The supernatural appearance of White Buffalo Calf Woman tells of her divine revelations to the Lakota people regarding the Seven Sacred Rites to bring about spiritual rebirth and world harmony.
Lakota Legend: White Buffalo Calf Woman (Ptesan-Wi)
In the days before the Lakota had horses on which to hunt the buffalo, food was often scarce. One summer when the seven sacred council fires of the Lakota Oyate (Nation) had camped together, there was very little to eat. Two young men of the Itazipcho band – the ‘Without-Bows’ – decided they would rise early and look for game. They left camp with dogs still yawning, setting out across the plain, accompanied by the song of the yellow meadowlark.
After a while the day began to grow warm. Crickets chirruped in the waving grass, prairie dogs darted their holes as the hunters approached, but still spotted no real game. So the young men made towards a little hill to see further across the vast expanse of level prairie. Reaching it, they shielded their eyes and scanned the distance, but beheld coming out of the growing heat haze something bright, walking on two legs, not four. Soon they recognized her as a beautiful woman in shining white buckskin.
Coming closer, they noticed her buckskin wonderfully decorated with sacred designs in rainbow-colored porcupine quills. She carried a bundle on her back, and a fan of fragrant sage leaves in her hand. Her jet-black hair was loose, except for a single strand tied with buffalo fur. Eyes full of light and power, she transfixed the young men.
Now one of the men filled with burning desire. “What a woman!” he said sideways to his friend. “And all alone on the prairie. I’m going to make the most of this!”
“You fool,” said the other. “This woman is holy.”
But the foolish one made up his mind, and when the woman beckoned, he needed no second invitation. Reaching out for her, a great cloud enveloped them both. When it lifted, the woman stood, and at her feet remained nothing but a pile of bones with terrible snakes writhing among them.
“Behold,” said the woman to the good hunter in Lakota, so he thought her one of his tribe and approached. When he saw his dead friend’s remains, he menaced her with his bow but she proclaimed, “I am Wakan (holy) and your weapons cannot hurt me. Do as I say and you will not regret it.” He relented and she continued, “I come to your people with a message from Tatanka Oyate, the Buffalo Nation. Return to Chief Hehlokecha Najin (Standing Hollow Horn) and tell him what you have seen. Tell him to prepare a tipi large enough for all his people, and to get ready for my coming.”
Interview with Bill Means of the American Indian Movement about the Lakota legend of the White Buffalo Calf Woman
Wakan Woman Appears Again
The young man ran back across the prairie, gasping for breath as he reached camp. With a small crowd of people already following, he found Standing Hollow Horn and related the story that the sacred woman was coming. The chief ordered several tipis to be combined into one big enough for his band. The people waited with anticipation for the wakan woman to arrive.
After four days the scouts posted to watch for the holy woman saw something coming towards them in a beautiful manner from across the prairie. Then suddenly the woman appeared in the great lodge, walking round it in a sunwise direction. The chief addressed her respectfully, saying: “Sister, we are glad you have come to instruct us.”
She told him what she wanted done. In the center of the tipi they were to put up an owanka wakan, a sacred altar, made of red earth, with a buffalo skull and a three-stick rack for a holy bundle she brought. They did as directed, and she traced a design with her finger on the smoothed earth of the altar. She showed them how to do all this, then circled the lodge again sunwise. She stopped before Standing Hollow Horn as he sat in the west of the lodge, and held her bundle before him in both hands.
Again the chief spoke, saying: “Sister, we are glad. We have had no meat for some time. All we can give you is water.” They dipped some wacanga, sweet grass, into a skin bag of water and gave it to her, and to this day the people dip sweet grass or an eagle wing in water and sprinkle it on a person to be purified.
“Look on this,” she said about her bundle, “and always love and respect it. It is very sacred. No one who is impure should ever touch this, for it contains the chanunpa, the sacred pipe.” She unrolled the skin bundle and took out a pipe, and a small round stone which she put down on the ground. She presented it to the people and let them look. She grasped the stem with right hand and the bowl with her left, and thus the pipe has been held ever since.
