The managers of a local archaeological site are offering a chance this weekend to take part in a decade-old tradition — a tradition that actually extends thousands of years in this region.
The annual atlatl competition is set for Saturday and Sunday at the Wahkpa Chu’gn Buffalo Jump behind the Holiday Village Mall.
“It really is just a family, fun event,” site manager Anna Brumley said. “Some come and stay most of the day.”
The bison kill site, where Native Americans drove bison over the bluff by the Milk River then slaughtered and butchered the animals, saw use of the ancient weapon centuries ago.
The atlatl is a handle used to propel a spear or javelin, increasing its range and velocity. Prehistoric man is believed to have first used the device as long as 30,000 years ago, predating the bow and arrow.
The name atlatl is an Aztec word for the device.
John Brumley, curator of archaeology for the H. Earl Clack Museum, who brought the site to the attention of the newly formed Milk River Archeology Society as a schoolboy in 1961, has determined that the Besant, the earliest of three cultures he has identified as using the site starting about 2,100 years ago, used the atlatl at Wahkpa Chu’gn.
Two atlatl association members from Alberta, Canada, will be back at the archaeological site this weekend helping again with the competition at the site that started their interest in the ancient weapon.
David Heydlauff, who ranches north of the Port of Wild Horse with his brother, Ralph Heydlauff, said they had their first experience with atlatls at Wahkpa Chu’gn about 10 years ago.
“We liked it, so we went back the next year and, basically, we just got hooked,” he said.
The Heydlauff brothers now are members of the International Atlatl Society and the World Atlatl Association. David Heydlauff said they do demonstrations — including at the Havre Middle School — and come down each year to help with the Wahkpa Chu’gn competition. The brothers also help the Clack Foundation members at the Hands on History events in Havre in the spring.
Heydlauff said he and his brother will help set up the eight to 10 targets on the course, including the moving buffalo target, and will take people through the course and show them how to throw the atlatl.
How successful people will be depends on the person — he said he and his brother worked with a group of teenagers in Elkwater, Alberta, and all of them were hitting the target within four throws.
Other people take more practice, however.
The event runs both Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Guided tours of Wahkpa Chu’gn also will be available at the reduced price of $5 from noon to 2 p.m. each day.
Brumley said people can go through the course as many times as they desire. The organizers will keep a running total of people’s scores, with prizes offered in several categories.
First-, second- and third-place prizes will be awarded in the categories of Youth ages 0-5; Juniors ages 6-12, and Teens ages 12-19. For adults 20 and older, the sexes are split with a men’s and a women’s category. For the running buffalo target, only a first-place prize will be given in each category.
Heydlauff said the people who come enjoy the competition.
“There’s always bunches of the same ones that come back, and usually a bunch of new ones,” he said. “They’re coming back. They must be enjoying it.
“One thing we like about it is, it’s something families can do together,” he added.“The whole family can do it.”