The Buffalo Jump

Buffalo Jump

The Arapaho people depended on the buffalo for our livelihood. Our warriors hunted them on foot, on horse, by stealth and by making loud noises. These brave hunters would sneak into the midst of a herd disguised as wolves to bring down one buffalo. At other times, the entire tribe would come together to drive an entire herd off a cliff.

One such account of how the Arapaho came to use these buffalo jumps was recorded by an English Professor from the Washington State University. In the 1930’s, Miss Ella Elizabeth Clark, recorded the following story of the origin of the buffalo jump from an Arapaho informant.

“A man tried to think how the Arapahos might kill buffalo. He was a hard thinker who would go off for several days to fast and think. At last he dreamed that a voice spoke to him and told him what to do.

Going back to his people, he made an enclosure of trees set in the ground with willows wound between them. At one side of the enclosure there was only a cliff with rocks at the bottom. Then four runners who never tired were sent out to the windward of a herd of buffalo, two of them on each side of the herd. They drove the animals toward the enclosure and into it. Then the people drove the buffalo around inside until a heavy cloud of dust rose. Unable to see in the dust, the animals ran over the cliff and were killed.”

The Western Photographer Edward S. Curtis described seeing a buffalo jump:

“The manner of driving and decoying the bison was a varied as the form of the slaughter-pen; but whatever the method, the purpose and results were the same — the object was to stampede the herd, or a part of it, and to direct the rapidly moving animals to a given point, the Indians knowing that, once well in motion, they would run into their own destruction.

The Sioux (allies of the Arapaho) built out in rapidly diverging lines from the pen a light brush construction, not in truth a fence, as it was only substantial enough to form a line. Men concealed themselves behind this brush, and when the herd was well inside the lines the hunters rose up and by shouting and waving their blankets frightened the animals on.

Sometimes a man skillful in the ways of the bison would disguise himself in one of their skins and act as leader of the drove to the extent of starting them in their mad rush. By this method the Indians simply took advantage of a characteristic habit of the buffalo — to follow their leader blindly.

The movement grew into a stampede, and forced the leading animals before it. If the advance was toward a sharp gully, it was soon filled with carcasses over which the stream of animals passed; if toward swampy land or a river with quicksand bed, numbers were swallowed in the treacherous depths. If it happened that the route took the herd across a frozen lake or stream, the ice might collapse with their combined weight and drown hundreds; and the Indians relate many instances in which during winter the herd failed to see the edge of an arroyo or a small cañon filled with drifted snow and were buried one after another in its depths, the buffalo seemingly not having sufficient instinct of self-preservation to stop or turn aside.”


Today, many of these sites have been preserved, including the Vore Buffalo Jump near Devil’s Tower here in Wyoming. To learn more about this hunting tradition, visit

The oral story was collected and printed in Indian Legends from the Northern Rockies by Ella E. Clark, 1966, pg. 231.

The quote from Edward S. Curtis was found on


Jackie Dorothy C 2016