Lewis, Clark, Indians and Buffalo

We got involved with all their histories today, starting with the Lewis & Clark Interpretative Center in Great Falls, Montana, right on the banks of the Missouri River near where they made camp.

Great Falls was a critical stop on the journey west.  The falls indeed were great, but there was a slight problem.  First of all, there were actually five separate waterfalls.  And secondly, you can boat up the Missouri River from St. Louis – it’s just real hard going against the current, with the boats being pulled by the soldiers with ropes from the shore. So that problem called for a two-week portage of all the goods and equipment around the falls, which was not something the Corps of Discovery had counted on. You can see the first falls they found still today, and if you squint and ignore the ugly dam that just had to be there, you are taken back in time.  I am getting to hate dams.

The Center was full of information and reminders of all the L&C locations we have already explored.  From Ft. Clatsop in Washington State to Travelers’ Rest in Missoula, we have had many intersections with this band of hardy men, one woman (Sacagawea) and her baby boy.

And then it was off to the Charley Russell Museum.  A Great Falls celebrity, Russell died in 1926, having captured so much of the west in his paintings that he inspired many others to do the same.  This museum of western art generally records the end of what is called the “buffalo economy” and the era when the Indians could still live as their ancestors had.  Unfortunately, no photos allowed, but you can see his work for yourself (http://www.charlesmarionrussell.org/), and enjoy the outside views, which include his log-cabin studio and his home.

We had lunch in Great Falls, without finding its center, and then took off again on Interstate 15, going an easy 75 mph.  You really get to cover some ground out here on the plains.

And that’s when we get to the Indians and buffalo part of the day. Yes, we know they really are American Bison, but bear with us.  We visited something really special – the First Peoples’ Buffalo Jump near the town of Ulm. Ever heard of a Buffalo Jump?

Well, go back in time to about 900 AD to about 1500. The Indians did not yet have horses.  They came with the Spanish Conquistadores.  So hunting buffalo was very difficult.  The Indians could not compete with speed, so they competed with their wits, and thus the buffalo jump came into being. When the land is just right, it is possible to stampede a herd of buffalo over a cliff, and let the fall or the waiting warriors kill them.

The land we saw today was one such place, and the archaeological evidence proves it had been used before the horse made its appearance on the Great Plains, which in those days was covered with buffalo.  For a jump, several of the fourteen tribes which inhabited what is now Montana would collaborate on planning a hunt.  They would select the herd to be jumped, and the selected a “buffalo runner,” a young boy with great speed and courage.  Draped in a buffalo calf skin, he would integrate himself into the chosen herd and take perhaps as long as two weeks to determine which cow was the leader.  Once he was sure, he would – from a safe distance so as not to be detected by her sense of smell -start edging toward the jump area and making calf distress sounds, sure to have the leader move the herd toward him to integrate him back into safety.

This continued till he had the herd on the plateau where the other Indians had piled rocks into a chute/funnel configuration, that left the buffalo only one direction to run at the moment the buffalo runner stampeded them over the cliff.  He jumped to safety on a small ledge selected in advance – on which he had practiced many times – and about 150 buffalo would thunder over him to their deaths. The warriors down below would finish them off, and then both tribes would collaborate on dressing the kill.

There were about 4 to 5000 jumps in this country, and several hundred have been preserved like this one.  From the visitors’ center, you gaze up at a fairly benign looking hill.  But when you get to the top of it, you understand the height and the drama of the ledge – impossible to see till it is too late, if you’re a buffalo going about 35 miles an hour. (Thoughtful poses by Don to illustrate depth and the danger.  Thank goodness no rattlesnakes were on the path…)

A simple but brilliant system, and a treat to understand and see first-hand. Then it was back on I-15 and on to Helena. This is the state capital, and the site of an early gold rush.  They have preserved some of the older buildings, and we will forgive them for mucking up the rest of what is called “Last Chance Gulch” as a pedestrian mall with very pedestrian buildings because of past earthquakes and fires.  Oh well, there were at least a few things preserved.

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