Motoring through the driving rainstorm, north from Colorado into Wyoming. Within minutes of crossing the state border, camel and bison are standing aside the road. At home we get cows and sheep.
On our way to Devils Tower, we drive right through Chugwater, Wyoming. That’s the name of the town. Population, 212. Altitude, just over a mile. What about this zany name, Chugwater?
Some time ago, the chief of the Sioux tribe here was mauled by a bull buffalo. In retaliation, the chief ordered his son, Dreamer, to lead a hunting party to kill the offender. “Get that bison sonovabitch!” he might have said.
Dreamer came by his name honestly. He was a bit of a sluggard, lazy as a preacher on Monday. Dreamer didn’t really feel like going on a hunt, much less organizing one. So, legend says, Dreamer dreamed up the idea of herding the bison together and stampeding them over a cliff. This would be a whole lot easier than mounting a hunt. So this is exactly what he did.
With no place to go at the precipice, the buffalo went over the edge and crashed to the bottom, a muddy chasm, puddles here and there, a soup of squishy slog. When the hapless bison hit the sucking mud, it made a <chug>-like sound. The Natives called the area, “water at the place where the buffalo chug.” When the white people came, because they can’t leave anything alone, they changed the name to Chug Springs. Soon enough it became Chugwater.
This became a somewhat common practice, this business of driving buffalo over a cliff. When they hit bottom, the fall would kill them, or they would drown in the puddles or suffocate in the mud. Same result. The killing would be done.
Our American bison have had a troubled history. In spite of being honored for so many years with their image on our nickels and names on our sports teams, we slaughtered these magnificent creatures to the point where there were just a few hundred left.
There is a Native word, pishkun. Native tribes brought the buffalo to near extinction with this practice. Pishkun means “deep blood kettle.” The “buffalo jump.”
Why did such a slaughter come to be? Well, let’s not be too judgmental. This wasn’t sport, this was survival. The Indian people turned the carcasses into scads of useful products: rawhide and tanned hide, the meat and more. Almost every part of the beast was used, nothing was wasted; even the tail, hooves, beard and bones had a practical use. When the dust had settled, the men would go down into the pit to kill the animals that were not done in by the fall. The women would go down with their knives and sacks and begin the processing of buffalo parts.
Father north of Chugwater, Lisa and I drove nearby a site in Wyoming called the Vore Buffalo Jump. It is now a designated archaeological site. No more killing.
Another such site in Alberta, Canada, just north of Stand Off, is named Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Dave Barry has mentioned Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in several of his books. Supposedly he called the phone number of the Interpretive Centre, and the telephone was answered, “Head Smashed In, may I help you?”