the young woman at the information desk. I went directly to the display called Pis’kun – The Buffalo Jump. This area presents a thorough explanation of how the hunters used the natural topography and knowledge of bison behavior to hunt them efficiently despite the lack of sophisticated weapons.

From here, I went outside to the walkway leading me to three areas which are the anatomy of the Jump.

To the west lies a large drainage basin, a grassland area, a natural grazing spot for the herds of buffalo. From here, there are traces of long lines of stone cairns built to help hunters direct the stampeding buffalo to the jump. I stood at the kill site, the natural escarpment, the cliff where herds of buffalo were forced over the cliff. From this precipice, I could see some tipi rings in the distant large prairie below the cliff. There, the Plains Indians found a source of fresh water and made shelters for camping, butchering, and processing the killed animals.

At the Jump archeologists found massive, stratified bone deposits which testify to the success of generations of hunters. There is a recreated archeological dig and mini-theater presentation included in the Isskoohtsik – Uncovering the Past exhibits back in the Interpretive Center. I would have found this display of archeology more impressive had I not previously visited the Wahkpa Chu’gn Archaeological Site near Havre, Montana. (See blog entry: ) By comparison, the key word differentiating the two sites is recreated. At the Head- Smashed-In Site the dig has bones and tools scattered about in a museum-type display whereas at the Wahkpa Site, visitors can actually stand within the depths of the dig and see the actual stratified bone deposits that remain largely undisturbed.

What the Head-Smashed-In Site lacked in its archeological display, it made up for in its other exhibits. Naapiwa Otawahsini – Napi’s World explains the geography, climate and vegetation of the Northwestern Plains. Okso’koaiksi – Napi’s People reveals the culture of the prehistoric Plains Indians including food gathering, ceremonies, and family life. Otsito’tohpi Naapikoaiksi – Cultures in Contact charts the impact of the arrival of Europeans on the Indian people – the use of guns replacing traditional buffalo hunting, the introduction of disease and alcohol, and the near extinction of the buffalo. All proved to be highly informative and insightful lessons on native people.

When I reached information overload viewing the Center’s exhibits, I followed the signs to the Lower Trail. This half-mile walk took me beneath the Jump. It seemed a fitting place to end my visit. I thought about the legendary boy. I imagined the thundering stampede of buffalos falling over the Jump. Almost like a cemetery, it was peaceful on this Lower Trail as the wind rustled the tall grass.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Located approximately 11 north and west of

Fort Macleod, Alberta in Canada

(403) 553-2731


Sleeping Buffalo Rock

Each exit, every town, many brown attraction signs, and whatever you catch a glimpse of along the road can entice your to stop when you are on a road trip. You can see anything you want. All you have to do is stop. These impulsive stops can lead to the discovery of a wonderful place. This occurred when we discovered the Wahkpa Chu’gn Archaeological Site in Havre, Montana behind a mall that closed at 6 PM on a Sunday evening. This happened when we stopped in Cut Off, Louisiana and met Joe Autin, a commercial fisherman. Most of the time, stopping leads to a positive experience or unexpected adventure. On occasion there are those stops that make you wonder why you even bothered.

Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs is one of those disappointing places. Online, the description reads “Relax and enjoy a refreshing dip in natural hot mineral water…There are three pools open for your pleasure.” The information promised a convenience store and picnic area. In my opinion, the pools looked uninviting, the store contained merchandise of questionable quality, and the picnic area looked worn out. Actually, in pulling into the property, I found the place to appear deserted and management to be disinterested in our presence.

So here’s my recommendation. When you see the sign on US Highway 2 west of Saco, Montana, pull over at the Sleeping Buffalo Rock and forget about driving the mile or so to the Hot Springs. The Rock merits a 10 minute breather. Its shape resembles a buffalo which signifies the staff of life for American Indian tribes including the Chippewa, Cree, Sioux, and Assiniboine. Cigarettes, loose tobacco, flowers, coins and other offerings have been placed on the rock in hope for some mystical intercession. The interpretive sign will enlighten you about Native American history. You might even be inspired to leave your own offering.

1 comment:

Termite said...

Hi Patty- I can't believe how much of the country you are really seeing & how beautiful your pictures are! What a wonderful adventure you two are having! If you get close to Maryland, please remember to contact us, we'd love to see you both.
Love ya, Nancy