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    Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

    They were rivers of fur, pouring over the grasslands. Until the ground just  



    beneath their feet. 

    And after that, all that was left to them, was to fly. 

    Stand here with me, and watch. Soak it in. Waterfalls of fur, muzzles wet-biting air, fore-legs cycling, scratching at the sky, but alas... NO ENTRY.

    No stairway for flesh and fur up here, no skyway 'cross the chasm. You can't live up here - not dressed in hoof and horn. 

    Rebuffed, they head home, skydivers, turning horn over hock, tumblers, born under punches, crashing back to Earth. Crashlanding, friend. Their bodies compressed in death's hard embrace, all the treacherous air finally squeezed out. 

    In the 19th Century, Buffalo outnumbered people on this continent. Over the Earth as a whole, buffalo outweighed humanity. Back before the gun and the horse, the Blackfoot - and the other great Nations of the Plains and the Prairies - learned how to live with, and from, the buffalo. In their quest to perfect the hunt, they created a technique which lives on today, more than 6,000 years later. They searched out the many low ridges and sudden sinkholes that broke the Prairies and the Plains, looking for one with just the right characteristics - cliffs just low enough to be invisible to the buffalo when in flight... but just high enough to break their legs if they fell. Were pushed. "Jumped." 

    Buffalo Jumps. 

    For thousands of years, the single largest slaughters/harvests performed by humans were the Buffalo Jumps. They say that at the bottom of this cliff, there are bones. Obviously, there are bones of buffalo. But human bones as well. A Boy, is buried there - the Blackfoot named this place after him. They said he was standing beneath the cliff, watching the buffalo fly over, and stood too close, got crushed. Maybe. Or maybe he just wanted to catch the buffalo. Carry them someplace safe. Maybe they had an agreement, the Boy and the Buffalo. We don't know. Whatever the intention, the boy caught the buffalo as they flew off into the air. They named him after the consequence of his actions --

    "Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump."

    Heck of a name to give a kid.

    Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is perhaps the largest Buffalo Jump on the continent. It's in Southwestern Alberta. There's a museum there, carved into the cliff itself, descending the levels, laying out the story. You can walk through the very same air the buffalo once travelled.

    There are many other Buffalo Jumps - in Vore, Wyoming and Ulm Pishkun, Montana and so on. At this one, the bones at the base of the cliff run 30 feet deep. Archaeologists sort through the layers, tracking the stone points, the size of bones, the frequency of the kills. They say the Buffalo Jumps run back at least 6,000 years. 

    We humans took to this concept early. It suited us.

    Of course, the buffalo wouldn't just run off these cliffs because we wanted them to. They had to be lured over. Or frightened over. Or stampeded. Which wasn't easy. You can't just run screaming at a herd of buffalo and expect them to flee the way you want them to, and especially, over a cliff. 

    But what the Blackfoot and the other peoples of the Plains discovered was that the buffalo would go where you wanted - as long as you put on a play for them.

    As before any good play, the actors had to dress up. Some put on heavy, adult buffalo hides. Rubbed themselves in buffalo fat and grease to remove any foreign smell. Learned how to walk like a buffalo. How to hold a buffalo stance. Let's see you do it. Shake your heads like buffalo. You have to be able to merge, become one with the herd.

    Others would dress in the hide of a buffalo calf. Get good and greasy. Learn that new walk. That new look - surprised, startled, fearful. Practice it. Go on. Raise your head in surprise. Look alarmed. Appear distressed. Make just the right call. One a mother buffalo would understand. Marvelous. 

    Others would dress as Wolves. Learn to become wolves, in wolves clothing. Padded paw. The lift of the leg. The slow, low, pressing forward of the nose. How to circle, feint, close, as a pack. Wolf pack. Now, frighten your young buffalo calf brothers. Practice.

    Others would just stay... Human. And do what humans have always done best. Wave flags. Create confusion. Shriek. Leap around. Just another day at the office, running amok. Putting the frighteners on some lesser species.

    Plus, from time to time, I suspect there was that one Boy, or some years maybe that particular Girl, who'd feel they were supposed to stand beneath the cliff. Who felt they were to be... the Caller. Or the Greeter. Or maybe the Catcher, I donno. Kids. Kids feel these things.

    But when the time came, when the Buffalo came, the Blackfoot were ready. As the herd grazed, new mother buffalo would begin to appear, grazing alongside the others. Their new calves would be feeding nearby. New wolves would trot past, at a safe distance. After a while, one of the new calves might wander off a bit, inattentive, untrained. The new wolves might move closer, sniffing. A sudden movement from a buffalo calf, a wolf, and the new mother buffalo would respond... At which point, the attentive, protective herd would move to close ranks. Move to enclose the newcomers. 

