Picturing The Buffalo Nation Through Words

At ITBC, we refer to the “buffalo nation”. But what does that mean? We can begin with the literal definitions of the words in English.

Buffalo – (n) a humpbacked wild animal of two subspecies: 1) Bison bison bison – American plains bison 2) Bison bison athabascae – Wood bison.
Nation – (n) a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory

But what would it look like if you put those two together? By definition, conjoining these words seems contradictory in English, because first, buffalo aren’t people… or are they? 

In many of our oral stories, animals communicate with each other, just as humans talk to one another today. In English stories, if a buffalo were to speak, it would be called personification or “anthropomorphism” – the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to an animal or object. However, in indigenous languages, animals and other gifts of the earth (water, air, etc.) inherently have humanistic attributes. We see buffalo as similar to us. In fact, the Tewa and Tiwa speakers say Ko-sendo and Ko-wweyo, which literally translates to Buffalo Men and Women. 

One example of our similarities is that buffalo herds are led by elderly females, who know the safest routes from threats and areas with the most resources. Many native societies are matriarchal too. Male buffalo travel for miles independently and similarly, the Lakota men go on a journey alone, called a “zuya”. There are many examples of how buffalo are “like” humans. But what about buffalo as people?

Photo by Doug Thomas

Ever heard of the White Buffalo Woman? Long story short, there were two scouts out on a trip. They saw a beautiful woman on a hill. One man respected her beauty. The other thought of how he wanted this woman for himself. A cloud engulfed this man. The woman went to the remaining scout’s village and she taught the people how to use the sacred tobacco pipe and other spiritual practices. When her work was done, the woman said she would return, and she walked away. As she did, she turned into a white buffalo. To this day, when people hear news of a white buffalo being born, they know her spirit has returned to them. This story has variations among different people, but many of the “Sioux” – the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people, still practice her teachings. In this case, the buffalo is not just thought of having human qualities, but it in fact, can become human. 

Our language can also describe our relationship to buffalo. For the Lakota, we have a philosophy “Mitakuye Oyasin” – We are all related. Thus, our relationship to the buffalo, is a familial one. To the Blackfeet, their word for buffalo is Iinii, which means “Taking Hardships Away”. The buffalo were there for our people by giving up their skin for robes, their meat for jerky, and more, so we could survive cold, barren winters. The buffalo gave us so much and that’s why we have a plethora of words to explain all of the parts and uses. These words tell us when and how to harvest. The buffalo has been a means of survival. In fact, the buffalo means “Oyate Kin Nipiktedo” – “So the people will live” in Lakota.

It is no wonder why our people traveled for miles with the buffalo. In fact, the Northern Arapaho, call themselves “The Bison Path People”. My Unci (Lakota for Grandmother) says her Unci rode horseback all the way to the Platte River in Kansas following the buffalo. This story is one of many. Where the buffalo went, the people went. However, during the 1800’s, the buffalo went away and so did we. Scientists say buffalo were somewhere between 30 to 60 million and native people about 10 million. After a series of military conflict and excessive hunting, buffalo numbered only 500 and our people, 250,000. 

Our populations weren’t the only things that suffered. The era of reservations, boarding schools, urban relocation program, and termination of Tribes’ sovereign status, interrupted our pattern of life that had thrived for thousands of years. The uprooting and separation of families broke what language revitalization experts call the “nest”. It is a model that says the best way to learn and preserve language and culture is in the home with your family. 

This societal shift was only a couple of generations ago. Moses Barry, a member of the Spokane Tribe inspired to preserve endangered languages, says he is only the second generation as an English speaker in his family. Many of us can relate. Although my grandmother’s parents were fluent Lakota speakers, they only spoke English to her because that is what was socially acceptable at the time. Her father, Harry Conroy, and his parents, Victoria Standing Bear and Frank Conroy, all attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School. General Pratt of that school had a philosophy, “Kill the Indian. Save the Man”. My mother was the first to not leave home to go to a boarding school. 

Many native people today, have lived in their community where the buffalo hasn’t been home and our native tongue hasn’t been spoken in the home. I heard an elder say, “It is not a home without the buffalo”. But he said when the buffalo did come home, their songs were sung again and dances came to life. The presence of the buffalo being back brought wholeness to their people. The return of the buffalo breathes life into our voice. A friend of mine, Waste Iktomi Winyan (Good Spider Woman), said “Whenever you speak your language, it is the voice of your ancestors.” So, we say the buffalo’s name in our native tongue, so our heritage lives on.

Segunasuliq! Yanasi! Hotoa’e, ésevone! Hii3einoon! Tatanka! Pte! Mostos! Tsoo-thlum! Tatanga! Bishée! Pkocshuke’! Cexji! “Ey”ay! Mashkode-bizhiki! Tanáha! Hukós! Mideedági! Ptį́_į! Yoho! Ko-sendo, ko-wweeyo! Tenúga, tezhíⁿga, temíⁿga, Tsyo?nekii:yaku! ʰtse! Páw, kujū! Te, te mi, te zhi-ka, te mi zhi-ka! Kêkineshîha! Pakwachinenothwa! Tanáha’! Yvnvsv! Odegiyá’göh, degiyá’göh, dzoyö:sgwa:k! Bozena, bodzeN! Qwist! So’-lvs! ‘Awasatak! Che!

We call out the buffalo’s name to let them know, we are still here with them. They are the buffalo nation and we are the buffalo nation, too. We say buffalo nation because our lives are intertwined. Their spirit, story, and history is our own. Our path is with the buffalo and their return, brings hope for the return of our songs, dances, spiritual traditions – and ultimately, wholeness to our societies. 

Now when you hear “Buffalo Nation”. What do you see? 

A special thanks to the Member Tribes, Pueblos, and Villages, who shared with us, the word “buffalo” in their native language.



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