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Picture it: a vast western plain blackened by countless herds of buffalo. And close by, a precipice reached from the plain by a narrow, funnel-like rock defile.

You have pictured a "pishkun." To the Indians of the northwest plains - Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and Alberta - a natural pishkun site was a place of excitement and danger. And of survival.Pishkun (pronounced PISH-cun or BISH-con) meant "buffalo jump": a cliff or precipice over which the plains' aborigines stampeded buffalo. For thousands of years before they had either horses (introduced by the Spanish) or rifles (later provided by American and Canadian trappers), the Indians of the Great Plains looked to the pishkun as the source of life itself. Buffalo, stampeded to their deaths over a pishkun, furnished hides for clothing and tepees, and meat for survival during the long northern winters.

Scores of buffalo jump sites have been discovered, many within recent years, in Montana alone. Some, within easy reach of the Interstate Highway, are memorable Quick Stops.

Madison Buffalo Jump State Monument, a National Historic Place, is seven miles south of Interstate 90, west of Bozeman, Mont. It was a Shoshoni buffalo jump for at least 2,000 years - up until the mid-1700s.

The precipitous 30-foot jump site today features interpretive displays and trails, some of which lead to extensive archaeological digs. Researchers have unearthed buffalo remains, nearby village sites used by the Indians to process their kills, and artifacts (stone-tipped weapons, spears and arrows) dating back more than 1,000 years.

Ulm Pishkun State Monument, just north of I-15 a few miles southwest of Great Falls, Mont., typifies a buffalo jump: Its main feature is a nearly mile-long, 30- to 50-foot-high precipice, which falls away sharply from a flat prairie once grazed by millions of the huge animals. Short trails from the parking area take you atop the jump-bluff and below, to a former campsite and its still visible tepee rings (circles of rocks used to hold down the edges of tepees), where the Indians skinned and dressed their kills. Trail time: about 20 minutes. Unfortunately, vandals have destroyed some of the site's interpretive displays.

By far the most impressive pishkun is southern Alberta's Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and its interpretive center, some 100 miles northwest of I-15's terminus near Sweetgrass, Mont., at the U.S.-Canadian border. The Province of Alberta has spent more than $10 million on its one-of-a-kind seven-story interpretive center, 14 miles northwest of Fort Macleod, Alberta.

The center recounts the history of the Indians who used the jump and what archaeologists have learned in jump digs, which has taken them back nearly 6,000 years. The center's theater presents an excellent 12-minute color film, "In Search of the Buffalo." But perhaps the most dramatic display is a layered, century-to-century reconstruction of the Head-Smashed-In jump. Easy trails from the center let you explore the jump site. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., May 15-Labor Day; to 5 p.m., the rest of the year.

Success for the Indian hunters on foot required five elements: a vast grazing area from which buffalo could be coaxed or driven; a natural "drive lane" formed by a canyon's corridorlike rock walls, which prevented stampeding herds from turning back one they were headed toward the jump; the jump precipice itself; a slope at the foot of the jump cliff where the hide-and meat-takers (usually women) could butcher the animals; and a nearby site where hides could be stretched and meat preserved by smoking.

Montana's and Alberta's pishkuns, all but unknown to most who drive the Interstate Highway, are among the I-Routes' most elusive, and for some the most incredible, Quick Stops. All, including Alberta's, are admission-free.

GETTING THERE. Ulm Pishkun State Monument. Leave I-15 at the Ulm/State Route 330 exit, approximately five miles southwest of Great Falls, Mont. Drive north a short distance on the gravel road to the monument's entrance, on your left.

Madison Buffalo Jump State Monument. Leave I-90 at the Logan exit, 28 miles northwest of Bozeman, Mont., and five miles east of Three Rivers. Drive south seven miles on the gravel road to the monument.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center. Leave I-15 at Sweetgrass, Mont., where it joins Highway 4 in Alberta. Follow Highway 4 northwest for 65 miles to Lethbridge and Alberta Highway 3. Drive west 32 miles on Highway 3 to Fort Macleod. A few miles west of the town, turn north on Alberta 2. Drive two miles to Route 785. Drive west on Route 785 some 12 miles to the interpretive center, on your right. Head-Smashed-In signs direct the way from Fort Macleod. It is approximately 111 miles from I-15 and the U.S. border to the interpretive center.

FOR MORE INFORMATION. Neither U.S. buffalo jump sites has a telephone or is permanently staffed. No current brochures are available for either. For information on the Madison jump, write Montana Departent of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, 1400 S. 19th St., Bozeman, Mont. 59715; phone (406) 994-4042. For information on both jump sites, write Travel Montana, 1424 Ninth Ave., Helena, Mont. 59620; phone (406) 444-2654; toll-free outside Montana: (800) 548-3390. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center: P.O. Box 1977, Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada T0L 0Z0; phone (403) 553-2731.