It is a special year for a major archaeological site and tourist attraction nestled in the Milk River Breaks just outside of Havre.
Along with the grand opening of a new interpretive center at the entrance to the Wahkpa Chu’gn Buffalo Jump and continuing work on replacing and upgrading its display houses, the site is celebrating its 50th year after the first excavations at the centuries-old bison kill site.
John Brumley, curator of archaeology for the Hill County H. Earl Clack Museum, said the recent upgrades on the site — which he brought to the attention of the world of archaeology in 1961 — have been a vast improvement.
“We’ve turned something that was a really modest attraction (into a major site) … the transformation is pretty phenomenal, ” Brumley said during an interview inside the site’s new interpretive center.
The results of 50 years of work
Brumley said the site, just north of the Havre Holiday Village Mall with the entrance in the middle of the mall parking lot fence, was known in the area before he found his first artifact there in 1961. Part of that legend came from bones and rocks found when the Great Northern Railway came through in the late 1800s, he said.
When he found out a new amateur archaeological group — The Milk River Archaeological Society — was forming, he, at about 13 years old, decided to join and attended the first meetings, Brumley said.
“As you might imagine, this was a group of adults, ” he added. “They weren’t that excited about some kid wanting to be a part of this group. ”
He said, one day, he doesn’t recall the exact date, he decided to go on a dual hunting trip — hunting rabbits and hunting for the bison kill site.
“I was just a kid killing time. I wanted to traipse around the countryside, so I took my. 22 looking for rabbits and came over here looking for (the site) at the same time, ” he said.
He said he was walking up the west end of the site, going over newly eroded ground.
“And, all of a sudden, it kind of dawned on me that I was looking at pieces of bone and pieces of rock laying on the slope of the wash, ” he said. “Then I found a very nice stone knife — that was the first artifact that was found at the site — and realized that I had found something of interest, ” he said.
He took the knife — and several other artifacts he had found — to a meeting of the Milk River Archaeological Society. That changed the attitude about having a youngster with the group.
“When I found this site and brought it to their attention, that was kind of my dues, ” Brumley said. “They kind of had to put up with me because I found this thing. ”
A casting of the knife he found on his first trip is on display in the interpretive center.
Brumley added that he has heard others say they knew about the bison kill site before he found it.
“If I am to be given credit for anything it’s not so much as finding the site as bringing it to the attention … of the archaeological community, ” he said.
A 2,000-year history
The work in the last 50 years barely scratches the surface of the site’s timeline.
Brumley said Native American groups used the bluff as a bison kill-site for some 2,000 years.
Users would herd and stampede bison until the animals fell over the bluff, with the hunters killing any that survived the fall and then the group butchering and processing the animals.
Three distinct cultures have been identified as using the site over its history — the Besant, who used javelin-throwing handles known as atlatls were the first, followed by the Avonlea, then the Saddle Butte, or Old Women’s, culture.
Brumley, who went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in archaeology from the University of Calgary, and still has an archaeology consulting firm in Canada — he said he is generally semi-retired — said he began working on excavating the site when the Milk River Archaeology Society starting working in the summer of 1962.
The first display was put up in 1969, with the last erected about 1988.
Brumley said the displays are rather unique in that they show actual excavations rather than showing artifacts excavated in an interpretive center or museum, as almost all other bison kill sites do.
The site is under the management of the Clack Museum. When the museum was established in 1965, one of the mandates was to manage the archaeological site.
The site itself includes private, county and state land, all under agreement to be managed for the preservation of the archaeological material there.
Brumley and his wife, Anna, moved from Alberta to Havre in 1992, and he soon became the curator of archaeology for the museum, and Anna took over as manager of the site.
Improving a centuries-old site
The last few years have seen major improvements at Wahkpa Chu’gn.
“I think it’s amazing and I will give … Anna the credit, ” John Brumley said. “I am the archaeologist, but Anna is — she likes to call herself the grunt, but she has been the driving force. ”
Work finding grants and working with the museum board and its funding foundation has led to replacement or upgrades to the display buildings, and, for the first time, creation of an interpretive center, which opened the beginning of June.
“The amount of change, I guess you would say, that has taken place here in the last two or three years has just been phenomenal, ” he said.
Most of the archaeological work itself has been completed at the site.
“We have answers to the basic questions of what happened here at the site, ” he said, adding that, in archaeology, the purpose is not to dig all of the site up.
“The idea is to answer certain questions and the basic questions are, who was here, when were they here, what were they doing, ” he said. “We’ve got answers to most of those questions.
“There is other research that could be done but … good archaeology, the way you want to do it, is very time-consuming and labor-intensive and, as you might imagine, very costly, ” he said. “We have been trying to consolidate what we have gotten done and not try to do anything new. ”