Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The White Buffalo

We turn today to a people who, like the Aboriginal people of Oceania, are not a civilisation that rose and fell in the past, but one that endures even today. They, as much as any, are testament to the serenity of a life without electricity, gas, great monuments or even writing. All that was needed was what could be found on the prairies of North America, and a belief in the spirit bound in all things. These were, are and will be the indigenous peoples of North America. The sheer diversity of the Native Americans is as varied as their culture is rich. We begin with one story from a tribe of the Great Plains.

A Sioux Village before Chimney Rock
Painting by Albert Bierstadt
The Great Sioux Nation, perhaps the most iconic of all the American Indian tribes, are a people with a dramatic history. Hailing from the Mississippi Valley, the Sioux came to populate a great swathe of the vast Great Plains. From humble origins, the Sioux peoples could be found in what are now the States of North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana and Iowa of the present day United States, as well as Saskatchewan and Alberta in modern Canada. The Sioux peoples were bound by common family of language, and core of beliefs, but even the Sioux themselves were diverse. The Eastern Dakota, the Western Dakota, and the Lakota all made up the Great Sioux Nation. It is to the Lakota that we turn today, a people famous for their horse culture, their nomadic ways, and their fierce resistance to the United States of America. It is from this tribe that the famous war chiefs Sitting Bull (of the Hunkpapa subtribe), Crazy Horse and Red Cloud (both of the Oglala subtribe) all hailed. The Lakota will always be remembered for their part in the great victory over Custer at the Little Bighorn in the June of 1876, but theirs is a culture that began many centuries earlier. For a people who did not have writing, but oral tradition of stories told from father to son over long passages of time, even the same tale can have many variations, even within a tribe. Here is one story that is told, of the earliest days of the Sioux.

The Black Hills - sacred ground to the Sioux
Photograph taken by Jake DeGroot, in modern day
South Dakota and Wyoming, USA
Long ago, in the days of the ancestors, before the Lakota people knew of horses (surprisingly, for a people so iconically associated with their bond with horses, the Sioux were introduced to them only around 1730, by the Cheyenne), it was with great toil and sweat that the people hunted the Buffalo. One summer arrived, and there was great heat on the prairies. More than ever, Lakota hunters struggled to feed their people, as they searched far and wide for the Buffalo. Starvation threatened the people, and an ominous feeling gripped the Lakota. When morning arose one day, two young braves of the Itázipčho resolved to embark upon one last hunt, early, before the Plains grew stifling hot. The Itázipčho encampment slept, and the dogs yawned. Only the song of the Meadowlark could be heard, and the soft breeze, percussion of the great prairie that had no end. The braves were skilled in the ways of the hunt, and none heard their footfalls as they took their leave.

It seemed an age, as their journey seemed as endless as the inhospitable Plains. To the untrained eye, these new pastures were indistinguishable from any other, but these were not untrained eyes. Generations since the dawn of time of tracking the great herds across the prairie had taught the Lakota the subtleties of the Great Spirit, and the way of the land. Before long, however, a small hill had broken the horizon. The crickets chirped in the grass, swayed by the wind, and the prairie dogs scurried away into their burrows at the braves' advance. One brave looked up. The Sun grew higher in the sky, and he wiped the sweat from his brow. With great exertion, both men overcame the crest of the mound, and the vista that greeted their eyes was at once both serene and shattering. More than ever before, the Plains seemed without end, and the braves were forced to raise their arms to shield their eyes from the intense heat and brightness of the Sun.

The Sioux hunt the buffalo
Painting by George Catlin
Just then, when hope had all but vanished, through the fiery haze in the distance, their appeared a dark figure.   It was a enchanting, yet somehow familiar, silhouette, and both braves looked on in amazement. It was no bison, it was a woman, but one unlike any the Lakota had ever set eyes on before. Extraordinarily beautiful, yet somehow seeming forbidden, as she approached, the young men saw that she was clad in a gleaming white buckskin, which only enhanced her transfixing visage. As she drew closer still, they saw that it was richly decorated in sacred symbols, adorned with the brightly coloured quills of the porcupine. She bore upon her shoulders a hefty bundle, and in her fair hand a fan of sage leaves that exuded an alluring scent. Her coal black hair swayed in the breeze, save for one lock bound in the fur of a buffalo, all framing her radiant eyes, in which it seemed the very light of the Sun radiated. One of the braves, an impious youth, was seized with forbidden desire. Turning to his kin, "What a woman!" he exclaimed, as he vowed to take his chance. "You fool", spake the other, a wise man, "this woman is holy", he warned. The mysterious woman beckoned him forth, and the hot-headed and foolhardy brave, deaf to his fellow's wise counsel, immediately ran up to the stranger. The boy reached out to her. Just before their hands met, a strange feeling descended upon the Plains, and both figures were shrouded in a great cloud. In a flash, the haze lifted, and all that remained of the brave were his bones, serpents hissing and writhing within. The wise brave, a pious and wise man, saw the holy nature of this woman, and was afraid, not for his life, but out of the awe of her majesty, and bowed before her as she approached. "Behold", she spake to the honourable Lakota, "I am come to your people by word of Tatanka Oyate, land of the buffalo. Return to Chief Standing Hollow Horn and tell him all you have seen here. Tell the Itázipčho to raise a Tipi great in size that all the Itázipčho may be sheltered within it, and prepare for my coming".

