Native American Legends
White Buffalo Calf Woman
A Brule Sioux Legend
In the beginning of the world, all was water. Whee-me-me-ow-ah,
the Great Chief Above, lived up in the sky all alone. When he decided
to make the world, he went down to the shallow places in the water
and began to throw up great handfuls of mud that became land.
He piled some of the mud so high that it froze hard and made the
mountains. When the rain came, it turned into ice and snow on top
of the high mountains. Some of the mud was hardened into rocks.
Since that time the rocks have not changed - they have only become
The Great Chief Above made trees grow on the earth, and also roots
and berries. He made a man out of a ball of mud and told him to
take fish from the waters, and deer and other game from the forests.
When the man became lonely, the Great Chief Above made a woman to
be his companion and taught her how to dress skins, how to find
bark and roots, and how to make baskets out of them. He taught her
which berries to gather for food and how to pick them and dry them.
He showed her how to cook the salmon and the game that the man brought.
Once when the woman was asleep, she had a dream, and in it she
wondered what more she could do to please the man. She prayed to
the Great Chief Above for help. He answered her prayer by blowing
his breath on her and giving her something which she could not see
or hear, smell or touch. This invisible something was preserved
in a basket. Through it, the first woman taught her daughters and
granddaughters the designs and skills which had been taught her.
But in spite of all the things the Great Chief Above did for them,
the new people quarreled. They bickered so much that Mother Earth
was angry, and in her anger she shook the mountains so hard that
those hanging over the narrow part of Big River fell down. The rocks,
falling into the water, dammed the stream and also made rapids and
waterfalls. Many people and animals were killed and buried under
the rocks and mountains.
Someday the Great Chief Above will overturn those mountains and
rocks. Then the spirits that once lived in the bones buried there
will go back into them. At present those spirits live in the tops
of the mountains, watching their children on the earth and waiting
for the great change which is to come. The voices of these spirits
can be heard in the mountains at all times. Mourners who wail for
their dead hear spirit voices reply, and thus they know that their
lost ones are always near.
We did not know all this by ourselves; we were told it by our fathers
and grandfathers, who learned it from their fathers and grandfathers.
No one knows when the Great Chief Above will overturn the mountains.
But we do know this: the spirits will return only to the remains
of people who in life kept the beliefs of their grandfathers. Only
their bones will be preserved under the mountains.
One summer so long ago that nobody knows how long, the Oceti-Sakowin,
the seven sacred council fires of the Lakota Oyate, the nation,
came together and camped. The sun shone all the time, but there
was no game and the people were starving. Every day they sent scouts
to look for game, but the scouts found nothing.
Among the bands assembled were the Itazipcho, the Without-Bows,
who had their own camp circle under their chief, Standing Hollow
Early one morning the chief sent two of his young men to hunt for
game. They went on foot, because at that time the Sioux didn't yet
They searched everywhere but could find nothing. Seeing a high
hill, they decided to climb it in order to look over the whole country.
Halfway up, they saw something coming toward them from far off,
but the figure was floating instead of walking. From this they knew
that the person was "wakan", holy.
At first they could make out only a small moving speck and had
to squint to see that it was a human form. But as it came nearer,
they realized that it was a beautiful young woman, more beautiful
than any they had ever seen, with two round, red dots of face paint
on her cheeks.
She wore a wonderful white buckskin outfit, tanned until it shone
a long way in the sun. It was embroidered with sacred and marvelous
designs of porcupine quill, in radiant colors no ordinary woman
could have made.
This wakan stranger was Ptesan-Wi, White Buffalo Calf Woman. In
her hands she carried a large bundle and a fan of sage leaves. She
wore her blue-black hair loose except for a strand at the left side,
which was tied up with buffalo fur. Her eyes shone dark and sparkling,
with great power in them.
The two men looked at her open-mouthed. One was overawed, but the
other desired her body and stretched his hand out to touch her.
This woman was "lila wakan", very sacred, and could not
be treated with disrespect. Lightning instantly struck the brash
young man and burned him up, so that only a small heap of blackened
bones was left. Or some say that he was suddenly covered by a cloud,
and within it he was eaten up by snakes that left only his skeleton,
just as a man can be eaten up by lust.
To the other scout who had behaved rightly, the White Buffalo Calf
Woman said: "Good things I am bringing, something holy to your
nation. A message I carry for your people from the buffalo nation.
Go back to the camp and tell the people to prepare for my arrival.
Tell your chief to put up a medicine lodge with twenty- four poles.
Let it be made holy for my coming."
This young hunter returned to the camp. He told the chief, he told
the people, what the sacred woman had commanded. The chief told
the *eyapaha*, the crier, and the crier went through the camp circle
calling: "Someone sacred is coming. A holy woman approaches.
Make all things ready for her." So the people put up the big
medicine tipi and waited.
