Jackie Wyatt has seen the sinkhole hundreds of times. She’s looked at the bone beds. She’s imagined the sounds of hundreds of bison stampeding and the physical effort of hauling hundreds of pounds of meat out of a deep hole.
Yet every time she visits the Vore Buffalo Jump, it grabs her and stirs her imagination anew.
“It’s almost a spiritual experience,” she said.
It’s an experience that, as president of the Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation board, she will share with about 500 students in May.
Situated between Sundance and Spearfish, South Dakota, the Vore Buffalo Jump is one of about 200 such sites in the Black Hills region. Discovered in 1969, the site isn’t new, but each year fourth and fifth graders from throughout the region visit. There are a record 12 school trips scheduled in May to the Vore Buffalo Jump, leaving Wyatt scrambling for volunteers. The site has few paid staff, she said. At least four of the groups haven’t visited the site before, while many other schools come annually.
The site was discovered when the Wyoming Department of Transportation planned to run part of Interstate 90 across Woodrow Vore’s land. The agency dug into the sinkhole to test its stability. The drill pulled up hundreds of buffalo bones.
The family never knew the archaeological trove existed, said Woodrow’s son Theodore Vore. As children they avoided the area and its poison ivy and rattlesnakes.
The interstate was rerouted to avoid the sinkhole and archaeologists from the University of Wyoming came to see the discovery. Down as far as 26-feet were thousands of bones from bison butchered in the area, as well as artifacts like arrow points, knives and other tools.
At least five Native American tribes hunted at the jump starting in 1554, Wyatt said. The sediment layers in the sinkhole can be counted like tree rings, giving such a precise date, she said.
Hunts occurred every few years at the natural feature. Hunters pushed the bison into a draw that, once they started running, acted as a funnel to the sink hole. A good hunt killed about 300 buffalo, Wyatt said. Many of the animals didn’t die in the fall, but were killed by spears. Tips were found hundreds of years later lodged in the animal’s spinal columns.
The stage of development of the calves’ jaws show the hunts took place in the fall, Wyatt said. Still, people would have had to work fast to preserve the meat. Broken skulls left behind show people used the brains to tan the hides. Few large leg bones are found at the site, as they were most likely carried away for the precious calories found in the marrow.
The site was only used for about 300 years. It was a dangerous and taxing way to hunt, eventually replaced by guns and horses.
After some excavating in the 1970s, the site sat mostly dormant. In 1989, when Woodrow Vore was dying of cancer, he deeded 8.25 acres, which included the sinkhole, to the University of Wyoming for research and education.
His one request was it not become a tourist trap aimed at making a profit, Theodore Vore said. “He told us ‘I never want them selling rubber tomahawks here,’” Vore said.
The university didn’t use the land due to other prioritized projects and funding, but instead returned it to the Vore family, Theodore Vore said. They started the nonprofit Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation in 2001 for public education. About 7,000 people visit the site each summer, Wyatt said.
Since its discovery only about 10 percent of the site has been excavated. The last time anyone excavated at the site was two years ago, Wyatt said.
She and the rest of the foundation board want a research partnership and hope one day it again becomes an active site. But for now she’s focused on another summer season, the 500 fourth and fifth graders visiting this spring, and finding enough volunteers to make sure everything runs smoothly.
The Vore Buffalo Jump opens to the public June 1. It’s open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Labor Day. Admission is $7 a person or $20 a family. To volunteer at the site, call 307-266-9530.