Situated in Montana’s Yellowstone Country, Madison Buffalo Jump State park was named for the ancient buffalo jump, an indigenous hunting tactic used by Native American tribes. After driving far from civilization and hiking through the historic land, visitors can take in the park’s wide-open vista from an observation platform. Here, it’s easy to picture the excited activity of a buffalo jump.
This grassy valley, framed on one side by the Madison River, was a perfect grazing land for herds of buffalo. The singular cliff jutting out of the plains made it an ideal hunting ground for the Native American tribes, for whom the buffalo was an indispensable resource, supplying food, clothing, and shelter.
The native tribes hunted their prey without guns or even horses, but by strategically using the natural landscape. A young boy would dress in the pelt of a buffalo calf and lure the animals to the edge of the cliff, while athletic young men trained as runners would shepherd the herd from behind. The bison would plummet to their deaths in a frenzy. At the bottom of the hill, pelts, meat, and bones could be harvested from the fallen animals.
The Madison buffalo jump was utilized by tribes from across the plains. The Hidatsa, Shoshone, Lakota, Dakota, Nez Perce, Bannock, Arapaho, Salish, Cheyenne, Blackfeet, Crow, Gros Ventres, Cree and Assiniboine all used this cliff to hunt bison, sometimes simultaneously, which required cooperation between peoples despite their cultural differences.
Plains Indians who had never before used horses or guns began using them to hunt when westward expansion brought these goods to the tribes. The buffalo jump method of hunting waned in the mid-17th century, though the site remained significant to the tribes who had used it in their past.
Today the state park provides education on the site’s significant history. There are remnants of the Native American life to be found all around the park, including tipi rings with scattered relics such as arrowheads. There is also a pile of buffalo bone shards from herds that met their end at the foot of the cliff so many years ago.