Sunday, September 09, 2007

Some Things about Buffalo (and that's no bull)

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."


seventh sister said...

Whenever I see buffalo I think about these tourists I saw years ago at a rest stop on I 30 in northeast Texas. There was a fence behind the rest stop and on the other side of the fence was a beautiful pasture full of whiteish Brahma cattle with big gray humps on their backs. "Look"cried one of the tourist ladies to the rest of the group, "Look at all these buffaloes". I just got in my car and drove away as fast as I could so that they did not see me laughing at their expense. That herd of Brahma's should have been site enough for them.

I have always loved the White Buffalo Calf Woman lengends.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Too funny. They may have been the same tourists I saw with cameras at the beach, "taking candids of the ocean."

I love legends and myths, too.

thailandchani said...

Absolutely fascinating! I was absorbed, beginning to end! Joseph Campbell has nothing on you! Seriously. :)



Josie said...

Wow, Hearts, what an interesting post. The First Nations people here in Canada are fighting to get back their land and their aboriginal rights as well. The Europeans really ran roughshod over them, didn't they? All their culture, their traditions and even their languages were taken away from them. (Even their children, in fact.)

It will be interesting to see if the prophesy does come true.

The CEO said...

The US Government was very Imperialist indeed with the Indian Nations it encountered. We left a record that we cannot be proud of.

Jocelyn said...

Thank you for bringing out the resonance in your seeing the bison at GG Park the other day and for tying it into larger historical lessons and memories.

Having grown up in Montana, seeing bison makes my heart beat right. They could be my logo.

If, you know, I needed one.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I am deeply honored to be in the same sentence as Joseph Campbell.

Thank you.


I hope it does. The world could sorely use some harmony and spiritual balance.

There is no end to the destruction the Europeans visited on the Native populations of the Americas: masacres, smallpox-infested blankets, broken treaties, and "boarding schools" where Indian children were severely punished for speaking their own languages.


It's a shame and a disgrace that to this day, the Indian reservations have the worst health care and schools and the highest suicide rates in America.


I have always wanted to see Montana. If anyplace could be said to be "God's country," that would be it.

Seeing bison made my heart beat right, too. It's stirring to see a creature that has, against all odds, survived our modern civilization.

Sienna said...

Hearts I got fair dinkum goose bumbs and spirit shivers when I landed at your never stopped until I finished reading...(and with eyes filling with tears)......just because.

What beautiful big creatures.

Loved hearing about the Lakota people folklore.

Our country, I am ashamed to say, has treaded the same path with regard to how we have treated our Indigenous people..

Harmony and spiritual balance would be most welcome.


the walking man said...

Eurocentric manifest destiny, such a lovely thing to see the results of, not only the decimation of the first Peoples of North America but also on just about every continent of the world.

But the White Buffalo prophecy may be the one that reverses in America anyway the discord and dissent between all the peoples of this land.

I am sure "Wankentanka" (one of the names of God) does not talk out of his ass. Now it is up to the Lakota to lead, stand aside or follow.

In my opinion they have been doing the two latter for far to long. At least they have in their possession
their "Arc of the Covenant"



Bob said...

there are buffalo in a park outside of Kansas City. We visit them every so often when we go to KC to visit my wife's family. They definitely leave an impression on one.

it is shameful what "civilized" people did to indigenous populations. Who were the truly civilized, I wonder.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Thanks for sharing. I found the entire post extremely interesting.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


European-based cultures have forcefully imposed their will on indigenous people everywhere.

Your Aborigines also have a highly developed spiritual life which has been systematically subjugated to a culture of material objects.

I wish more than anything that it were otherwise.


Yes, the sacred pipe is indeed their Arc of the Covenant.

The American Indian Movement (AIM) tried to take a stand in the 70's at Wounded Knee, and some of them are still in prison.

The People were no match for the government, settlers, gold rushers, and others who swarmed over their lands with cruel intent and firepower.

Wakan Tanka weeps.


Those who destroy working cultures out of their own immense greed and arrogance are not as highly developed as they believe.

