The Madison Valley’s oldest butcher.
Today, when we get a hankering for a burger or steak, we swing by the store. However, for the Native Americans that traveled through our valley, harvesting meat was far from easy. Their archery skills worked well when game was plentiful and mobility easy, but when winter set in, everything was harder.
In order to efficiently stockpile for the long winter months, they used a natural geographic feature: a limestone cliff in the Madison bluffs now called Buffalo Jump.
This late-fall hunt was planned and executed with precision. It would be a communal hunt, with most, if not all of the tribe being involved. Rocks were piled and brush or tree stumps and branches were arranged in a general V-shape. Where the widest part of the V was near a natural grazing area, funneling and narrowing down to the edge of the cliff.
A decoy would be trained for endurance and speed. He would disguise himself with a buffalo hide and be stationed downwind and between the buffalo and the cliff. The other hunters would be upwind at the back and flank of the herd. At an agreed upon signal, all hunters created a ruckus and rushed the surprised animals. The decoy would get the front of the herd’s attention and begin running toward the cliff. At the last moment, the decoy would leap onto a pre-planned cranny or crevice, while the herd would thunder over the edge. Women and children stationed below would immediately begin processing the meat and hides. Everything from the buffalo would be used to feed, clothe, and shelter the tribe through winter.
When horses were introduced to Montana in the 1700s, the Buffalo Jump was no longer used as a hunting tool. It is still, however, a fascinating link to our past. This spring, head to Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, just 20 miles west of Bozeman along I-90. This limestone cliff dries out early in the season, allowing for a mid-spring wildlife walk or bird-watching outing. From the top of the bluff, look out over Madison Valley as it springs back to life after a long, harsh winter, and think how lucky you are not to be a decoy.
Patti Albrecht is the owner of Earth’s Treasures Fossil & Mineral Museum Gallery in downtown Bozeman.