“Imagining Head-Smashed-In” by Jack W. Brink

Sometimes we find ourselves in a place that will forever remain with us, geography somehow making a change in who we are.  It may be a small curve of the Bella Coola River or the ruins at Cumae or the sweeping vista from the Palace Tower at Palenque over the Plain of Tabasco and the Yucatan beyond.  As a young fellow, I found myself on the edge of a windswept sandstone cliff looking east across the Canadian Prairie and geography made yet another change in who I am.  I was at Head-Smashed-In.

It was the late 1980s. The Interpretive Centre for this UNESCO World Heritage Site had recently opened. The sun was shining. Everything was aligned. The geography of the place and of my life had channelled me, like thousands of bison over the centuries, to that spot at the top of the cliff on the edge of the Porcupine Hills.

Now, three decades later, I’ve just finished reading Jack Brink’s beautiful, award-winning biography of six thousand years at that sandstone cliff, Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains.  For so many reasons, Imagining Head-Smashed-In should be a required text in Alberta’s schools, indeed, in schools across Canada.  Brink’s book in not only an archaeological study of the technique of communal buffalo hunting.  It is a field study in how to – and how not to – do consultation with indigenous peoples. It is a heartfelt gesture of gratitude and respect across cultures and time. And it is a celebration of one of the greatest and most overlooked of human intellectual achievements, an achievement that should be as well known to all Canadians as the building of the Railroad, which did so much to wipe the bison from the Plains.

Imagine Head-Smashed-In:

A group of people gather together on a landscape that has been carefully altered over countless generations.  With skills trained over a lifetime, unarmed and on foot – the horse had not yet been brought from Europe – the most skillful approach a herd of the largest land animal in the Americas and persuade that herd to move along a designated path, marked out by uncountable generations of humans and bison before them.  As they progress, the herd’s movements become an inevitability.  The result is, as Brink describes it, “the most productive food-getting enterprise ever devised by human beings.” (p. 6)

The sheer quantity of biomass harvested in a communal hunt at Head-Smashed-In or any of the other buffalo jumps on the Northern Plains was unrivalled by any other human activity.  And that vast quantity of food spurred the invention of something often attributed to Henry Ford: the assembly line. The bison carcasses had to be processed quickly, the food and hides preserved for long term use. Teams would assemble, to skin and gut the animals, to prepare the hides, to cut and dry the meat, to prepare immediate meals for the other workers, to pound the dried meat for pemmican. Head-Smashed-In was an industrial operation during a communal hunt, an industrial operation on a scale as large as anything on earth during much of its six thousand and more year use.

It should be mentioned that as much as Brink marvels at the ingenuity of the people who used Head-Smashed-In for all those generations, he is very careful to emphasize that they were human, not mythical beings magically at-one with the environment, never letting a bison hair go to waste.  They killed bison to survive. If they needed hides for tipi covers, they killed for hides and used what meat and fat they needed, leaving the rest to rot.  In starving seasons they would use every bit of an individual animal down to the stomach contents. In rich seasons they would use the best cuts and preserve what they could for the lean winter times.  Brink remarks:

Some Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people believe it is a disservice to Native heritage to state that sometimes ore bison were killed than were needed.  In my opinion, such assertions show a lack of understanding of both the deeply spiritual and profoundly practical world of Aboriginal buffalo hunters of the Plains.  It seems to me always a disservice to relegate rational and spiritual people to the status of robots, acting in a machine-like fashion without regard to contingencies, deeply held cultural beliefs. and common sense. (p. 160)

Throughout Imagining Head-Smashed-In, Brink’s primary purpose is to make sure we understand that he is talking about real people, human individuals, who came together in a physical, biological and cultural landscape to perform a magnificently choreographed inter-species dance of death and survival.

Imagining Head-Smashed-In is a wholly remarkable piece of writing about archaeology and humanity. Jack W. Brink well deserves his many awards for the book, including:

2009 Best Book Award from the Society for American Archaeology
2009 Canadian Archaeological Association Public Communication Award
2012 Felicia A Holton Award from The Archaeological Institute of America.

Imagining Head-Smashed-In is published by Athabasca University Press.  Buy it. Read it.

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