Hundreds of years before cattle arrived in the West, the tribes of central Montana ran their own meat counter: a mile-long sandstone bluff where herds of properly motivated bison plunged to their deaths. Modern visitors to First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, overlooking the Missouri River valley southwest of Great Falls, can walk along the old drive lines, peer over the cliff’s edge, and imagine the drama.
"It's a great opportunity to reflect on the danger and excitement of what happened here," says park manager Rick Thompson.
Displays and interpretive talks in the visitor center tell the story. In a carefully choreographed maneuver, a decoy would lure the herd into marked drive lines, where the animals would be flanked by tribe members and funneled toward the precipice. Below, the hunters' helpers would urgently harvest and process as much meat as they could before it spoiled.
Thousands of bone shards are still visible along the trail, just a small reminder of an industry that spanned centuries. This place shows up in the oral histories of at least a dozen tribes, Thompson says, and it was named a national historic landmark in 2015.
This article was first published in Winter 2017. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.