    Except now, the new and slightly larger herd was moving in a direction they hadn't originally intended. Their course shifted, they'd been misdirected, and were now headed toward a new fate.

    This could go on for hours. Small adjustments. Feint, react, shift. Eventually though, the herd would be between the drive lines. These were ribbons of low, stacked rocks that ran for miles. Stacked by the Blackfoot. Ankle-high, not much more than a curb, just high enough, obvious enough, that the buffalo wouldn't want to step over them. Easier to just stay between them. Drifting along, feeding, following the breeze, staying in their lane. 

    Then gently, step by step, the buffalo traffic was sped up. By the wolves coming closer. The calves more visibly alarmed. The sense of threat rising. And off in the distance, occasional flappings, unknown flags, signals and sightings, almost out of the field of vision. Unknowns. Could be humans. Maybe. But closing.

    Faster now. Wolves visible, numerous, circling closer. Mothers and calves moving more abruptly, making short runs, noses flaring, heads lifting in fear, beginning to bolt. And the people, people definitely visible now, close, creeping, but right there, next to the drive lines, waving their flags of hide, shouting and crying out, shaking weapons, sharp-tipped spears. But always leaving the buffalo an opening. A way out. One way to get away from these two-legged psychos.

    Until finally... some of the buffalo start to trot, then... run. And when some run... all run. And the lane gets tighter, they're being jammed in against each other, buffalo bouncing into one another, the cries louder, the dust rising, harder to see ahead, moving faster, tough to look back, impossible to turn.

    Animal adrenalin. Full throttle. Stampede.

    And the thing is, for tens of thousands of years, the stampede had worked for the buffalo. Nothing - no predator, no pack - could stand before the buffalo as they, it, hurtled shoulder to shoulder, the greatest mass of hoof and hide and horn on Earth. A churning mass which crushed its enemies, a living hurricane, the tsunami of the grasslands.

    Except now, the hurricane was being called forth, sung into space, but not by the buffalo. By others. Others, with somewhat different agendas. 

    Agendas which saw the river of fur diverted. Channelled toward a cliff, where everything firm melted into air, and the slow spinning began, that seemingly painless, apparently endless descending, and finally - you know the drill - the great crash. For a herd of 1,500 pound animals, moving at 30 mph, flying off a 50 foot cliff, there's no such thing as a soft landing. 

    No such thing as a soft landing.

    Best not to stand too close. Unless you've got some other purpose. Which the Blackfoot did. Winter. Food for Winter. Survival. And as we were all taught in school, every piece of every buffalo was used. Nothing wasted. 

    Less well-known is the fact that every buffalo sent over a Buffalo Jump was killed. This was law. That none be left alive to tell the other buffalo what had happened. Stories were powerful. No one there got out alive. 


    POSTSCRIPT: In one of the great surprises of modern theatre, the Buffalo Jump has staged a comeback and is today performed in more venues than at any time in history, with millions getting a chance to see the spectacle, and even participate. In Iraq. On Wall Street. Performed by Health insurers. For the Afghanis. On our Roads and along our Infrastructure. Amongst torturers. In abandoned Homes. And coming soon to Iran. 

    If you go, try to get up close and pay close attention to the actors. They're masters of the art, a world - and many paygrades - above those who work the traditional theatre. Look close, however, and you'll see they're playing the same roles that the Blackfoot created long ago. Look... there're the Wolves! They mean to make you scared, and nobody knows where the Fear button is located as well as this lot. Others play the part of the humans, there to create chaos by rushing along the edges, shouting and waving flags, sending up smoke, beating drums and waving spears. They aim to catch your attention, and it's almost impossible not to look - what with the spears and the shrieking and all. 

    And some, well... they just look just like us. If you didn't know their role, you'd swear they were on our side. Look at how they appear to feel our pain! Aren't they good?! And the way they proclaim they'd rush in to protect us from the wolves! You'd swear they were real enemies! They're tough to pick out, this lot, but one clue is to listen for their favorite catchphrases -- we'll protect you from those wolves... let's just stick together and keep moving forward... everyone, stay in your lane... you'll want to stay well away from those psychos over there... and above all, don't look back. 

    Oh yeah. And damned if they don't smell funny. Like they've been... well-greased. 

    With the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered

    out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand


     - Allen Ginsberg

    Radiohead - Street Spirit (Fade Out)

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