Thursday, November 18, 2010

"Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump"

Might as well just leap right in with an explanation. A 'buffalo jump' is a small cliff-like natural formation on the plains. Buffalo being a herd animal, they rather famously like to stomp across the plains in stampedes. In pre-Columbian times, several Plains Indians tribes would attempt to divert a buffalo stampede so that the animals would, en masse, run off the cliff, breaking their legs and rendering them easy victims for hunters. So a buffalo jump was a place where you could make buffalo jump, to their (indirect) death.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is such a buffalo jump, located in Alberta. The Blackfoot name for the site, now a UNESCO-protected heritage site, is Estipah-skikikini-kots, definitely an awesome name all by itself, particularly that middle bit. Apparently it refers to some Blackfoot person who was too eager to see the buffalo jump at work and decided (stupid, stupid man) to go under it and look up. He obviously got his head smashed in, and instead of calling it "Idiot-Looking-Up Buffalo Jump", they went for the more poetic "Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump".

So now you know how one of the coolest place names ever got its name.

Incidentally, the Blackfoot people could also be here on this very list. The first time I'd ever heard the word 'Blackfoot' was when I was a Cub Scout, and there were sew-on badges you could get saying "Je parle francais", "Ich spreche Deutch", etc. One was for Blackfoot, and I can remember confusedly asking my Cub Scout leader what on earth 'I speak Blackfoot' was meant to mean. He looked at the catalogue I was reading from, squinted his eyes a bit, then sagely concluded, "I guess it's a language." I thought it was just about the weirdest name possible. Still do.

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