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Tatanka: Buffalo

by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve

   The rising sun rose with glittering brightness that almost blinded two hunters. In dazzling light they saw a beautiful young woman all dressed in white.

   “I am from the Tatanka Oyate, Buffalo People,” she said. “They sent me to talk to your people. Go and tell them I am coming and to prepare a council tipi for me.”

   She was so beautiful that one of the young men tried to reach for her. The other man warned, “Don’t!”

   It was too late. A crash of thunder, clouds and lightning exploded around the man. When it cleared, he was a crisp skeleton on the ground.

   The other man trembled and could not look at the woman. She said, “Don’t be afraid. I will not harm you. Now go to the Lakota.”

   He ran to the village and told the people what happened and what they must do. They rushed to get everything ready. She came and walked to the council tipi with its door to the east.

   “I am your sister,” she said. “Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, sent me to instruct you.”

   From her bundle, she lifted a red stone pipe before them. “See the sacred pipe,” she said. “Use it only for peace and never for war.”

   “My sisters,” she addressed the women. “You will not lay with a man until you get married and you will always be faithful to your husband. You have hard things to do in your life. You have pain when you have babies, and it is difficult to raise children. You are important, because without you there would be no people.

   “My brothers,” she said to the men, “You must have good thoughts about girls, so that they will be pure when they marry. When you take wives, be kind to them and all elders.

   She stayed with the people four days and taught them how to use the pipe for healing and in seven sacred ceremonies. Then she left, and walking back to the east, turned into a white buffalo calf; this is why no one kills a white buffalo calf.

   The Lakota lived by the woman’s instructions and there was peace and harmony in their camps.

   Tatanka was the main food source. The women cooked the meat in a bowl made by stretching the buffalo’s stomach over a wooden frame. They filled the bowl with water and heated it with hot stones then added the meat to cook. When the food was ready, both meat and stomach were consumed. A favorite dish was wasna, also known as pemmican. Women pounded dried meat and berries into fine bits to mix with suet. It was a tasty treat when the village was on the move or for hunters who needed didn’t have time to cook a meal. The children learned that the buffalo sustained them and they should give thanks to Tatanka whenever they slept in a tepee, ate or used any part of the beast.

   Then the white men arrived, and the Indians traded buffalo hides for guns, iron kettles and calico. The white men’s desire for the hides led to mass killings of docile herds, leaving rotting carcasses on the plains. This, in turn, led to starvation among the Indians, which, combined with alcohol, weakened the tribes; they were confined to reservations.

   Alcohol use led to abuse of women and children, yet even in reservation confinement, women formed White Buffalo Calf Societies to provide a safe haven for the victims.

   On reservations, the U. S. government banned native religion, yet Lakota elders kept Tatanka’s values in their hearts so that the young would know them. In secret, they continued the rituals and used the sacred pipe to bring peace to troubled spirits.

   Today, our tribes, and others, raise buffalo on the open prairies where they once thrived. Its delicious, low-fat meat is helping us combat the obesity and diabetes problems that plague the reservations. To see the buffalo on this land lifts our spirits. Tatanka is, once again, sustaining our people.


Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota. She is a retired educator after 30 years in Bureau of Indian Affairs Schools, SD Public Schools and an adjunct instructor for Oglala Lakota College, Rapid City. Her first book was released in 1972 and since then she has published 28 books, numerous short stories, articles and poems. Her latest book is Standing Bear: a Ponca Chief, for the University of Nebraska Press, 2013.