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Visit Manitoba’s buffalo jumps

Other sights on the western Prairies are more famous, but don’t miss this slice of Indigenous history closer to home

This steep cliff face near Cartwright allowed human hunters on foot to harvest the massive bison herds of the central plains.

Perhaps you have heard about the famous attraction in southwestern Alberta called Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump — but were you aware that Manitoba has similar sites?

In the southern part of our province, just north of the village of Cartwright, is the Clay Banks Buffalo Jump. Many years ago, when bison still roamed these vast stretches of prairie grasslands, this spot was used by the natives as an important feature in their annual hunts.

In prehistoric times, from perhaps 1,200 to 2,500 years ago, the site was used by Sonata and Besant people to kill bison by driving them over this cliff, where Badger Creek has cut a deep ravine. Projectile points found here are evidence of an ancient campground, named Mistu Nusk Sepesis by archeologists (meaning Arrowhead Creek in Cree).

One usual method of using a buffalo jump was for the native hunters to cover themselves with animal hides — from wolves, coyotes or bison. Thus disguised, they would creep slowly closer and closer to the herd, trying always to keep downwind, and then gradually ‘drive’ the bison towards a cliff or steep drop-off. This was all done on foot, in the time before horses were brought to the Americas by early Spanish explorers.

Piles of rocks and brush were sometimes placed to help direct the herd. As the hunters edged slowly towards them, they narrowed the width of the drive area, causing the bison to bunch up together. Then, when the animals finally noticed the hunters, the men stampeded them forwards and over the steep cliff. If the drive was carried out in early morning, the sun to the east might prevent the bison from realizing that the southeast-facing cliff was in front of them.

When the bison fell or jumped over the cliff, some died outright, while others had fatal injuries, or were killed by other hunters waiting below. Sometimes corrals previously constructed at the bottom helped to trap the animals. The bison were then butchered, with nearly all parts of the carcasses being used for food, tools, shelter and clothing. Very little was ever wasted.

To reach the Clay Banks Bison Jump, drive north from Cartwright on PTH 5 about two km from the village’s north entrance. There a large sign directs visitors to the viewing area 2-1/2 miles (four km) farther north. Follow this road to the end where there are parking spots and an interpretive sign explaining the site.

Another Manitoba site known to be important in the bison hunt is the Stott site northwest of Brandon, where Grand Valley Recreation Park is located today. This place was named for the Stott family who farmed there and discovered numerous bison bones. Such artifacts as arrowheads, beads and pottery were also uncovered. Excavations carried out by archeologists from the National Museum of Canada, as well as others from several universities, determined that large numbers of bison had been killed there at least twice in prehistoric times. A mound on the property was also discovered to contain remains of human burials from two ancient time periods.

To reach this location, drive about eight km west from 18th Street on Highway No. 459 (at the mall on the north side of Brandon.) The Stott site is where this road reaches the Trans-Canada Highway, between the road and the Assiniboine River, and it is actually bisected by the Trans-Canada. Unlike the Clay Banks Jump, this spot did not have steep cliffs over which to drive the bison. Instead, the hunters probably built, on the bottom of the valley, an enclosure (a pound) using branches stuck into the ground. Experts assume they may have hunted here in the winter, and chased the bison into gullies or old river oxbows where they were easier to kill.

Manitoba’s buffalo jumps may not be as well known as Alberta’s Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, but for history, geography or geology buffs, or for anyone exploring some new part of the province, they can make an interesting side trip.

For more information on these sites, read sections of the book In Search of Canada’s Ancient Heartland by Barbara Huck and Doug Whiteway, or check out the Manitoba Historical Society website.

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