My First Visit to Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump

I was in the eighth grade when myself and my 30 or so classmates took a week-long school trip to Southern Alberta. It wasn’t my first overnight school trip; we had a trip to Bentley to learn about agriculture which simply does not exist in the rocky mountains, so my experience growing up in rural Alberta is not the same as most people’s. On that trip, I was absolutely fascinated and I left wanting to be a farmer. In the fifth grade, we had a 3-day long camping trip at the Athabasca Hostel which involved campfires, a brief introduction to Aboriginal traditional rituals and culture, and wading through the bog looking at mudskippers and beetles. In the sixth grade we journeyed to Edmonton and learned about the ecosystem of the North Saskatchewan River Valley and visited the Telus World of Science (then known as the “Edmonton Space and Science Centre”. I wasn’t a stranger to long journeys with my classmates.

I should mention that I didn’t really like my classmates. Most of them were self-centred; overflowing with drama and tears and feigning illnesses for their own dramatic reasons. The girls were as mean to me as the boys were. And the boys, even by grade 8, were smoking dope and had photos of Playboy centerfolds on their locker doors and breaking rules in an offensive, not a mischievous fun way. I was a loner, a loser, the fat kid, the nerd, the shy one. So these trips for that reason, were taxing for me to a certain degree.

We left for Southern Alberta on a cold rainy morning headed toward the Icefield Parkway. I remember distinctly that were were fortunate enough on our stop there, to see a scant few caribou in the distance. My Social Studies teacher was ecstatically pointing this out to us and embellishing just how meaningful it was to see caribou since they are an incredibly threatened animal in the Columbia Icefield area. I, like most of my classmates, did not care. And not until I entered adulthood did I appreciate this experience in the way it should have been appreciated. Following the obligatory snow coach tour and filling in worksheets at the interpretive centre, we piled back into our vans and continued toward the Banff and Calgary area.

I had been to Southern Alberta when I was about 7 years old and my parents took us and my grandparents on a road trip that included the Calgary Stampede, a brief jaunt to look at Moraine Lake, a stop in Banff, and to Drumheller. It was a great trip but I was too young to remember a bulk of it. I remembered going to these places but their appearances were fuzzy and under-developed in my memory. On the field trip, I was astounded by Southern Alberta’s expansive beauty. I hadn’t really been anywhere exciting up to this point (or what I considered exciting) and so the prairies, the hoodoos, and the small towns boasting fireworks sales at the local convenience stores, eating milk duds and sour Skittles on the bus while looking out at modest dirt roads felt like home to me. This was the ‘real’ Alberta; the one I’ve read about and seen in textbook photographs but had not yet explored. We drove all the way down to the Montana Boarder and reveled in mud fights on the banks of the Milk River in the blistering sunshine. I was a brooding, surly, un-liked young girl and even I had fun that day.

On one of our last days before heading back to Jasper, we stopped at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, an interpretive centre in the southern half of the province which commemorates the place where indigenous people on the plains would drive buffalo off an 11-metre cliff, rendering them either dead or immobile, where they were later ‘processed’ at a nearby camp for fur, skin, bones, horns and meat. There is an eerie quiet surrounding the area. It was a cloudy day when we arrived and the lumbering, rolling clouds were inescapable, almost audible amidst the pale cornflower prairie sky.

In the museum we sat down in a circle on the floor before a man who told us his name was Leo Pard. He was going to tell us old stories about the buffalo jump and we also did a smudge with a tightly-tied braid of sweetgrass. I remember the intoxicating, peaceful scent of the burning grass as we sat in the echoing room with its gray floors, the warm air surrounding us while we listened to Leo Pard’s stories. I sat in the very front and I noticed that he was missing several of his fingers. His hands sat calmly folded in his lap resembling a puzzle with missing pieces. I couldn’t stop staring at those hands. His fingernails were slightly jaundiced and unclean but his skin looked soft and malleable. I didn’t dare ask about his hands but of course, one of my classmates did; he replied, “You don’t want to know what happened to my fingers.”

The stories were interesting but after a long few days with little sleep and little rest, I was tired and drifting off to sleep listening to his steady, gruff voice discuss, in simple story structure, legends and tales about the Plains Indians. Up to this point, I’d forgotten how soothing it is to just sit and listen to a story.

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