In 500 AD King Arthur defeated the Saxons at Badon Hill. Rome had fallen to the Barbarians. In Mexico, the great city of Teotihuacan had been occupied for 600 years. The Mayan city-states are reaching the peak of their prosperity. The Hopewell Culture of Eastern North America has risen and disappeared. The Sioux begin using the Pishkun.
The northern plains of the United States is a vast sea of short grass broken by towering mountains of rock and scoured with deep canyons. Rivers and streams cut through the land like the wrinkles on an old man’s face. Everything the tribes of the northern plains do, they do on foot, with dogs to help pull their supplies. These are the Dog Days of the Sioux. The Sioux will not acquire the horse for another 1200 years.
The Buffalo provides food, building materials, and tools that the Sioux need to survive. The Buffalo is fast and ill-tempered. As you can imagine this makes hunting the buffalo difficult and extremely dangerous. Humans have faced problems like this before and it has led to some very ingenious solutions. The Sioux are no different.
The Sioux realized that to survive they would need to use every advantage. Their weapons consisted of stone-tipped spears, arrows, and their knowledge of the terrain. An example of using terrain to your advantage is found near the town of Ulm, Montana. The land around the town of Ulm is broken by flat plains and sharp rocky hills A very prominent feature is a line of cliffs that are located between the Missouri River and the plains. The cliffs are from 30 to 50 feet high and when approached from the plains are nearly invisible until you are near their edge. A perfect trap, they called it a Pishkun.
The Sioux normally traveled and lived in small family units referred to today as Clans. When hunting the buffalo they would form into larger groups organized around a few leaders. The hunt counted on the leaders to coordinate the various stages of the hunt.
The first task was to herd the buffalo toward the Pishkun. This was done by using children who were dressed in animal hides to slowly circle the back of the buffalo herd. This would nudge the herd toward the Pishkun.
The fastest runner of the tribe would dress in a great buffalo robe and stay close enough to the head of the herd to be seen, but not so close as to be found out. The rest of the hunters would gather on either side of the herd and slowly nudge the herd tighter and tighter together.
On a prearranged signal the children behind the herd would begin to make howls like wolves and move closer to the herd. The hunters on either side of the herd would begin to howl and scream. The runner near the front of the herd would begin to sprint toward the cliffs of the Pishkun. The Buffalo, being a herd animal, began to stampede as fast as they could following the runner.
At the edge of the cliff, the runner would take cover just under the rim and watch as hundreds of buffalo would jump to their death. The Sioux would spend the next few weeks as a large group tanning the hides, preparing the meat, and cleaning the bones. When they finished they would return to their small clans.
The Ulm Pishkun was used by the Blackfeet, Shoshone, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Salish, Kootenai, Crow, and Cheyenne tribes from about 500 AD to about 1500 AD. I have walked the Ulm Pishkun many times and it is one of those places that has a special place in my heart and the inspiration for the painting I call “Blood Kettle”. Pishkun is the Sioux word for “Blood Kettle”.