Around the time of Christ’s birth, while the Roman Empire was reigning over the civilized world, a group of Indian hunters in what is now Sarpy Creek, Montana, chased a herd of 2,000 wild bison into a narrow drainage area and launched an attack, filling the sky with a sheet of arrows. As the wooly beasts lay bleeding to death from their wounds, the hunters then set upon them with their flint knives, scouring the animals for meat, hide, and bones. These mass hunts went on for a millenia, and were a super-efficient way to get all the things the tribes needed in order to last through the brutal winters.
Today, hundreds of “bison kill sites” dot plains and prairies of North America—compacted bone beds littered with arrowheads and other artifacts. What makes the Sarpy site special, archeologists say, is that it seems to have been closed in a religious ceremony: the hunters laid their weapons—many of them unused—as offerings on top of the roughly 30,000 pounds of bison bones then buried it all.
For 2,000 years, those spears, flint knives, and projectile points lay under a carpet of prairie grass, untouched.
Until 2005, when the site was uncovered by Westmoreland Resources, a company seeking to expand its Absaloka coal mine, who found that the massive bison bone bed was in the way. Working in compliance with federal laws, the company hired a consultant who excavated the site for two years, salvaging enough artifacts and bone to nearly fill a semitrailer. Then, in a plan backed by the federal government, he plowed 98 percent of the site into a heap with a backhoe, a move that amounts to “nothing less than controlled, federally sanctioned looting,” according to archaeologist and Utah State University professor Judson Finley.
The site should have been painstakingly excavated with delicate hand tools over a period of several years, said Kelly Branam, a cultural anthropologist and professor at St. Cloud State University.
But Tom Durham, vice president of planning and engineering of Westmoreland Resources, maintains that the “artifacts were treated with the respect they deserve. We don’t just go in and rape and scrape.” The bone bed sits on the Crow Indian reservation, as does the Absaloka mine, which Westmoreland has been operating under a lease from the Crow since 1974. “We have a lot of respect for that culture,” said Durham, “and have tried very hard to work with those folks.”
LAST AUGUST, WITH THE temperature hovering just over 100 degrees, Berdick Two Leggins, tribal historic preservation officer for the Crow tribe, pulled an arrowhead from beneath a rock where he had hidden it away. “These offerings were made because people were thankful,” he told me, turning the gleaming stone in the palm of his hand. “For the food, the hides, and bones.”
To him, bulldozing the site into a heap is a desecration and has invited a curse on the land, one that was foretold by Crow Chief Blackfoot when he signed away Crow land in a treaty nearly 150 years ago.