Sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman (Universal Blues)

©2008 Turtle Heart. Art and Text.

Apparently the most famous story about tribal sacred teachings is the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman. In their stories about Sacred Pipe, the Lakota say a sacred woman appeared to two men. One of them was a fool who was killed, by the sacred woman, straight away, as seems just. The other was given a sacred pipe and told how and when to use it. The sacred woman then went away, turning into a white buffalo as she vanished.

In modern Lakota histry the sacred woman seems all but forgotten as the keepers of canupa talk over and over about a white buffalo. Canupa is an old word that means “wooden stick” more or less. It is now the preferred word when activists plains tribal members talk about sacred pipe.

Many modern people have transfered this story to bizzaro land. Here they view every sign that a white buffalo has been born somewhere as the second coming of…something vague. It is a statistical certainty that white buffalos will be born from time to time. Nevertheless, whole hordes of one can hope otherwise composed people declare these births quite sacred and prophecies of a great future which is described in glowing terms as….vague.

The story of White Buffalo Calf Woman is so well documented that one wonders where these interpretations come from and why. What is it about people that even as they seek to be educated they behave as if they know nothing at all.

This sacred pipe came to the Lakota about 450 years ago, by their own reckoning. In other tribes sacred pipe came thousands of years ago. The great woodland tribes of the central and eastern United States have known sacred pipe throughout their long history. Like the people who forget that the pipe was brought oto the Lakota by a sacred woman, most people forget and have failed to notice the long history of sacred pipes elsewhere in North America. They are to busy looking for white buffalos.

More people, particularly the Lakota Nation, need to be reminded of the role of sacred woman in the gift of sacred pipe. Indeed, before one Arvol Looking Horse somehow became Keeper of this sacred pipe, it was held by an old Lakota woman. No tribe disrespects women more than the Lakota tribal nation. None. Instead of looking for white buffalos, those people who believe in this sacred pipe should be looking for sacred Lakota women who have not been raped, beaten or abandoned and try and protect them from the grand council of old wooden sticks that dominate Lakota public politics.

A tribe can well be judged on the position and treatment of the women in its membership. Far to many tribes have dealt women out of the picture, out of the ceremonies and out of the official responsibilities of the tribe’s daily life. It is so common that we can really appreciate that handful of tribes who continue to honor and protect, and listen to their women.

Writers like to find some dramatic story and put this out as history. More often than not, something is lost in translation. Like American Indian people, Sacred Pipe suffers and is diminished by an ocean of bad information put out by self-appointed prophets and self-serving journalism, such as the celebrated work Black Elk Speaks. This book is the perfect example of a well-meaning but dangerously uninformed, famous writer finding, almost by chance, a great “prophet” on which he could build his certainly to be celebrated opus on the noble savage of his times. The author of Black Elk Speaks was an opportunist who knew almost nothing about American Indians. Black Elk himself was one Lakota man among many. He was not the first or last to have a vision. He was not the first or last to have knowledge of the ceremonial life. When he was alive, there were many tribal elders alive who knew more, and had more experience than Black Elk. Black Elk spent most of his adult life as an officer in the Catholic Church, to whom he swore an oath to never follow his own traditional religious ways. Later in life he performed “healing ceremonies” for the throngs of tourists who came to visit Mount Rushmore, then under construction. By a traditional measure, Black Elk was not the best choice one could have found in the tribes in those days. By a traditional measure, Black Elk was in fact not even remotely considered a holy man. By the hype and projections deduced from this book, one would think Black Elk was a great teacher and ceremonial leader and a lot like Jesus. The hype around the book transcends all of these issues, and as usual, makes what is really true more or less irrelevant. It has created multiple generations of white buffalo watchers who would not know a sacred woman if she blew smoke on them.

No matter how carefully the truth is spoken, it is the projections of the ego, of the need for miracles, that somehow flavor and dominate all of our public information on sacred matters, and in particular tribal sacred matters.

The Four Directions Unity Bundle, of which I am the Keeper, contains a group of very Sacred Pipes. These sacred objects, all of them, have been understood and addressed by sacred women of the four directions. Tribal sacred women have blessed them and agreed to them. Wherever this bundle travels in its World Journey, it encounters, embraces and celebrates the sacred women of all cultures and nations. Every ceremony of sacred pipe contains the wisdom and direction of those sacred women who have embraced this work, embraced my life’s journey.

In our historical Ahnishinabeg culture, it was the women who choose the men who would carry and keep the sacred of the people. It was the women who owned the land, the women who owned the water.

Sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman did not give virgin birth to a Savior. What she did do was speak to simple men in desperate times and show them a way forward and give them the means to light their way. Sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman was a Distant Dreamer, a Manitou, a Chindi following herself, not following some man. She has given birth to generation after generation of dreams and dreamers.In her memory, the blind look for white buffalos while those who are honest and who remember her best, look within…and remember.

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