An enlightening conversation on Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Chris Wheeler

An enlightening conversation on Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

This article is part of our #BucketlistAB campaign – allowing you to string together an assortment of destinations across Alberta’s south for a road trip you won’t soon forget. Start here and be sure to use the tag #BucketlistAB and let us know how the travels are going!

By ANDREW PENNER for #BucketlistAB

Pincher Creek, AB – I had intended to do a little snowshoeing in the area and do a quick tour of the museum, but my plans were thwarted by the most interesting conversation I've had in a long time. Have you noticed how some of the people you meet you will never forget. For me, Conrad Little Leaf, a Blackfoot cultural guide at the world-renowned Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southwest Alberta, is one of those people.

Of course, like many of these incredibly memorable people you encounter, it can take some time, some interaction – or, in the case of Little Leaf, some “education” – before you warm up to them and really get a feel for what they're all about. Or, to put in another way, sometimes their virtues remain hidden until you peel back a few layers.

“Come on in and sit down,” says Little Leaf within seconds after I arrived at Head-Smashed-In on a cold, blustery day in February. “What do you want to talk about today?” he asks me with a warm, friendly tone.

Check out the Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump website to start planning your trip.

“I'm not sure,” I say, a little hesitant and, to be honest, somewhat intimidated by the “famous” Little Leaf (I had heard a few very complimentary things about him from another writer). “I'm hoping you can enlighten me with some Blackfoot culture. But I'm open to whatever you want to say.”

A little smirk appears on his broad, weather-worn face. He senses an opening. Slowly he gets up and shuffles over to his well-used whiteboard. Apparently, class was now in session.

And, for the next hour and a half, Little Leaf covers a lot of ground. Everything from the spiritual world, Blackfoot history and common misconceptions of the Blackfoot people are fair game. I say very little. It's not my turn. But I'm wholly captivated by his calm, confident demeanor and the rich wisdom that envelops every topic we broach.

Head smashed in Buffalo Jump
Andrew Penner

Conrad Little Leaf, is a Blackfoot cultural guide at the world-renowned Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southwest Alberta.

Little Leaf, who has been a guide, or in his words, an “educator,” at Head-Smashed-In for a little over 10 years, is a key advocate for the Blackfoot people. He bridges the gap between the traditional and practical ways of his people and “western” understanding, which has significant limitations. He's highly educated (studied art and anthropology at the University of Calgary) and has a smooth and effortless way with words.

Unquestionably, I left our “classroom” with a greater appreciation and understanding of the Blackfoot people, the critical case for unity – “unity is where strength is, it is where God is found” – and the serious consequences of ignorance and apathy. He told many stories and, in his methodical, circuitous way, gave new meaning to a holistic way of life we should all strive for. To hear his heart, his wisdom, was powerful.

After our meeting, I explored Head-Smashed-In, viewed the awesome exhibits, and went outside and felt the wind and snow blasting over the precipice where thousands of buffalo went over the edge to give life for countless people. It was surreal. It was haunting. And many of the things that Little Leaf told me were still smoldering like incense in my brain.

Head smashed in buffalo Jump
Andrew Penner

During the winter, it's possible to have the site all to yourself and if you listen closely, you may hear the thundering hooves on the wind.

Head-Smashed-In, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the oldest and best-preserved buffalo jumps in the world. There are many highlights in the award-winning interpretive centre, including the 20-minute presentation in the theatre – a moving re-enactment of an ancient buffalo hunt – as well as five levels of displays and exhibits. The impressive facility, which is exquisitely blended into the existing landforms of the ridge, takes guests on a memorable journey that delves into topics such as the art of the buffalo hunt, the tragic demise of the herds and the exciting (and ongoing) archaeological work that has played such a key role at Head-Smashed-In. It also captures the ancient nomadic lifestyle of the Blackfoot people.

But, as Little Leaf had told me earlier, they aren't really Blackfoot. This was a name that was unceremoniously given to them (by French fur-traders who noticed their leather moccasins with black bottoms). “We are Soki-tapi,” he emphatically states. “It means 'people of the plains.' And this is who I am. I'm an Indian. And I want to help people understand who we truly are.”

When You Go

Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump is around two and a half hours south of Calgary, near Fort MacLeod.

Want to get the most out of your #BucketlistAB adventure? Follow this awesome itinerary.

Check the Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump website to start planning your trip and don't forget your snowshoes or winter hiking boots. There are some great areas to explore around the centre.

Travel Alberta also has lots of great information about things to do and places to see around Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump.

Hit the road to explore Alberta's South along Highway 3 this month and be sure to share your discoveries on social media with the hashtag #BucketlistAB and #ExploreAlberta - you could be featured on our social media channels.  Check out for itineraries, stories and lots more video on Southern Albertan experiences.

Crowsnest Pass
Interior Alberta