FORT MACLEOD, Alberta - The name's not pretty, but it certainly grabs your attention: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. This interpretive center is located a few miles west of Fort Macleod in Alberta's southwestern corner.
Constructed in 1987 at a cost of $10 million, it is perhaps as unique an interpretive center as one can find anywhere.
Buffalo jumps were relatively common and several have now been converted to tourist attractions or state parks. Each has its own character and its own form of interpretive displays, but few if any can match the uniqueness of the building or quality of displays that Head-Smashed-In provides.
Buffalo jumps were used for thousands of years by tribes as a way to kill buffalo. Many depended on buffalo for food, clothing, shelter and utensils. They lured the animals near the edge of a cliff and then stampeded them the final few yards over the edge, where they would die on the rocks below. This particular site had been in use for more than 5,500 years, until about the time horses became available and hunting became easier.
One might assume this jump was named because buffalos had their heads smashed. Actually, the reason for the name, according to oral history, is quite different.
In about 1850, a young brave wanted to witness the plunge of many buffalo as they were driven over the sandstone cliffs. He stood under the shelter of the ledge, like standing behind a waterfall, as the animals fell past him. It's said the hunt was particularly good that day and he became trapped between the bodies and the cliff. His people found him with his skull crushed by the weight of the carcasses. Thus the name: ''Head-Smashed-In.''
The visitor center has seven tiers essentially buried into the sandstone cliff. The architect was careful to
preserve the archaeological deposits and had the contractors remove a section of the cliff, build a massive concrete box, and then pull the earth and grass back over the top. He received the Governor General's Award for Architecture in 1990 for his design.
Exhibits are set up on five levels to tell different stories. Visitors enter on the lowest level and proceed upwards to the rim of the cliff. A trail leads toward the site where buffalo actually fell to their death. One level contains a tipi plus a variety of tools. It's a hands-on exhibit, so people are encouraged to handle the tools.
Level 3 contains ''The Buffalo Hunt,'' showing several buffalo about to be stampeded over a cliff. Another level shows the contrast of cultures from pre-horse times to the horse era and on to settlement by Europeans. An 80-seat theater on this level shows a short movie every half hour. Another level is devoted to archaeology and how the past is studied, complete with a recreated dig site. A gift shop and cafeteria complete the center.
A lower trail leads visitors about 3,280 feet to the base of the jump. Bones have accumulated over thousands of years and deposits are more than 30 feet deep. There are a wealth of archaeological sites and information in and around the jump. Petroglyphs are nearby, plus vision quest sites, although these sites are not open to the public.
A spirituality of the place attracts many visitors to this and other similar locations. It encourages contemplation about changes that have occurred and offers insight into a culture that no longer exists. Special events occur throughout the year, including drumming and dancing demonstrations and World Indigenous Peoples Day activities.
As one of the largest, oldest and best-preserved bison jumps in North America, this site was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1981. It's one of just 13 sites with that designation in all of Canada. Worldwide, other sites with this designation include the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge and the Galapagos Islands. That puts Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in pretty select company.