On Buffalo

The nature of buffalo
Buffalo met a huge amount of the physical needs of many Native American tribes, in terms of providing food and material for clothing, tools, and shelter. In addition, buffalo played a very important role in the spirituality of many Native American tribes.

It has become clear to us that the role of the Buffalo Nation is to provide sustainance, bothy physical and spiritual, to humanity. Reconnecting with the buffalo can lead to powerful healing for individuals and communitites.

Buffalo meat
Buffalo meat is a healthful alternative to beef. Buffalo has the following characteristics

The Give Away: Learning from Buffalo

(A version of this story previously appeared in Wolf Songs, newsletter of TiOspaye)

Walking a spiritual path will often bring interesting people into your life. Thanks to a chance meeting at a sweat lodge ceremony, I am fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to work the annual buffalo roundup at Wild Winds Buffalo Preserve (in Freemont, IN) for the past 4 years. This yearly event is done to keep the herd healthy, give vaccinations the animals, record their weights, and apply ear tags to untagged animals. It is also a time when the young calves are separated from the cows for weaning and when some animals are selected to be slaughtered for meat.

Working with these animals is an amazing experience. Being up close and personal with them provides an unforgettable understanding of their true majesty and raw power. It is incredible to imagine the bravery and skill of the Native American hunters who crept up to a buffalo herd under a wolf skin or hunted on horseback with a bow and arrow.

Wild Winds has 400 acres of pasture land, and a herd of approximately 250 buffalo, all from Custer State Park stock. More than a ranch raising buffalo for meat, the Preserve operates as a teaching resource and gets quite a lot of visitors interested in seeing the herd and learning more about the buffalo. Wild Winds also recognizes the spiritual and sacred side of maintaining a healthy buffalo herd. There is an altar set up on the preserve where the skulls of all female buffalo that die are placed, to honor and recognize the importance of the female in the preservation of the herd.

Pickup trucks are the modern horses of the Wild Winds Preserve. They are used to gently encourage the herd to move at the start of the roundup. This part of the operation operates on "buffalo time." If the animals don't want to move, nothing can be done about it. Luring the animals with fresh hay and corn grain is a big help in getting them to go where we need them to go. The animals are never pushed hard or quickly, to avoid excessive stress.

In the roundup, pickup trucks attempt to move manageable groups of buffalo into a series of corrals so the animals can be split out individually by closing a series of gates behind them. This way, the buffalo are staged into a series of gated corrals. The corrals feed into a chute system with a vice "squeezer"at the end. A yoke is put on the animals, and the sides are pressed in to hold them. This is where the animals' weights are recorded and they receive their shots.

An adult buffalo will generally weigh 1,200-1,800 pounds, and large males can reach over 2,000 pounds. The power and strength of buffalo is very impressive. I have seen these buffalo crack 5" diameter fence posts with one head butt. And the speeds at which buffalo can run is incredible. They can achieve a 35 mph running speed in just a few steps.

Yet despite all their size, weight, and power, buffalo are also amazingly fragile animals. Though the roundup is necessary to maintain the health of the herd, it is stressful to the buffalo, even with all the steps taken to minimize stress. The Preserve operates without a "cowboy" mentality, and treats the buffalo respectfully, as powerful, sacred creatures. Instead of shouting and prodding the animals, everyone is encouraged to talk quietly to them, and they generally respond very well to this gentle treatment.

At the first roundup, I witnessed a very powerful demonstration of just how fragile a buffalo truly is. A large cow that was obviously stressed tried to get through a fence composed of 1/2" diameter iron rod. She bent out a section of the fence and crushed her windpipe. A hush fell over the workers as this majestic animal crumpled to the ground and died quickly, right before our eyes. Many of us cried at seeing such an amazing creature die so swiftly. We were unprepared for this vivid demonstration of how quickly such a majestic animal can die.

After removing the animal from the corral, a crew went to work to fix the fence, so that no other animals would injure themselves. While the repair work was being done, I was asked by John, the preserve owner and caretaker, to help skin the buffalo cow. It was a very solemn process, done with just the pocket knives we were carrying. Later, after the animal was butchered, the meat was gifted to people who helped out at the Preserve.

Before every roundup from then on, I always take a moment to remind everyone of the fragile side of these powerful, sacred beasts, and tell the story of this cow. Her sacrifice now serves as an important reminder of the full nature -- sacred, powerful, and fragile -- of the buffalo, and helps ground the workers so they understand the full nature of their responsibility during the roundup.

Every year, we have introduced more of a spiritual emphasis to the roundup. We have tried to ensure that everyone involved understands something of the spiritual significance of the buffalo. We have built a sweat lodge at the Preserve and performed traditional Lakota sweat lodge there. Before starting every roundup, we pray for the continued health of the Buffalo Nation, that the buffalo continue to nourish the people physically and spiritually, that the herd and all workers remain safe, and that the roundup proceed without accident or injury to any creature. Whenever an animal begins to get stressed, someone stops to offer prayers and make a tobacco offering. In one instance last year, a large bull buffalo got one horn tangled in a fence. After a quick prayer and tobacco offering, it freed itself. As the bull stepped down from the fence, a large red tailed hawk flew over the corral area.

This year's roundup brought another teaching. An older buffalo cow running into the entrance of the corral area slipped and fell. She caught her horn in the dirt, and did a summersault, landing on her back and getting jostled by several other animals in the process. She didn't get up, but was only able to flail her legs. It was obvious that she wouldn't be getting up again. Not wanting her to suffer, John asked me to bring him his rifle, and I brought out tobacco to make an offering. In my prayer for the buffalo cow, I recognized and thanked her for her sacrifice, noted that she was choosing her own time of passing, and asked that we honor her give-away, promising that the meat would feed those who support the preserve. With tears in my eyes, I finished my prayer and began to sprinkle the tobacco on the ground beside the cow. As John cocked the rifle and I released the last of the tobacco, the cow got to her feet! It was truly an incredible sight, and a powerful experience to be a part of.

The two primary lessons I've come to understand from working with buffalo are the importance of spirituality in everyday life, and the understanding that all life is fragile, regardless of how strong, powerful, or unharmable it may seem. Today, with all the environmental problems we face, this seems to be an important Teaching for all the two-leggeds to take in.

Mitakuye Oyasin

copyright (c) 2002 by Allen R. Pyle