Buffalo Husband

One morning when the prairie grass glistened with early frost, a young Blackfeet woman got up and slipped quietly out of her tipi. She was on her way to the stream when a small pebble dropped from the sky. Surprised, the young woman looked up. There high above her on the edge of the nearby cliff was a great herd of buffalo, the first to appear since spring.

“Jump,” she called to them. “Jump. Please jump. Our people are very hungry.” But the buffalo just paced back and forth along the cliff ’s edge. Finally, in desperation, the young woman called out to them, “If you jump, I will marry one of you.”

A huge cloud of dust rose above the cliff as the heavy animals pushed and shoved one another to position themselves. Then they began to tumble over the edge, and their giant bodies rained down onto the prairie below.

The young woman was so happy she could hardly contain herself. She turned to run home with the good news. But before she could take a step, a huge buffalo bull charged toward her.

The young woman shook with fear. “No, no,” she exclaimed. “I did not really mean what I said. I cannot marry a buffalo.”

The buffalo bull grabbed her by the arm. “Look at all of my dead and wounded brothers,” he said. “We have saved your people from starvation. You must honor your promise to marry.” And he began to drag the young woman off across the prairie.

It was not until sometime after all the buffalo had been slaughtered that the young woman was missed by her family.

“My beautiful daughter is gone,” said an old man. “I must find her.”

The people protested. “You cannot go after the herd. You will be trampled.”

But the old man took up his bow and arrows and headed off across the prairie. He walked for many hours. But there were no buffalo in sight. Discouraged and tired, the old man sat down to rest beside a small stream. Overhead a spirited young magpie flew back and forth. Back and forth. He flashed the bright patches of white on his short rounded wings.

“Please, clever bird,” said the old man. “Find my daughter and tell her where I wait.” The magpie flicked his wedge-shaped tail at the old man and flew away.

Magpies always know where buffalo herds graze, and this young one had no trouble finding the old man’s daughter. When the magpie saw where the young woman rested near her buffalo husband, he flew down beside her and whispered in her ear, “Your father waits for you by the stream. He will take you home.”

The young woman shook with fright. “My buffalo husband sleeps. If he wakes and sees you here I will be punished. Go and tell my father to wait for me. I will come
when it is safe.”

As the magpie flew off, Buffalo Husband woke up. “I am thirsty,” he growled. “Go to the stream and fetch me water.”

Eager to see her father, the young woman hurried off to fill her husband’s cup with water.

When she came to the stream she saw her father patiently waiting.

“Father. Why have you come here?” she asked him.

“Buffalo Husband will kill you if he finds you.”

“I came to take you home,” her father said. And he took his daughter gently by the arm.

“No. No,” said the daughter. “It is not good. The herd will chase us and kill us. I must wait until Buffalo Husband sleeps again. Then I will return.”

Tears flowed from the old man’s eyes as he watched his beautiful young daughter return to the herd. The young woman drew her robe tightly around her slumped shoulders and walked slowly back to her buffalo husband.

She could not think of a way to escape. When she returned home, Buffalo Husband grabbed the water from her hand and drank it down. Then his eyes narrowed and his great nostrils widened.

“A person is close by here,” he said, rising slowly onto his hind quarters. He tossed his shaggy head backward and gave a great buffalo bellow. The herd awoke, rose up, and bellowed back. Then the bulls dropped their heads to the ground, rutted around in the dirt, and stampeded off to the stream.

It did not take long for the herd to find the young woman’s father. And it took even less time for them to trample the poor old man into the ground. When they were sure his body was finely ground up in the mud, they cocked their heads in the air and headed home.

The young woman knew when the herd returned that her dear father was dead. “You have killed my father,” she cried at Buffalo Husband. “Why? He did not harm you.”

“I feel no pity,” growled Buffalo Husband. “You ran our mothers, fathers, and children off the cliff. You slaughtered them for food, and we too mourned. I have no pity.”

The young woman fell to the ground sobbing. “My dear father. My dear father,” she lamented. “What have I done?”

Buffalo Husband’s eyes softened. He slumped down beside her and pressed his great warm body against her limp one. “I will give you another chance,” he muttered. “If you can bring your father back to life, I will let both of you go home to your people.”

The young woman looked into the eyes of Buffalo Husband. She knew he would keep his promise. But she did not know how she could possibly bring her father back to life.

Then she heard the loud caw caw of the magpie overhead. “Please,” she said to the spirited young bird, “go to the banks of the stream; look in the mud for a piece of my father, and bring it to me.”

Always quick to respond to a challenge, the magpie flew off toward the stream. He poked his thick pointed beak into the mud like he was looking for grasshoppers or crickets in the prairie grass. Before long something hard and white turned up.

The magpie plucked it up and rubbed it against his shiny iridescent feathers. When all the mud was gone, a small white piece of vertebra appeared. It was a bone from the spine of the young woman’s father.

The magpie took the piece of bone and flew off. When he gave it to the young woman she cradled it in her thin white hands. “I will make you whole again, dear father,” she whispered into her palms.

The young woman placed her father’s bone on the ground, slipped her long robe off her shoulders, and covered the little vertebra. Then she began to sing a long mournful song. When the song ended she lifted the edge of her robe and peered beneath it. There lay her beloved father. Whole. But without life.

The young woman covered the entire body again and began to sing another song. This time she sang a song so joyful even the mountain birds came to listen. When she finished, she lifted the edge of the robe and peered beneath it. Her father smiled up at her. Then he rose slowly to his feet.

“Your people medicine is very strong,” said Buffalo Husband. “Even after we trampled your father to death he is alive again. These are strange events for us to see.”

The buffalo herd bellowed in disbelief. The magpie flew around in foolish circles. And the young woman jumped with joy.

Buffalo Husband paced back and forth, thinking, in front of the young woman and her father. Finally he said, “I will free you as I promised. But first you must learn buffalo medicine.”

He called his bulls to form a great even circle around him, and Buffalo Husband signaled them to dance. Then he began to sing. Wind carried his sacred song far out over the prairie while the earth echoed the dull thump of the bulls’ heavy hooves.

When the dance ended, Buffalo Husband told the young woman and her father to go home and teach the song and dance to their people. “The objects that will make our medicine work,” he said, “are the bull’s head and robe, which must always be worn by those who perform the dance. If you do this before and after every hunt,” he added, “it will bring us back to life, and we will give ourselves to you willingly.”

The young woman and her father kept their promise. And that was the beginning of I-kun-uh’kah-tsi, the sacred buffalo dance of the Blackfeet people.