It is exciting to see buffalo, isn't it?


I'm glad. The same day I took some pictures of squirrels in the park, which I'll be posting to my other blog soon.

I thought of you while interacting with them. One came right up to me and sat up and begged!

WNG said...

Thank you.

Open Grove Claudia said...

Boy, I thought I knew every square inch of Golden Gate park. How wonderful to discover Buffalo in that beautiful space! There are huge Bison herds here in Colorado. Ted Turner purchases large cattle ranches and converts them to Bison. They are amazing creatures.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Thank YOU for reading what I write.


They are normally near Spreckels Lake, but their area is being improved and they have been relocated.

They really are amazing. It's impossible to see them and not think of their long history in the Wild West.

Anonymous said...

You have a knack for writing in a style that grabs me and makes me take notice. Facinating topic.

Odat said...

What a beautiful story! Thank you.

When I was in Yellowstone Park..I was staying in one of the cabins by the morning I opened the door to greet the day...and guess what was standing right outside looking right in my face as I did so???? A buffalo!!!! I grabbed my camera...and caught him running away....


jali said...

That was a touching and inspiring post. Now I need to learn more about the history. Thank you.

furiousBall said...

Great post...sorry, but I couldn't resist...

No moneyman can win my love
Its sweetness that Im thinking of.
We always hang in a buffalo stance
We do the dive every time we dance
Ill give you love baby not romance
Ill make a move nothing left to chance
So dont you get fresh with me

Rhea said...

Wow, buffalo right there in the city? I've never seen one. Very cool.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

That is a really good story, I'm sending a link off to share it with all my friends who will enjoy it.

Thanks for all of it, I loved learning about it.

Scarlett & V.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


The Native Americans had a colorful and deeply spiritual life style, which was destroyed by the many people who exploited them and their land.

Much of our history is cause for shame.


So you scared the buffalo...! You go, girl.

That sounds like a truly magical experience. I have never been to Yellowstone and would love to.


The more you learn about the treatment of our native people, the sadder you will be.

The energy that built America did so at the expense of both the people whose lands were invaded and the people who were brought here against their will.


I hope you are hanging in a buffalo stance, and I promise I won't get fresh with you.


It's amazing to see them because for most of us, they are mythical beasts. I'm going to visit them often, now that I know where they are.


It's particularly thrilling when legend meets reality, as it does in the story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman Sacred Pipe.

We're not sure the Holy Grail exists, but this artifact does, which is very persuasive in terms of the truth of the story.

James Burnett said...

Wow! This was beautifully written. Seriously, thanks for the history lesson.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a glimpse into the beautiful, Ms. Heart. Thank you for sharing with us not only the images of the majestic and utterly striking silhouette of the buffalo but also brief glimpses into our brief past and future history.

Thank you.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Thank you so much. I appreciate your kind words.


I think that so much of the beautiful and the poetic has been sacrificed to the practical and mundane.

Dan said...

Wow! You sure know your stuff. This was a wonderful history lesson! I love bison. They're so beautiful. It's such a shame what happened to them.

seventh sister said...

Hey Heart,
this is a test to see if my atavar shows up

heartinsanfrancisco said...


It is. And also what happened to the Native Americans.


Nice feather! And so appropriate. I like it.

Voyager said...

I only knew parts of the wonderful white buffalo story. Thanks for telling it here.

urban-urchin said...

I love seeing the bison in the park- it's such a nice contrast to a busy crowded city.

thanks for the reminder.

meno said...

Thanks for that. It is really interesting, and sad, and hopeful.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


It is a beautiful story, like all the stories of the Lakota.


Golden Gate Park is such a wonderland. Every time I go there, I find new areas to explore.


I would feel less sad and more hopeful if I believed that humanity learns from its mistakes, and if there weren't always one group imposing its will on another.

Jay said...

And don't forget about the delicious wings.

This was a really cool post.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I know you're a blond but I never made the connection with Jessica Simpson before. You're scaring me.

Liz said...

