White Buffalo Calf Woman is one of the most important Native American Deities. White Buffalo Calf Woman, in Her native language, is called Ptesan-Wi. An alternate name is Wóȟpe. She has a specifically Lakota origin, but is considered significant to most tribes. I’m not sure if this was always so, or if it is a result of modern times spreading information more efietly. In any case, the story is estimated to be about 2000 years old.
One summer a long time ago, the Seven Sacred Fires of the “Sioux” (the Lakota, Datoka, and Natoka) came together to camp. But there was a great famine, and before long the people began to starve. Two scouts were sent into the Black Hills of what is now South Dakota to hunt for buffalo. As they searched, they saw something approaching them from the distance. It was a white buffalo calf, but as it came closer, they watched in amazement as it turned into a beautiful young woman wearing all white buckskin. She carried a medicine bundle and a fan made of sage leaves.
It was clear that she was wakan, holy, but one of the warriors was overcome with lust and thought he could claim her as his wife. He told his companion that he intended to do so. His friend told him it would be wrong and disrespectful to treat a holy woman so, but he did not listen. When the warrior approached the woman, a white cloud enveloped them both. The other man could do nothing but watch. When the cloud dissipated, all that remained of the impure warrior was a pile of blackened bones. No one could harm White Buffalo Calf Woman.
She told the pure-hearted scout “Go back to your people and tell them that I am coming. Tell your chief to put up a medicine lodge and wait for me. I have much to teach you.” He did so, and the chief not only ordered a lodge to be built but sent someone through the camp, telling everyone “A holy woman is coming, prepare yourselves to meet her.”
Four days later, she came to them. Some stories say she descended from a white cloud, others that she approached in the same human form that she had appeared to the hunters before. The chief stepped forward to greet her and lead her to the medicine lodge they had prepared. She bought the people the chanunpa, the sacred peace pipe. This is one of the most holy symbols in Native American theology, and its so important that instead of retelling it in my own words I will borrow this telling from Lame Deer:
“With this holy pipe,” she said, “you will walk like a living prayer. With your feet resting upon the earth and the pipestem 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. “It’s 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 man. 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 earth. Twelve feathers hanging from where the stem- the backbone- joins the bowl- the skull- are from Wanblee Galeshka, the spotted eagle, the very sacred who is the Great Spirit’s messenger and the wisest of all cry out to Tunkashila. Look at the bowl: engraved in it are seven circles of various sizes. They stand for the seven ceremonies you will practice with this pipe, and for the Ocheti Shakowin, the seven sacred campfires of our Lakota nation.”
White Buffalo Woman also gave them the seven sacred rituals that mark the life of the Lakota.
- Wanagi Wicagluha—The Keeping of The Soul (funeral, a ritual to purify the soul of the person who passed before they can move on
- Hanbleceyapi—The Vision Quest
3. Wiwanyang Wacipi—The Sun Dance
4. Hunkapi—The Making of Relatives, or Adoption ceremony
5. Inipi—The Sweat Lodge, or purification ceremony
6. Isnati Awicalowanp—Preparing a Girl for Womanhood
7. Tapa Wankayeyapi—Throwing the Ball (this one is a ceremonial ball game, one mostly not practiced today anymore. It has four goals and four teams, all symbolling the four sacred directions)
When White Buffalo Woman left, She walked in the same direction She had come from. When She had gone a little way, She laid down and 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 buffalo calf.
There are different interpretations of the colors of the buffalo that she turned into. Some say that it symbolizes the races of humanity, that we are all one family. But this is surely a modern interpretation, for this story is 2000 years old, from before the Lakota knew of the existence of other races. Others believe that the colors signify the directions and their accompanying elements in the Lakota tradition. For example, the black buffalo would stand for west and earth, yellow for east and the sun, the red buffalo for south and water. And final color, the white buffalo calf, symbolizes north and the element of air. These would seem to be borne out by the associations of the Lakota medicine wheel, and is the most likely explanation. More information is available here, on this website about Lakota culture.
ASSOCIATIONS (White Buffalo Calf Woman): (from here)
General: White buffalo, peace-pipe, circle (hoop), and the numbers 4 and 7.
Animals: Buffalo and bison, eagle and hawk.
Plants: Buttercup, pulsatilla (Pasque flower), and spruce.
Perfumes/Scents: Sage, wisteria, tangerine, and rose geranium.
Gems and Metals: Agate, rose quartz, gold, silver, and red clay.
Colors: White, yellow, red, and black.
Whenever a white buffalo is born it is a sacred event to the Lakota. If the color changes, which sometimes happens as a white buffalo calf ages, it is an important symbol that can only be interpreted by a medicine man. They are a symbol of abundance, creation, and messages from the ancestors. The veneration of this living buffalo reminds me, personally, of the Egyptian worship of the Apis bull in my own tradition.
I have to say that this was a difficult article to write. I don’t want to be accused of cultural appropriation, but at the same time, I am living in the Americas, and I want to honor the Native Gods and spirits of this land that is so important to me. Additionally, it can be hard to suss out what is ‘true’ information and what is crap, particularly when my main source of information (for the moment) is the internet. I hope that I did a good and respectable job of it, because I find the stories and cultures of the Native Americans to be very beautiful.
Crystallinks: White Buffalo Calf Woman
Order of the White Moon: White Buffalo Calf Woman