A writer committed to a subject that most of the world considers marginal, yet approaches it with I-will-be-heard confidence, can win the heart of even the most recalcitrant reader. Jack W. Brink, a curator at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, has that ability. He's spent 25 years studying the way Prairie natives kept themselves alive for millennia by hunting buffalo, a subject that in his hands becomes absorbing, dramatic and almost urgent -- even though many will also find it inherently appalling.
The ancient system of killing buffalo by rushing them over cliffs was, he believes, "the most productive food-getting enterprise ever devised by human beings." Brink, who bears the perfect surname for an expert on fatal precipices, has so carefully studied the buffalo hunt that he can describe it in detail. The more he learns about it, the more he admires the shrewdness and imagination of the Prairie natives who invented it and kept it alive for thousands of years. He doesn't pretend that they were prehistoric ecologists. They did what they had to do, with uncommon efficiency.
Brink explores this phenomenon, and recounts his own adventures in helping uncover its origins, in Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains (UBC Press/ Athabasca University Press), a beautifully illustrated book, a steal at $35.95 for the 342-page paperback.
The word "imagining" is chosen with care. No one living has ever seen scores of buffalo tumble toward their death. That system of slaughtering lasted something like 5,500 years and died out in the 19th century. It was made unnecessary by guns and horses from Europe, and became irrelevant when the trade in buffalo rugs led to the almost total obliteration of the species. (Buffalo have since been revived, first in parkland and more recently as a source of low-cholesterol meat; they now number more than 500,000.)
To Prairie natives, the buffalo was life itself.
In all of history, no civilization relied more heavily on a single resource. Buffalo meat gave the Prairie natives as much protein as the salmon gave the tribes on the West Coast, but that was just the beginning. A buffalo was a walking factory, as if designed to satisfy a whole society's needs. It provided warm, durable hides for blankets and lodges and yielded sturdy bones that could be made into tools -- 87 different tools and implements, according to one scholar of the Blackfoot people.
To kill two or three animals at a time, natives drove them into deep snow banks (where their short legs failed them), trapped them if they were stuck in watering holes or cornered them in dead-end canyons. Sometimes they crawled up toward them, disguised beneath animal skins, to kill them with lances. More ambitious hunters sometimes herded them into wooden corrals where dozens could be slaughtered.
But it was the buffalo jump that made the Prairie natives exceptional among the world's hunter-gatherers and made their communal project so spectacular. The signature Prairie buffalo jump depended uniquely on a combination of stagecraft and gravity.
The precipice had to be chosen with care, as a place to which buffalo might be lured. Naturally, they never literally jumped, a term implying a conscious act. They were stampeded into stumbling or falling.
To those just vaguely aware of it, the buffalo jump sounds like a spontaneous tactic. In fact, it was a long-range strategy that required sophisticated planning, considerable understanding of the buffalo and dozens of participants, including women and children.
It was so commonplace that Alberta alone has scores of sites identified (by the presence of ancient bones) as places where it happened. Brink proudly informs us that the mother of all buffalo jumps is Head-Smashed-In, in the Porcupine Hills, 170 kilometres south of Calgary and 20 kilometres west of Fort Macleod. Many thousands of buffalo died there over hundreds of years and UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1981. Brink directed excavations at Head-Smashed-In for 10 years and helped to plan the museum-like interpretive centre for visitors. He's lectured there, trained guides and conducted further research.
The name Head Smashed-In originated, according to legend, when a young Blackfoot tried to witness the spectacle from what he imagined was a safe hiding place near a cliff bottom; instead, he was buried beneath the animals. Dave Barry, the Miami Herald columnist, who loves to tell his readers that "I'm not making this up," was incredulous when one of them claimed Canada had a tourist attraction named Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. But when he phoned the interpretative centre, the answer was satisfying and appropriate: "Head Smashed-In, may I help you?" Barry claims this was among the highlights of his journalistic career.
The process leading to a jump at Head-Smashed-In began when the "buffalo runners," some of the swiftest and most daring of the young natives, walked out several kilometres along the plain leading to the cliff. When they attracted the attention and curiosity of a herd, they began driving it toward the jump area by slapping their folded robes on the ground, guiding the animals into drive lanes.
The lanes were wide where the buffalo entered and then progressively narrower. Along the way the hunters had prepared barriers of wood, bushes and buffalo hide that must have looked solid to the animals but were as fragile as the flats in a stage production. Women and children reinforced the illusion by holding up buffalo hides and yelling. The natives knew that buffalo had poor eyesight and weren't hard to intimidate. Something that looked as if it couldn't be penetrated was enough of a barrier to keep them moving where the hunters wanted them to go.
The lanes were constructed according to a pattern worked out over generations and left marked for the future by stones on the ground. The effect was, Brink writes, "a barrier that existed only in the mind's eye of the buffalo." Soon the hunters were pushing faster and the animals were close to the edge. That's the violent climax of the hunt, the moment that plays out in the mind of Jack Brink late at night as he waits for sleep -- that combination of animal tragedy and human triumph that he's come to call "one of the great dramatic stories in the course of human history."