Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Jack Brink is a nearly unbelievable name for a guy who writes about buffalo jumps! I mean, BRINK!!!?? A buffalo jump is a place where pre-horse people of the northern plains caused groups of buffalo to run over a cliff which hopefully killed them but perhaps only maimed them enough to be killed with spears and arrows. The practice persisted until probably 1830 to 1850. Brink’s book, “Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains” has been published by the Athabasca University Press, whose directing editor, Walter Hildebrandt, was previously at the University of Calgary Press when my book about Bob Scriver was accepted for publication there.

Athabasca University has no campus. It is a child of the oil boom that made the Athabasca oil sands suddenly valuable and caused a stampede of people to northern Alberta. The University exists as an electronic being, almost a “cloud” entity in computer parlance. I don’t know what will happen when this boom begins to recede. The changes in the economy and in publishing are coming as fast as the coming of the horse that completely changed the culture of the northern Plains.

One of the main astonishments of the Athabasca University Press is that you can download any of their books for FREE. Also, you can buy either hard-copy or soft-cover versions, all printed out and with a pretty photo front: a bison skull prepared for a Sun Lodge ceremony (painted with red dots on one side, black dots on the other, eyes stuffed with grass) and superimposed Georgia O’Keefe style against a prairie horizon at the “magic hour”-- which is when the sun is low, either at dawn or dusk, or in winter which lasts a long time in Edmonton. Athabasca is even farther north.

As I write this, I’m downloading the book, so this blog is in reaction to an interview with Jack Brink on “Quirks and Quarks,” a program that comes over the Yellowstone Public Radio station (when it hasn’t been knocked out by the weather). Brink is Archeology Curator at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, which institution also has custody of Bob Scriver’s Blackfeet bronzes, one of which portrays a man hazing buffalo with a robe. Brink’s BA is from University of Minnesota and his MA is from the University of Alberta.

Brink was eloquent in describing the way the tribespeople managed to get the bison near the jump, the piskun, and then running fast enough to go over the edge. He emphasized the planning and the cooperation that was necessary, involving at least a hundred people, both to run the beasts over the edge and then to process them once they were piled in a huge quivering avalanche of flesh, blood and brown hide. It would be necessary to cut them up (which took a whole day for two or three inexperienced young women with modern knives to cut up one animal when the feat was attempted recently at Blackfeet Community College) and then to slice the meat into thin pieces to dry on racks over smoky fires in the sun. Once thoroughly dried, the meat could be stashed in bags made of hides and buried or otherwise hidden or carried along until needed in winter when there was no game.

is a new generation museum that depends less on “look what we found and now own” and more on “this is what you’re looking at” (the whole cliffside is there in cross-section) and "this is what we can see by studying it." Tech imagination lets near-magic phenomena guide you, like stories that mysteriously appear on rocks (projected from overhead), then fade again. These exhibits were preceded by many years of walking along, combing the grass for small clues, and sifting the tailings of the bottom of the cliff. Among the objects found was the smashed-in head of a youth who didn’t run fast enough or was in the wrong place.

The grass yielded long lines of small cairns. Most of us around here know that runners hid behind cairns (rock piles) and stood up at the strategic moment to wave a hide that would help scare the buffs, but Brink told about very small rock piles that might have been more markers than hiding places. They might have been the anchors for a pile of brush or dung piles, which make a lot more sense when you think about the actuality of hand-lugging big piles of rocks over the prairie. The trouble with studying stone culture is that it is enmeshed in materials of wood and sinew which degrade back into the environment, so the technologies of glue and fiber are lost. Brink said these lines went back onto the prairie many kilometers and made vectors in V-shapes, or long curves, or maybe just straight lines. The necessary learning for working a buffalo jump would include “reading” these lines and what they meant.

Beyond that, this technology was based on cooperation and was the source, the NECESSITY, of putting the tribal welfare ahead of the individual. The political shattering of most tribes that makes progress so difficult today is NOT essentially the culture of the northern Plains. Not that individuals didn’t act creatively to invent new things and ways, but that when it came to the crunch, people followed their leaders. This was destroyed two ways: the horse, which made it possible for a skillful hunter (esp. with a gun) to go out and kill a couple of bison without enlisting the help of anyone else; and utter poverty which made the people dependent on oppressors. They are still afraid to give up that dependence entirely, though it’s happening little by little. They still suck up to powerful people and movie stars (who are NOT powerful) and they still hunt for their own families instead of collaborating as a group. This is how environmental forces shape culture.

Now Brink’s book is downloaded to my hard drive. I’ll look for the part where hunters who had closely examined their prey were able to get close by disguising themselves as calves and imitating the sounds they made in distress while other hunters disguised themselves as wolves and pretended to be attacking the faux calves, so as to bring the bison running to defend their child. White observers who wrote about it said they were so convincing that if they hadn’t seen the men disguise themselves, they might have shot them.

My UPS man is enrolled Blackfeet. On these snowy days he comes to my door exhilarated at the stories he remembers as he drives that brown truck across the prairie. We exclaim over Willow Rounds, not far from here, stone tipi rings. We imagine being rolled up in bison robes, chewing on dry meat or maybe slurping up soup boiled by dropping hot stones into rawhide-lined pits.


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