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Folktales

Legend of the Buffalo Dance

by Alan G. Hefner

The lives of the Blackfoot Indians of Montana was tied closely to the comings and goings of the great buffalo herds. The bison provided their chief food and material needs. The chief means of killing a great number of the animals was to drive them over a cliff and butcher them after they hurtled down to the rocks below. The same method of slaughter was used on the buffalo plains of Europe during the period of the great caves (c. 10,000 - 30,000 BC). On walls of these caves in southern France are drawings of masked shamans trying to lure the buffalo with a lively dance step.

On the evening before the drive of the buffalo the medicine man of the tribe, usually the possessor of a buffalo rock, took out his pipe, smoked it, and prayed to the Sun for success. The next morning the medicine man buffalo rose early. Before leaving he told his wives they must not leave the lodge, not even look out until he returned. They were to keep sweet grass burning and pray to the Sun for his success and safety. Then without eating or drinking he, dressed in buffalo head dress and robe, set out on his mission on the prairie. Others followed behind him and hid themselves behinds rocks which formed a V shape. He approached the herd and attracted their attention. The animals would then follow him into the shute. Then the other men would rise up from behind the rocks and wave their robes behind the buffalo to stampede them over the cliff and into a barricade built below. Many died instantly when falling on the rocks, others suffered broken backs and legs and had to be killed, but all were butchered for the meat and hides.

Once though, so a Blackfoot story goes, the bison failed to go over the cliff for a period of time and the people were beginning to go hungry. The buffalo would go so far and then turned away before jumping over the cliff.

Then one morning, very early, a young Indian woman went to fetch water at the bottom of the fall from the cliff. She happened to look up and saw a herd of buffalo grazing above. In jest she cried out, "Oh! if you will only jump into the corral, I shall marry one of you."

Suddenly the buffalo came hurtling over the cliff. This startled the woman, but what startled her more was seeing a big bull jump the corral and come toward her. "Come," he said taking her arm. She pulled back saying, "Oh no!" But he reminded her of her promise and showed her that the corral was full of buffalo and meat for her people. Without further ado he lead her away across the prairie.

The people were busy butchering the buffalo which had fallen into the corral. They now had plenty of meat to last them. The young woman was not missed immediately. When she was missed her father and relatives searched for her. Soon it became apparent she was not among them. Her father knew she had disappeared and taking his bow and quiver said, "I shall go and find her."

He went up the cliff and out onto the prairie quite a ways till he came to a buffalo wallow, a place where buffalo came to drink water, lie and roll in the mud. He saw a herd nearby and being tired he sat and rested by the wallow. As he rested a beautiful magpie bird approached him. The man called the bird handsome and asked the bird for help saying, "As you fly about, look everywhere for my daughter, and if you see her, say to her, 'Your father is waiting by the wallow.'"

The magpie flew straight toward the herd. There he saw a young woman among the buffalo. He flew to the ground and pecked around until he got near her, and then he told her, "Your father is waiting by the wallow." This frightened her. She was afraid the buffalo might hear this. Glancing around she saw her husband was asleep, and quickly told the bird to return to her father and tell him to wait there. Soon the bull awoke and said to his wife, "Go and get me some water."

She gladly took the horn from her husband's head and went to the wallow where she met her father. She asked, "Father, why did you come? Surely, you know, you'll be killed?" "To take you home," he replied urging her to come with him. But she told him no, if she left then the herd would follow and kill them. She cautioned to wait till the bull slept again, and then they would try to escape.

She returned to the bull who drank. But stopping he said, "Ha! There is a person close by." "No! No! No one!" the woman said. But her heart rose up. The bull drank a little more, and then rose up giving a fearsome bellow which arose all the other bulls that followed him in a stampede toward the wallow. There they found the man who had come to seek his daughter.

Then they trampled him with their hoofs, they hooked him with their horns, and then trampled him again until there was nothing left of the man. "Oh, my father, my father!" his daughter wailed. "Aha!" said the bull, "You are mourning your father. And so, perhaps, you can see how it is with us. We have seen our mothers, fathers, many of our relatives, hurled over the rock walls, and slaughtered by your people. But I shall pity you; I shall give you just one chance. If you can bring your father back to life again, you and he may go back to your people."

The woman turned to the magpie. "Pity me! Help me now!" she said. "Go and search in the trampled mud. Try to find some little piece of my father's body and bring it back to me." The magpie quickly flew to the wallow. He pecked in every hole and tore up the mud with his sharp beak. Finally he found something white and picked the mud from it. It was a joint from the man's backbone which he took to the young woman.

She placed the joint on the ground and covered it with her robe. Then she sang a certain song. Then removing the robe she saw her father's body lying there. She again covered it with the robe and resumed singing her song. The next time she removed the robe her father was breathing; then he stood up. This amazed the buffalo. The magpie was delighted, and he flew around making such a clatter.

"We have seen strange things today," said the bull husband to the others of his herd. "The man we trampled to death, into small pieces, is again alive. The people's holy power is strong." He turned to the young woman. "Now," he said, "before you and your father go, we shall teach you our dance and song. You must not forget them." For these would be the magical means by which the buffalo killed by the people for their food should be restored to life, just as the man who killed the buffalo had been restored.

All the buffalo sang and danced. Both the song and dance was slow and solemn befitting the great beasts. Afterwards both the young woman and her father were charged to go and teach what they had seen to their people. They were never to forget it. And, all who performed the ritual were to wear the buffalo head and robe.

Upon their return the young woman and her father taught the rite to a select group of young men whom the Council chose. The ritual continued among the Blackfoot association of men's societies called I-kun-uh'-kah-tsi (All Comrades). Its function was to govern all ceremonial life and punish offenses against the community.

So it was until the "iron horse" cut across the prairies, the buffalo disappeared, and the old hunters became farmers or took the various laboring jobs which they could get.


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