Successful heritage areas have chronological depth to their history, and places that are of national, if not international, significance. To begin that part of the story, let’s shift to the other side of Cascade County from Belt and explore the landscape and significance of the First Nations Buffalo Jump State Park. When I visited the site in 1984 there was not much to it but the landscape: no interpretive center existed and there were only a few markers. To give the state its due, it then only owned a portion of the site, with the first land acquisition dating to the New Deal. Listed in the National Register in 1974, the site only had opened as a state park a few years earlier, and no one seemed to know much about it or even how to get to it. But as this photograph from “A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History” shows, wow, what a view: it was totally impressive, and had a big story obviously to convey.
Buffalo jumps were ways that the first nations in Montana could effectively kill large number of bisons–by planning, gathering and then stampeding a herd over a steep cliff. Native Americans used this site for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The cliff is hundreds of yards long and kill sites are throughout the property.
State park officials, working with local residents and ranchers, have significantly enhanced the public interpretation at the park since the late 1990s. Hundreds of additional acres have been acquired, better access roads have been installed. and new interpretive features, such as these reproduction sweat lodges on the top of the cliff, have been added to the landscape to physically enhance the Native American feel to the park.
The interpretive center is a model of 21st century Native American-focus history. It provides facilities and exhibits for visitors, and encourages a longer stay and exploration of the site.
Park managers understood that this site had special significance to all Native Americans thus they included capsule history displays about all Montana tribes of today along with displays that emphasize the Native American dominance of the landscape when the jump was in use.
As the park was being expanded and improved into an effective heritage asset, both in its public interpretation and visitor facilities, research on the property continued. The buffalo jump is now considered the largest in the United States, and quite likely the world. In the summer of 2015, the site was designated as a National Historic Landmark as one of the nationally significant archaeological and Native American properties in America. The bone deposits remain deep and rich in artifacts, still awaiting further exploration despite being mined for a brief time during World War II for phosphorus production. Indeed the entire site is one of reflection and respect for the cultural contributions made by the First Nations long before the arrival of Lewis and Clark just over 200 years ago.
Here is a property that today tells us how the earliest Montanans used their wits and understanding of nature and landscape to enrich their diet and to make their world, one far from that of our own, and one still difficult for those of us in the 21st century to grasp.
This buffalo jump remains a place of mystery and meaning, and when you look to the south and see the shadow of Crown Butte you glimpse into that world of the deep past in Montana,. If you look in an opposite direction you find the patterns of settlement that surround this sacred place. And that is where we go next to St. Peter’s Mission and the Sun River Valley.