Friday, August 22, 2014

Piikani Winter Buffalo Hunting at the Porcupine Hills

Bison walking through snow, Tower Junction, Yellowstone.  Photo by Jim Peaco.

Jack W. Brink
Imaging Head-Smashed-In
Athabasca University Press
2008, pages 135-137

"Billy [a Piikani Elder] was in his early seventies when I interviewed him in the mid-1980s.  He had been raised mainly by his grandparents.  They would have lived through the last half of the nineteenth century, the final days of the buffalo hunting culture.  Billy was raised by people who had lived in tipis, travelled by horse, and hunted buffalo.  When I asked questions about the old days, translated into Blackfoot, there might be some general discussion around the room, but someone would say, "Let Billy tell it."  The room would become quiet, and Billy would speak, often at considerable length, telling stories and passing on information just as it had been passed on to him.

"There is a great responsibility that comes with being recognized as one of the precious few who carry the history of a people.  It is imperative to recount what you have learned exactly as it was conveyed to you, without embellishment or change.  That this code was rigidly followed was made clear to me when I compared Billy's words (when translated) to texts of traditional Blackfoot stories written in both Blackfoot and English in the early twentieth century.  Astonishingly, I could follow along with the written text, noting an almost exact word-for-word correspondence with Billy's version (the correspondence was so uncanny that there were fleeting moments where I thought that Billy must have read the same decades-old book, though I assumed this was not possible).  But Billy also told stories that have never appeared in any book.  One of them struck a special chord with me, because it provided insight into rounding up and moving bison towards a kill.

"Billy told how sometimes buffalo jumps were held during winter.  The conditions for the people were much more difficult, and they had to contend with cold, frozen ground, and drive lanes covered with snow.  The people had to resort to other tricks, had to reach deep into their pool of knowledge.  The Porcupine Hills were an excellent wintering place for herds of buffalo, so the animals were often gathered in the hills.  The task was to move them towards the cliff.  Billy told how people knew that bison are attracted to and will follow their own trails, perceiving them as a safe route of travel.  The trick was to create a fake trail, one that bison would perceive as a means of escape but that, in reality, led to death.  Billy recounted how the hunters would first rub their bodies and moccasins with sage so as to hide their human smell.  Then they would take several tanned buffalo hides and head into the gathering basin, collecting all the frozen buffalo chips they could find.  Chips (now freeze-dried and lightweight) were piled on the hides and dragged by the hunters until they reached the place where the drive would begin.  Once in position, hunters walked backwards toward the edge of the cliff, dragging the chip-laden hides behind them.  Billy explained how dragging the hides over the footprints of the people further served to mask the scent of the humans.  As they walked, the hunters tossed out chip after chip, forming a long line of dark circles set against the snow of frozen ground.  They continued this until they reached the edge of the cliff.

"Hunters knew that bison preferred to follow an existing trail.  After all, if the animals had travelled in a certain route many times before, it must lead to safety.  There are several dead giveaways that a trail is old.  One clue is the deep ruts cut by thousands of sharp hoofs.  Another is the ubiquitous dark circles of dung that, in earlier times, surely lined all paths the bison travelled.  Hunters knew that this would be a chosen path of escape and so used dried buffalo chips to create a false trail leading to the cliff edge.  By walking backwards and dragging hides behind them, they covered their own scent with that of the intended prey.  A herd of bison, frightened by hunters circling around them, could see and smell a safe path of escape in the form of a beaten trail marked with a line of chips.  Billy's story made perfect sense.

"I had never seen this trick recorded in any literature, yet armed with a bit of knowledge about the nature of bison, I had no doubts about the authority of the account.  Billy has now passed away, a sad loss for the community and for all who yearn to know the past.  Thankfully, some record of his profound knowledge was made before his passing."

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