The young brave tarried not a moment, and at once turned and sprinted across the prairie. Sweat poured, and his muscles ached, but the Sioux ran on under the burning Sun, the blades of the long grass whipping at his bare chest. Gasping for breath, he reached the Itázipčho encampment. Finding the Chief Standing Hollow Horn, he told him all that he had seen, of his comrade's impiety, and of his divine command. Seeing the sincerity of the brave's word, the Chief ordered at once for all the Tipis of the Itázipčho to be bound together and raised as one. After much effort, in near unbearable heat, the task was done, and the grand Tipi was mighty enough to shade all the tribe. Pleased with their work, the Itázipčho awaited the coming of the wise woman.

A Sioux Tipi
Photograph taken by John C. H. Grabill
United States Library of Congress
Three days passed, and the Lakota scouts bore now word of her approach. The fourth day dawned, and the Itázipčho spied a strange figure on the horizon. In an instant, they looked back eagerly to their kin, and to their shock, she was already amongst them in their great lodge, prowling it in the way of the Sun. The fair woman came before Chief Standing Hollow Horn, holding her arms outstretched before her. There, in her hands, was the strange bundle the brave had seen. "Look upon this", she spake, "and always love and honour it. None who is impure may ever lay hand upon this, for this contains the sacred pipe". She took the bundle and unravelled it, revealing the pipe, the Chanunpa, and a small stone. Laying the stone upon the ground, and addressed the Lakota:

" With this pipe you will walk on the Earth, which is your grandmother and your 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. The image carved upon it that you see is the calf
   of the Buffalo, for all things of four legs. The stem you see is of wood,
   for all things that grow on this Earth. The twelve feathers you see hail from the
   Great Spotted Eagle, for all winged creatures of this world. All these living things
   are the children of Mother Earth. You are all bound as one family,
   and you will be reminded when you smoke this pipe. Treat it, and the Earth,
   with respect, and your people will know good fortune forever... "

To seven circles upon the Chanunpa she pointed, and bade them to follow the seven rites that they heralded. The first rite would weave immortality into the soul. The remaining six, she prophesied, she would teach the Lakota, in time.The Lakota were silent in reverence before her majesty, and struck dumb at her words. The holy woman rose to her feet, and made to leave, but before she did, she turned to Chief Standing Hollow Horn one last time. "This pipe will carry you to the end. Remember that in me are four ages of this world. I go now, but I will watch over you in all the ages of this world, and one day, at the end, I will return". Treading slowly, she circled the lodge in the direction of the Sun, as all present gazed in wonder fused with awe, even the children of the Lakota were captivated by her. Into the distance of the prairie she strode, but before the horizon claimed her, she turned to look at the people one last time, and sat down. When she arose once again, the Lakota were stunned to see that she was now as a young calf of the Buffalo, with a magnificent coat of chestnut brown, flecked with red. The calf proudly strode into the beyond, before it too, lay down, and rolled over in the grass. Looking back to the Lakota, now a mighty White Buffalo, radiant on the horizon. One last time, the powerful figure touched the Earth, Mother of all, and rolled over. For the last time she rose, a Buffalo as black as the night. The beast bowed to the North, to the South, to the East and to the West, before finally the light took it, and the horizon met the Prairie pure once again.

So was born the Lakota people, and a way of life...

United Kingdom

Stories of the North American Indians
American Indian Myths and Legends (Pantheon Fairy Tales & Fantasies)
An impressive collection of legends gathered from over eighty tribes

United States

Stories of the North American Indians
American Indian Myths and Legends (Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library)
An impressive collection of legends gathered from over eighty tribes

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