January 19, 2010

Torch relay at Buffalo Jump

The story behind the strangest stop on the Torch Relay

By Allan MakiAt some point in the planning stages of the 2010 Olympic Torch Relay, someone must have looked at a map of Alberta and exclaimed, "I have no idea how we do it, but we have to go to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. How can we not?"

Rarely has a place been so splendidly named: a head was once smashed in here, along with a lot of buffalo that were forced to jump off a cliff and plunge to their doom because, 5,000 years ago, that was the only way to kill these four-legged monsters.

Since the indigenous people of the time didn't have any firepower or weapons of buffalo destruction, they simply drove the beasts over the edge of a cliff where, 10 metres later, there was meat and skins aplenty. Enough for the whole gang.

Given the history of the jump and what it meant to the Blackfoot people, the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. The government of Alberta later named it a provincial historic site and, yesterday, the Olympic torch made its well-planned appearance on the viewing platform where the buffalo once fell like giant stones.
Curiously, the place isn't named after buffaloes with their heads smashed in:The Blackfoot name for the site is Estipah-skikikini-kots and, according to legend, the Head-Smashed-In part isn't about buffalo having their heads crunched upon impact with the ground. It has to do with a young Blackfoot who wanted to watch the buffalo soaring overhead by standing directly beneath the cliff.One Native passes the torch to another:

Olympic torch comes to historic Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southern Alta"Thank God they didn't herd me off the end of the cliff," chuckled 1988 Olympian Wendy Lumby, originally from the Swan Lake Band in Manitoba but who now lives in Calgary.

"I'm not cold. I had the flame keeping me warm. My heart's been pounding non-stop ever since I woke up and to be honest I didn't think I'd be lasting the two hours before I did my run. It was fantastic. What an experience," she added.

Lumby, who competed in alpine skiing at the Calgary Olympics, said this is a unique experience.

"I think what I'll remember most is just the adrenalin rush that you have constantly from the second you wake up and the excitement of knowing this flame is going to go light the cauldron at the Olympics."

Lumby handed off her torch to 17-year-old Michael Strikes With a Gun--a modern-day member of the Buffalo Runners Society, which holds runs at ceremonial events and for charities across North America.

"I just found out yesterday that I was going to be in this torch bearer relay thing but when I found out I was pretty excited--speechless--the first thought that came to my mind was 'I'm going to do this for all the young aboriginal people and all the young native people on reserves,"' said Strikes With A Gun, who was still holding a ceremonial eagle feather.
Comment:  There's more to the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump than these articles indicate.

I believe archaeologists have found many complete buffalo skeletons at this jump and others like it. From this they concluded that Natives used only the buffaloes they could reach, on top of the pile, and let the others go to waste.

Conservative pundits have used this fact to slam the idea of Indians as ecology-minded stewards of the land. That Indians used "every part of the buffalo" is a joke, they claim, when Indians killed dozens of animals without touching them.

This is good place to remind you why conservative pundits are often idiots.

1) The buffalo jumps happened in only a few places on the Northern Plains. Northern Plains Indians are only a small fraction of all Indians. It's ridiculous to generalize from the practices of a few Plains Indians to all Indians.

2) The Indians presumably instigated buffalo jumps because they couldn't hunt enough individual buffaloes to feed themselves. They didn't have any way to fine-tune the jumps and kill exactly the number of animals they needed. (Over)killing in the name of survival has little or nothing to do with a callous disregard for nature.

3) Killing 50 or whatever extra animals out of a herd of millions doesn't contradict the idea of Indians as ecologists. They didn't exterminate the whole species, as Americans tried to do. They killed only a trivial amount for their own needs.

This did nothing to harm the species' health. In fact, by culling the stupider beasts from the herd, they may have strengthened the species overall. The proof is in the prairie: The white man found herds stretching from horizon to horizon when they first explored the West.

A helpful analogy

Imagine a farm where the people raise enough crops and livestock to feed themselves. They need no outside help. They consume only enough to survive and use the rest to sustain their lifestyle.

Now imagine something happens to one of their meals. A dust storm covers it in grit, or baby pours rat poison on it. The family has to throw the food out.

Does this carelessness and wastefulness mean the family isn't ecology-minded? No. It means the family is "only" 95% ecology-minded, perhaps, not 100%. Because humans aren't perfect, they occasionally waste goods and resources.

If ancient Indians achieved an "ecological rating" of 95%, they'd be doing a hell of lot better than most people today. Most people would be lucky to get a rating of 50%--recycling half their waste, replacing half their inefficient appliances, avoiding half the unnecessary car trips, etc. I suspect the typical American would fall in the 0-20% range. Compared to that, Indians were incredibly ecology-minded.

For more on the subject, see Dennis Prager and The Ecological Indian.

Below:  Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

"Torchbearer Wendy Lumby passes crowds on top of the cliffs at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alta., Monday, Jan. 18, 2010. The ancient site was used by native American Indians to herd and slaughter buffalo." (The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh)

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