Academic journal article Human Ecology

Driving Bison and Blackfoot Science

Academic journal article Human Ecology

Driving Bison and Blackfoot Science

Article excerpt

Archaeological and ethnohistorical evidence of "buffalo jumping" is concentrated in Blackfoot (Nitsitapi) territory. Although the "hardware" of buffalo jumps has been documented extensively, little is known of the "software," in particular the skills required to drive stampeding herds of bison over long distances to the deadfall, on foot, and often for days. The origins and nature of bison driving knowledge is explored on the basis of ethnohistory as well as Blackfoot chronicles, philosophy, and linguistics, and compared with the findings of recent field studies on the relationships between bison and wolves in the northern Great Plains. Blackfoot explanations of bison driving as knowledge learned from wolves are entirely plausible, and shed light on Blackfoot ecological methodology, as well as the development of human-canid hunting relationships generally.

KEY WORDS: traditional knowledge; Blackfoot; bison; buffalo jumps; wolves; canids; hunting tactics.


Designers of the interpretive center for Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a World Heritage site in southern Alberta, asked Blackfoot elders for information on bison hunting (Brink, 1992). The elders told a number of Napi stories in which Napi makes a fool of himself while trying to become human. Napi gets into trouble because he never listens. The Old Man (Sun) and the animals try to give Napi advice, but he is preoccupied with his own impulses and desires. Parks personnel missed the significance of the stories elders chose to tell them. Like Napi, the elders were hinting, Park scientists were not prepared to listen carefully or take Blackfoot knowledge seriously as empirical science (compare Barsh, 1999; Maffi, 2001).

By 2000 B.P., Blackfoot and their neighbors learned how to drive bison over long distances to elaborately modified deadfall jumps like Head-Smashed-In. The knowledge and skill required to make such devices consistently useful despite annual fluctuations in bison movements is impressive. We will show that Blackfoot could have acquired that knowledge through an older hunting collaboration with wolves, as Blackfoot traditions assert. Although Blackfoot have lost their detailed technical knowledge of managing bison after more than a century of disuse, contemporary wildlife biologists can rediscover useful insights about bison behavior by the same means: studying and emulating wolves.


As modern-day bison ranchers will attest, driving a buffalo herd is extremely difficult. "You can usually bluff longhorns [cattle] by standing up to them, but not buffalo," a pioneer bison-rancher once observed. "There is always some cow in the herd that will come bounding out of the bunch toward the rider as if she would like to swallow both him and his horse." His advice to fellow ranchers: "You can drive buffalo anywhere buffalo want to go" (Williams, 1957, p. 686). Our observations of southern Alberta captive bison attest to the truth of this statement.

We do not know when our ancestors began to kill large mammals, instead of scavenging the kills of other predators (Blumenschine, 1991; Lewis, 1997; O'Connell et al., 1999; Potts, 1988; Stopp, 1997). Even during the last glaciation, it is debatable whether humans were yet capable of confronting and killing prey as large as a mammoth, although humans appear to have sometimes eaten them (Fisher 1992, p. 76; Shea, 1998). By 10,000 B.P., however, the human hunters of the Great Plains were not only killing bison regularly, but increasing their efficiency by driving small groups of bison on foot into various kinds of natural and artificial traps (Frison, 1998; Reeves, 1978a; Stanford, 1978). A thousand years before European traders arrived, the ancestors of northern Plains Indians were routinely driving herds of hundreds of bison for days to natural deadfalls: "buffalo jumps" (Reeves, 1978b; compare Kenyon, 1997, for caribou).

How did Plains hunters guide bison movements over such long distances, and how did they learn how to do it? …

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