Once upon a prehistoric time, the prairie in north central Montana was a place where humans and bison formed the circle of life and death, predator and prey.
Now a peaceful spot on the prairie has become Ulm Pishkun State Park, 12 miles southwest of Great Falls, a place recreated to help us understand our past.
“Our goal is to educate people about the importance of buffalo to prehistoric Plains Indians,” says Connie Jacobs, Ulm Pishkun park manager.
Prehistoric may have been as long ago as 300 to 500 A.D. Before the Spanish brought the horse to North America in the 1500s, men and women killed bison by stampeding them over cliffs, like Ulm Pishkun.
The name Ulm Pishkun, by the way, comes from the combination of the nearby town of Ulm and "pishkun", which is a Blackfeet word that loosely translates into “deep, blood kettle.”
Once quarried for its sandstone, then mined for bison bones for fertilizer, today the park boasts a modern visitor center and recently completed hiking trails connecting the center to the buffalo-jump cliffs about a mile away.
The visitor’s center and hiking trails have proved especially popular, Jacobs says.
“We had people stepping over the crews building the trail, they wanted to hike so bad,” Jacobs says.
Working closely with the state to preserve Ulm Pishkun and the circle of understanding that the park strives to represent has been a decades long goal of many area residents. Most recently the All Nations Pishkun Association, a support group, was founded.
“The ANPA is about two years old,” says chairman Lyle Heavy Runner. “We work very closely with FWP in support of the park.”
In recognition of that local support, ANPA was honored recently by the Museums Association of Montana for their significant work.
Currently, the ANPA organization consists of a 12-member board of directors and eight advisors, Blackfeet elders from Canada and the U.S. When questions arise concerning the proper use of the park, ANPA turns to the board of advisors, people revered in their own communities, Heavy Runner said.
Another goal is to find money to promote the park when public funds are tight.
“We want to fill the void so public money doesn’t always have to be used,” adds vice-chairman Brad Hamlett.
So far, ANPA has applied for and received a state cultural grant to conduct a tipi-making class in conjunction with the Great Falls school district. Instructors came in from the Blackfeet Reservation; the result was three tipis now used at the park.
Heavy Runner says the directors of ANPA also want to develop the park’s volunteer program, get more people to visit the park and have tipis from each of Montana’s seven Indian tribes.
All of these ideas suit the Park’s needs. “We could use more volunteers to help with educational programs. Last year we had 1,300 kids visit,” Jacobs said.
All came to learn about and celebrate one of Montana's oldest circle of life stories at Ulm Pishkun State Park.