Commissioned Artwork by Yanick Dionisio, © All Rights Reserved.
At times, we treat the places and cities we live in as “common.” Familiar spaces that need no reintroduction. Our bodies pass through them in a cyclical routine. Wake up, go to work, eat lunch, come home from work, look at social media, eat dinner, watch Netflix, sleep. Repeat. What if we brushed off the familial effects of assimilation to our westernized culture and entered a relationship with our land that allows us to seek new self-awareness? The kind that helps us explore the complex and nuanced history of the past to bring additional context to our day-to-day. On June 7th, 2019 I had the opportunity to learn more about Minnesota through visiting sites located around the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, what the Dakota refer to as Bdote, or “meeting place of rivers.” I was transported back in time through old tales handed down from the Dakota/Lakota people and experienced the Sacred Sites of the indigenous peoples who walked Minnesota lands well before our time. My friend, Kristin Lin (freelance writer/editor of The Pause Newsletter and current New York Times Fellow), organized the trip as part of The On Being Project’s native land acknowledgment. Below is one of those stories I heard as told from our tour guide Jim Bear Jacobs (a member of the Turtle Tribe).
The White Buffalo Calf Woman
During a time of great hunger, two scouts were sent out from their village to find food (anything they could) to feed the people. After walking a few days and finding nothing, one morning they looked at the horizon and noticed a peculiar cloud. This cloud touched the earth at the horizon. Out of this cloud walked a beautiful woman, beautifully dressed carrying a bundle in her arms. These two scouts had two very different spirits guiding their lives. One scout was inwardly focused. Thinking only of himself. His own desires and the selfish desires of his own body. He said, “Look. Look at that beautiful woman. Let’s run to her. Force ourselves upon her. Take her for ourselves and have our way with her.” The other scout had a good spirit that guided his life. He was not inwardly focused, but he was focused on the well being of others. This scout was a community man and steward of the people. He said, “We cannot do that. This woman is Wakan. She’s sacred. She walked out of the clouds. We need to honor her and revere her.” As the woman approached the two scouts, she spoke to them and said, “That which is in your heart. Approach me now and do.” The scout with the selfish heart took off running towards the woman. He was going to grab her with the intent to force himself upon her and have his way just as he intended. As he reached out to touch the woman, before he could even touch her, the cloud descended. The good scout standing at a distance could not see what was happening. In a short while, the cloud lifted and there was the woman still holding a bundle in her arms. At her feet lay a pile of bones. She approached the good scout. She spoke to him and said, “I have come from the creator. I have been sent from the spirit world. We see that you are without direction. I’m coming to help. Go and make preparations for my arrival.” So the good scout ran back to his village and he told the people of the sacred woman who walked out of the clouds who was coming to them. They quickly assembled and made preparations for her arrival. They erected a sacred lodge where she could stay. Gathered what little food they had and prepared a meager feast. The next morning, they looked to the horizon and the woman with the bundle in her arms walked out of the cloud and approached them. As she approached the village she spoke to them repeating, “I have come from the creator. I have been sent from the spirit world. We see that you are without direction. I’m here to help.” She opened up the bundle she had been carrying all this time and in the bundle is what the Lakota people call a “Sacred Čhannúnpa” (a sacred pipe). She taught them how this pipe would be their spiritual connection to the spirit world. That when they loaded the pipe with their tobacco, they were loading it with the prayers of the people. As they breathed the smoke into their mouths and exhaled it, their innermost prayer would mingle and mix with the prayers of the people. The smoke would carry it on the wind to the spirit world. She taught them how to live with harmony and balance with the rest of creation. How to view everything around us as a living relative. How to read the cycles of the changing seasons for when it is good to plant and when it is good to harvest. How to read the migration patterns of the herds for when it is good to hunt. She brought a spiritual connection to the people. She gave them all the ceremonies that would guide and direct their existence. Ceremonies for seeking visions through the night. Ceremonies for making relatives. Ceremonies for young girls to become women and young boys to become men. After teaching them all of these things she announced that it was time for her to return to the clouds where she had come from. The people, understandably, were very upset. They did not want her to leave. They wanted her to stay so they could continue to learn from her. She said that she was being called back to the spirit world. But she assured them that one day she would return. By the same way, she exits this earth, when the earth cries out and the people need direction, in that same way she would return. The people watched as she walked towards the horizon to return to the spirit world. She did a peculiar thing and laid down on the ground. She rolled over one time and when she got up she turned into a black buffalo calf. Then she walked a short distance, laid down on the ground and rolled over one time. When she got up the second time, she was a red buffalo calf. She walked a short distance, laid down on the ground and rolled over one time. When she got up a third time, she was a yellow buffalo calf. Again, she walked a short distance, laid down on the ground and rolled over one time. As she got up for the fourth and final time as a white buffalo calf—she crossed the horizon into the spirit world. There is a prophecy that accompanies this story. It states that this White Buffalo Calf Woman (who turned every color of humanity before leaving the earth) upon her promise to return would signal a time when every aspect of humanity needs to come together and stand in sacred solidarity for the protection of the earth and the preservation of her people. The indigenous people believe they are living in that time today. After hearing this story, Jim Bear urged us to not think of this story as some fanciful Indian folklore designed to make us feel better. He asked us to look at our responsibility in this time and stand in sacred solidarity for the protection of the earth and the preservation of her people. That we are called to be agents of justice when injustice surrounds us. This is the symbol he charged us with:
Jim Bear traveling through the Medicine Wheel
This symbol only works because of two things—harmony and balance. There’s no section that’s larger or smaller. No section that’s stronger or weaker. The refrain within the poetry of the wheel is that it is in harmony and balance with itself. In times of racial reconciliation, the white majority talks with whatever minority group making the most noise at the time. The group that was screaming the loudest. What does this mean for the indigenous people of the United States? They make up less than 1% of the national population, so their screams would barely tip the scale in comparison to others. It is important to remember who is at the table and question whose voices are we hearing? It’s also important to remember who is not at the table and whose voices are we not hearing? The stories that reverberate beneath our feet. The little stories we never hear. How do we make the sections of the cultural divide in real life harmonious and balanced? That answer might not be found in our lifetimes, but by acknowledging stories of the past and present, we can inspire the able-bodied spirits right next to us. Influencing the next generation who can.