For as many as 2,000 years before Lewis and Clark took to the West, Native American tribes commanded the plains.
As is often pointed out, buffalo were essential to life for these tribes. Hunting such massive creatures without guns was no easy feat, but the Buffalo Jump was as effective as it was harrowing.
It went like this. A boy dressed in the pelt of a buffalo calf would lure the animals to the edge of the cliff, while athletic young men trained as runners would shepherd the herd from behind. The bison would plummet to their deaths in a frenzy and, at the bottom, pelts, meat, and bones could be harvested from the fallen animals.
The jump was used by tribes from across the plains. The Hidatsa, Shoshone, Lakota, Dakota, Nez Perce, Bannock, Arapaho, Salish, Cheyenne, Blackfeet, Crow, Gros Ventres, Cree and Assiniboine all used the cliff to hunt bison, which forced cooperation between peoples despite their cultural differences.
Plains Indians who had never used horses or guns began using them to hunt when westward expansion brought these goods to the tribes. The Buffalo Jump method of hunting waned in the mid-17th century, though the site remained important to the tribes who used it. Today, the jump is preserved as part of a state park, which provides education on the site's weighty history. There are remnants of the Native American life to be found all around the park, not the least of which is an 18-foot-tall pile of buffalo bone shards from herds that met their end here many years ago.
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