Madison Buffalo Jump: The deep past in Gallatin County


One of the first historic sites I visited in Montana was the Madison Buffalo Jump State Park.  That ancient property–in use for an estimated 2000 years before the last kill c. 1750–reflected how Native Americans used the landscape resources in unique ways to feed their families, build their lives and create their material culture–the buffalo was so central to Plains Indian culture.

Gallatin Co Madison Buffalo Jump 5

The park then was little different than what I found in 2015.  Ranches and development have not yet encroached on this National Register listed property, about seven miles south of Logan.  The cliff over which the Native Americans would chase buffalo to their animals death is still stark, a foreboding intrusion over the surrounding landscape.

IMG_6794I used a slide taken in 1982 in all of my public presentations about the Montana state historic preservation plan back in 1984-1985.  I found out that few Montanans knew of the place and its history.  What has changed since the 1980s?  The park is still little known and receives infrequent visitors.  In my 2015 fieldwork, I saw signs of new heritage development–the park sign, a bit of improvement to the outdoor interpretive center, and new interpretive exhibits with a more inclusive public interpretation and strong Native American focus.

First Nations Buffalo Jump–then called the Ulm Piskun–in Cascade County was much like the Madison property 30 years ago.  Both had unbelievable integrity of setting and association–you actually felt like you were in a historic landscape hundreds of years old. But today with its new visitor center and museum, the First Nations site is a superb teaching tool about the ancient patterns of Montana’s historic landscape.  Let’s hope that the champion for the Madison Buffalo Jump State Park soon appears–with such growth in Gallatin and Madison counties the last 30 years both new and old residents need a place that tells of the deep Native American history impeded in the Montana landscape.

Great Falls Heritage Area, part two: First Nations Buffalo Jump

Ulm Pishkun, Cascade Co NR (29-23)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.

IMG_9585Buffalo 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.


IMG_9587State 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.

IMG_9589The 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.

IMG_9576Park 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.

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IMG_9573As 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.

IMG_9591Here 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.

IMG_9586This 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.