After four days they saw the White Buffalo Calf Woman approaching,
carrying her bundle before her. Her wonderful white buckskin dress
shone from afar. The chief, Standing Hollow Horn, invited her to
enter the medicine lodge. She went in and circled the interior sun-wise.
The chief addressed her respectfully, saying: "Sister, we
are glad you have come to instruct us." She told him what she
In the center of the tipi they were to put an *owanka wakan*, a
sacred altar, made of red earth, with a buffalo skull and a three-
stick rack for a holy thing she was bringing. They did what she
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
sun-wise. Halting before the chief, she now opened the bundle. The
holy thing it contained was *chanunpa*, the sacred pipe.
She held it out to the people and let them look at it. She was
grasping the stem with her right hand and the bowl with her left,and
thus the pipe has been held ever since.
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.
White Buffalo Calf Woman showed the people how to use the pipe.
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.
The White Buffalo Calf Woman showed the people the right way to
pray, the right words and the right gestures. She taught them how
to sing the pipe-filling song and how to lift the pipe up to the
sky, toward Grandfather, and down toward Grandmother Earth, to Unci,
and then to the four directions of the universe.
"With this holy pipe," she said, "you will walk
like a living prayer. With your feet resting upon the earth and
the 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."
"Look at this bowl," said the White Buffalo Woman. "Its
stone represents the buffalo, but also the flesh and blood of the
red man. 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 the Earth. The
wooden stem of this *chanunpa* stands for all that grows on the
Twelve feathers hanging from where the stem - the backbone - joins
the bowl - the skull - are from Wanblee Galeshka, the spotted eagle,
the very sacred bird who is the Great Spirit's messenger and the
wisest of all flying ones. You are joined to all things of the universe,
for they all cry out to Tunkashila.
Look at the bowl: engraved in it are seven circles of various sizes.
They stand for the seven sacred ceremonies you will practice with
this pipe, and for the Oceti Sakowin, the seven sacred campfires
of our Lakota nation."
The White Buffalo Calf Woman then spoke to the women, telling them
that it was the work of their hands and the fruit of their bodies
which kept the people alive.
"You are from the mother earth," she told them. "What
you are doing is as great as what the warriors do." And therefore
the sacred pipe is also something that binds men and women together
in a circle of love.
It is the one holy object in the making of which both men and women
have a hand. The men carve the bowl and make the stem; the women
decorate it with bands of colored porcupine quills. When a man takes
a wife, they both hold the pipe at the same time and red trade cloth
is wound around their hands, thus tying them together for life.
The White Buffalo Woman had many things for her Lakota sisters
in her sacred womb bag - corn, *wasna* (pemmican), wild turnip.
She taught them how to make the hearth fire. She filled a buffalo
paunch with cold water and dropped a red-hot stone into it. "This
way you shall cook the corn and the meat," she told them.
The White Buffalo Calf Woman also talked to the children, because
they have an understanding beyond their years. She told them that
what their mothers and fathers did was for them, that their parents
could remember being little once, and that they, the children, would
grow up to have little ones of their own.
She told them: "You are the coming generation, that's why
you are the most important and precious ones. Some day you will
hold this pipe and smoke it. Some day you will pray with it."
She spoke once more to all the people: "The pipe is alive;
it is a red being showing you a red life and a red road. And this
is the first ceremony for which you will use the pipe. You will
use it to keep the soul of a dead person, because through it you
can talk to Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery Spirit.
The day a human dies is always a sacred day. The day when the soul
is released to the Great Spirit is another. Four women will become
sacred on such a day. They will be the one to cut the sacred tree
- the *can-wakan* - for the sun dance."
She told the Lakota that they were the purest among the tribes,
and for that reason Tunkashila had bestowed upon them the holy *chanunpa*.
They had been chosen to take care of it for all the Indian people
on this turtle continent.
She spoke one last time to Standing Hollow Horn, the chief, saying,
"Remember: this pipe is very sacred. Respect it and it will
take you to the end of the road. The four ages of creation are in
me; I am the four ages. I will come to see you in every generation
cycle. I shall come back to you."
The sacred woman then took leave of the people, saying: "Toksha
ake wancinyankin (/wacinyanktin) ktelo - I shall see you again."
The people saw her walking off in the same direction from which
she had come, outlined against the red ball of the setting sun.
As she went, she stopped and rolled over four times. The first time,
she turned into a black buffalo; the second into a brown one; the
third into a red one; and finally, the fourth time she rolled over,
she turned into a white female buffalo calf.
A white buffalo is the most sacred living thing you could ever
encounter. The White Buffalo Calf Woman disappeared over the horizon.
Sometime she might come back.
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 needed - meat for their food, skins
for their clothes and tipi's, bones for their many tools.
- Told by Lame Deer at Winner, Rosebud Indian Reservation, South
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