She filled it with chan-shasha, red willow-bark tobacco. She walked around the lodge four times after the manner of Anpetu-Wi, the great sun. This represented the circle without end, the sacred hoop, the road of life. The woman placed a dry buffalo chip on the fire and lit the pipe with it. This was peta-owihankeshni, the fire without end, the flame to be passed on from generation to generation.
She told them that the smoke rising from the bowl was Tunkashila’s breath, the living breath of the great Grandfather Mystery. “With this you will, during winters to come, send your voices to Wakan Tanka, your Father and Grandfather.”
She showed the people the right way to pray, words and gestures. She taught them how to sing the pipe-filling song and how to lift the pipe to the sky, toward Grandfather, and down toward Grandmother Earth, to Unci, and then to the four directions of the universe. “With this pipe you will walk on the Earth, which is your Grandmother and Mother. The Earth is sacred, and so is every step that you take on her. The bowl of the pipe is of red stone; it is the earth. With your feet resting upon the earth and pipe stem reaching into the sky, your body forms a living bridge between the Sacred Beneath and the Sacred Above. Wakan Tanka smiles upon us, because now we are as one: earth, sky, all living things, the two-legged, the four-legged, the winged ones, the trees, the grasses.
“Together with the people, they are all related, one family. The pipe holds them all together.
“Carved into the pipe and facing the center is the buffalo calf, who stands for all the four-leggeds who live upon your Mother. The buffalo represents the universe and the four directions, because he stands on four legs, for the four ages of creation. The buffalo was put in the west by Wakan Tanka at the making of the world, to hold back the waters.
“Every year he loses one hair, and in every one of the four ages he loses a leg. The sacred hoop will end when all the hair and legs of the great buffalo are gone, and the water comes back to cover Mother Earth.
“The stem is of wood, which stands for all that grows on the Earth. These twelve hanging feathers from Wanblee Galeshka (Spotted Eagle) stand for all the winged creatures. All these living things of the universe are the children of Mother Earth. You are all joined as one family, and you will be reminded of this when you smoke the pipe. Treat this pipe and the earth with respect, and your people will increase and prosper.”
The woman told them that seven circles carved on the stone represented the seven rites in which the people would learn to use the sacred pipe. The first was for the rite of “keeping the soul”, which she now taught them. “It should be for you a sacred day when one of your people dies. You must then keep his soul as I shall teach you, and through this you will gain much power; for if the soul is kept, it will increase in you your concern and love for your neighbor. So long as the person, in his soul, is kept with the people, through him you will be able to send your voice to Wakan Tanka.”
The remaining rites they would learn in due course.
The woman made as if to leave the lodge, but then turned, speaking to Standing Hollow Horn again. “This pipe will carry you to the end. Remember that in me there are four ages. I am going now, but I will look on your people in every age, and at the end I will return.”
White Buffalo Calf
She now circumambulated slowly around the lodge in a sunwise direction. The people were silent and awed. Even the hungry young children watched, their eyes alive with wonder. Then she left.
After she had walked a short distance, she faced the people again and sat down on the prairie. The people gazing after her with amazement witnessed her transforming into a young red and brown buffalo calf…then rolled over and became a yellow buffalo calf….then rolled again into a black one. She continued further into the prairie, and then lay down and rolled over one more time, looking back at the people.
Standing, she appeared as a white buffalo. She walked on until only visible as a bright speck in the distant prairie. She kept moving, stopping to bow to the four directions of the earth, and finally disappeared over the hill.
As soon as she had vanished, buffalo in great herds appeared, allowing themselves to be killed so that the people might survive. And from that day on, our relations, the buffalo, furnished the people with everything they need — meat for their food, skins for their clothes and tipis, and bones for their many tools. Until, of course, the herds no longer sustained the people…but that is another story.
Mitakuye Oyasin, We are all related.
Updated 24 July 2019