Jack McNeel
A view over First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park buildings with the mile-long cliff in the background.

The Bravery of the Buffalo Runners: Providing for the Tribe

Jack McNeel
7/8/14

What will visitors learn during a visit to First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park? That buffalo runners were mostly teenagers, some of the bravest of their tribe.

Buffalo runners would be the final lure to bring the buffalo over the edge. These were typically young men often in their early teens. Park Ranger Jake McCoy, who is part Cherokee, explained that bravery was a huge part of becoming a man—and these young men certainly showed their bravery. They would run in front of the herd as it approached, camouflaged in a buffalo hide to lead the herd to the cliff, then jump over the edge to a ledge below where they would tuck back as buffalo fell to their death. It was a dangerous job—not one all survived.

Other tribal members would be waiting to begin the massive job of skinning the animals, drying the meat, and saving whatever other parts were needed for bowstrings and utensils.

The cliff rises from the prairie floor extending over a mile wide. Looking up, imagining huge buffalo tumbling onto the boulders far below is overwhelming, even a little frightening. Yet this took place for hundreds of years in hundreds of locations throughout much of what is now the U.S. plus portions of Canada and Mexico. Buffalo jumps were found where cliffs existed, but were most notably associated with the Great Plains of central North America. It was the main method for killing buffalo before the use of horse and gun came along.

A view from the top of the cliff gives visitors an idea of how far the buffalo fell to their death. (Jack McNeel)

More than 300 pishkun were located in Montana alone. Pishkun is a Blackfeet word interpreted as “deep blood kettle.” This jump site was known as Ulm Pishkun State Park until 2007 when it was renamed First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park. This buffalo jump in Ulm, Montana may be the largest in the country, possibly the world. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Visitors to the park can view a buffalo skin teepee and full mounts of buffalo plus wall murals depicting early tribal life. Visitors also have the opportunity to walk with a Native guide to the cliff itself and hear how buffalo were lured to their deaths.

Typical of other jump sites, there is a large flat area above the cliff, a grazing area where buffalo would feed. Drive lines were built, sometimes hundreds of yards out from the cliff rim. These lines of rock, about 10 yards apart, led to the cliff. Hunters would crouch behind the lines as they yelled and waved robes to scare the animals into staying within the drive lanes. Portions of those lines are still visible here, and are only about a foot high.

Research was conducted here by Montana State University in the 1990s. McCoy said their report showed a layer of buffalo bones “anywhere from 12 to 18 feet deep” containing literally millions of bones. Limited time for digging and categorizing artifacts only allowed excavation to about eight feet. “They used carbon dating and said roughly 900 AD was the time frame. We know it’s got to be older, but we don’t know exactly how old.” Hundreds of projectile points came from the archaeological period of 300 to 1300 AD.

A visit to this state park should be included on any visit to this area to learn more about Indian life of earlier centuries.

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