Sunday, September 09, 2007
We found a herd of American Bison in Golden Gate Park the other day. It was thrilling to see the largest living animal in North America, and one with such an important history.
Golden Gate Park is larger than New York's Central Park, and was once nothing but sand dunes blasted by harsh ocean winds. Today, it has over one million trees and offers a beautiful and varied haven for both locals and tourists, thousands of whom visit the park every weekend.
The huge tract of barren land covering 1,017 acres was deeded to San Francisco in 1870. John McLaren, a Scotsman who came to the city during that decade, established grass, trees and numerous plants in an environment considered too barren for lush foliage.
In 1892, a small herd of bison arrived. Bison (or buffalo) had provided everything necessary for life to the Native American tribes that inhabited North America, but railroads, highways, and other forms of "progress," including killing vast numbers of them to spite the Indians, had made the animal nearly extinct. Within ten years, the small herd in the park had produced 100 calves, and it was evident that the buffalo would survive into the 20th Century.
The herd is all females today, and most of them were sleeping in the sun when we arrived. One, however, must have noticed our cameras because she got up and came as close as possible within the double-fenced paddock. She posed herself from every angle while we took pictures and told her how beautiful she was.
She reminded me of the animals who "gave away" to the Indians by allowing themselves to be killed for food, skins, bone and hooves, for every part of the animal was used by the original people. They did not have the dispose-and-replace mentality that is prevalent in our culture, and wasted nothing.
The Lakota people have a prophesy about a white buffalo calf, which is an incredibly rare occurrence.
2,000 years ago, the people were starving. Two of their best warriors were sent out to find food for the tribe in the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota. They saw a large body coming toward them, a white buffalo calf. As it came closer, it suddenly turned into a beautiful young Indian woman.
One of the warriors lusted for her, so she told him to step forward. When he did, a black cloud passed over his body, and when it disappeared, the warrior was left with no flesh on his bones. The other warrior knelt and began to pray.
The young woman told him to return to his people and tell them that in four days, she would bring a sacred bundle.
The warrior gathered all the people in a circle and told them about his meeting with the white buffalo calf woman. On the fourth day, a cloud came down from the sky. A white buffalo calf stepped out of the cloud and rolled onto the earth. As the calf stood up, it became the beautiful young woman who was carrying a sacred bundle in her hands.
She entered the circle of the nation, singing a sacred song, and spent four days teaching the people about the sacred bundle. She taught them seven sacred ceremonies.
The first was the sweat lodge, the purification ceremony. The second was the naming ceremony, the naming of children. The third was the healing ceremony. The fourth was the making of relatives or the adoption ceremony, hunka. The fifth was the marriage ceremony. The sixth was the vision quest. And the seventh was the sundance ceremony, the people's ceremony for all the nation.
She assured the people that if they performed these ceremonies, they would always remain caretakers and guardians of their sacred land. As long as they took care of it and respected it, their people would never die.
When she had taught all these things to the people, she promised to return one day for the sacred bundle and left the way she had come.
The sacred bundle, which has been passed down from generation to generation, is kept today by Arvol Looking Horse, who is known as the keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe. It remains in a sacred place on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.
When White Buffalo Calf Woman departed, she prophesied that the birth of a white buffalo calf would be a sign that it was near the time of her return to purify the world by bringing back harmony and spiritual balance.
In 2006, a white buffalo calf was born in Wisconsin. This is a rare event, as only one in ten million buffaloes are white. The Native American world took notice and came from all over the country to see it, as the birth was considered the fulfillment of White Buffalo Calf Woman's prophesy.
Native Americans have endured horrible and undeserved punishments since the arrival of the first Europeans. Their trials are not over. The Lakota Nation mounted the longest court case in U.S. history to regain control of the Black Hills, Paha Sapa, the sacred land on which White Buffalo Calf Woman appeared 2,000 years ago. They lost.
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 recognized the Great Sioux Nation as a sovereign and separate entity. In return for the undisturbed use of some of their land, the Lakota agreed to vacate vast sections of the Great Plains.
In 1864, an illegal army expedition led by George Armstrong Custer found gold in the Black Hills, and settlers from the east began to swarm into the area. In 1877, Congress passed a law which annexed the Great Sioux Reservation and the Black Hills, dividing the land into several small reservations. It seems obvious that this was done in reprisal for the defeat of Custer's Seventh Cavalry in the Battle of Little Big Horn the previous year.
In 1980, the Supreme Court ordered the federal government to compensate the Lakota for their land. But the tribes have refused to accept the money, a sum that now stands at $380 million, insisting instead on the return of the Black Hills.
Despite their ongoing struggles, Native Americans are heartened by the appearance of a white buffalo calf and continue to hope for a harmonious and prosperous future.
"We are praying, many of the medicine people, the spiritual leaders, the elders, are praying for the world," says Joseph Chasing Horse. "We are praying that mankind does wake up and think about the future, for we haven't just inherited this earth from our ancestors, but we are borrowing it from our unborn children."