It's amazing that this bundle has been passed down through so many generations and that the people have stayed strong in the face of so much cash. I'm sure there are many who can't believe they'd turn down that money, but it's clear that the people know that there are more important things in the world. What an amazing story.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I think the Lakota would equate taking the money with selling their relatives, even though they could do so much with it.

Accepting it would be giving up hope that they will ever get their sacred land back. They have been living on hope for so very long.

You have to admire the devotion of a people who, despite centuries of brutality, displacement, and being strangers in their own land, have still managed to protect a cherished article of faith and pass it down through the generations.

Molly said...

I always come away from here better informed! Fascinating stuff....

CS said...

There is somethign amazing about the hige animals fo the world, espcially seeing them in their natural habitat (rather than a zoo). It's what made the Serengeti myall-time most amazing vacation.)

Melanie said...

interesting facts, and love the myth. I wonder if they could decide to give back the land, how they are going to feasibly do that?

thanks for making me think.

the walking man said...


there are a few first peoples reservations with white man towns in them but they are policed by the tribal police force and the only other legal law enforcement is federal, not state or local town.

How to give them the land back is the same way it was taken...uhhh hey dudes and dudettes of the tribe this is now your land may you forgive two hundred years of trespass on it.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


What a very nice thing to say! Thank you.


The Serengeti would be my ideal vacation, too. I have always wanted to go on a camera safari.

I'd love to see your pictures from that trip on your blog.


I don't think the government has any intention of giving back the land. Their attitude has always been "get over it" after committing horrible injustices.

Sometimes I try to imagine how this country looked before the white man "improved it" to death.



riseoutofme said...

Loved reading this post!

Thank you.

MsLittlePea said...

"Borrowing it from our unborn children" I love that.
I used to sell t-shirts to raise money for a nature preserve-the one with the buffalo design on it was always everyone's favorite.

velvet said...

Wow, great post! I always learn something when I stop by here.

The Native Americans have been treated most disgracefully by the European settlers... or should they be called the unsettlers? It seems more appropriate. Shameful, indeed.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Thank YOU!

Sweet Pea,

I love that line, too. It shows a very different view of the world than the one our culture has of owning it and therefore having the right to destroy it for personal gain.


The UNsettlers. Brilliant. And so very true.

Melanie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Melanie said...

sorry to offend walking man, I guess my meager amount of words, didn't convey what i was thinking. I was just trying to write that scene in my head, about how hilarious it would be to see the white people would be bitching, at something that clearly would be justified. (ie: kicking them off the rightful owners land. )

walking away now, lacking a portion of her head. :wink:

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I don't think he was offended. I think he was pointing out that although the reservations are considered sovereign with their own governments, police, etc., their way of life was stolen along with most of their land, and that it would be absurd to expect them to forgive such abysmal treatment at the hands of the dominant culture.

I have always believed that all Caucasians should have to be minority members somewhere long enough to teach them what it's like. This would vastly improve human relations around the world.

mist1 said...

Is it wrong that I want to go to Ted's Montana Grill for the Bison meatloaf tonight?

heartinsanfrancisco said...


It depends on how many Indians you slaughter on your way to the salad bar.

Parlancheq said...

Hello, hello, am I still in the blog sphere? Because blog writing is usually not so filled with interesting info and touchingly deep. :)

Now a question... why is the current herd all female. Where have all the males gone? (Why do I always find myself asking that question?!)

katherine. said...

great story. I had only heard part of it before.

I love Golden Gate park...don't visit it often enough.

I got to meet Sherman Alexie the other night...I am looking forward to reading his books and poetry.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I wonder, too, how they are expected to produce when they're all girls.

Immaculate conception buffalo-style, maybe?


Sherman Alexie is a very good writer. How wonderful that you met him!

Thank you so much for visiting me.

katrice said...

This truly gripped my heart. I have a lump in my throat now.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I love Joseph Chasing Horse's comment that we have not only inherited the land from our ancestors but are borrowing it from our unborn children.

If everyone realized that, how different life on earth would be.