The Buffalo Wife
by Ruth Powell, based on a Blackfoot Myth
Things do not look so good for the tribe, thought the chief, pulling fragrant smoke from his pipe. Those stubborn buffalos. They run to the edge of the cliff but refuse to jump off. There is no way I can feed the whole tribe if the buffalo don’t leap, thought the chief. The sun made him crinkle his eyes as he looked up to the top of the cliff where the herd stood still as statues. I believe that large one is laughing at me. Ahh, what can I do? The burden of leadership is a heavy one.
Early the next day, the chief’s daughter stepped quietly out of the tent and went to fetch water for her family. Early mornings were her favorite times because the village was quiet and she could hear the sounds of nearby animals that would be impossible to hear once day was fully begun. As she filled her containers with cool water, a movement caught the corner of her eye. It was the lead buffalo. He had lowered his head as if he is looking at me, thought the chief’s daughter. Hmm, she thought. Perhaps if I reason quietly with him in the cool sweet air of early morning, I can persuade him to let the herd jump off the cliff.
“Buffalo,” whispered the chief’s daughter so as not to wake the sleeping people. The buffalo shook his bushy head up and down. “Buffalo, you must order your herd to leap off the cliff. If you do not, my people will have no food for the winter and will starve, she said.”
The wind carried the buffalo’s message back to the chief’s daughter. “You are brave for such a young and tender girl, to talk that way to a beast as proud and fearsome as I.”
“I do not fear you,” she said. “I fear what will happen to my people if they must face the fierce winter without meat to fill their bellies and hides to keep them warm and dry.”
“Yes, you are brave. Brave and kind to care so for your people. I will strike a deal with you. I will give the order for some of my herd to leap from this cliff. But, in exchange, you must marry me when the deed is done.”
“Yes,” said the chief’s daughter. “Whatever you wish, just give the order to leap.”
The Buffalo King brayed loud and long and a veil of buffalo soon descended the high cliff wall. Then, a brown haze of dirt billowed up from the ground below.
The chief’s daughter was elated and she turned to run get her father to show him that the tribe could now survive the winter. But, as she turned, the buffalo king stood in her way. “You have not forgotten your promise have you, girl?”
“No, of course not,” said the girl. She didn’t want to go with the buffalo king, but her nature was of truthfulness and honor. So, the chief’s daughter became the buffalo king’s wife and left her home with her new husband and the remaining members of his herd.
Meanwhile, the chief had been awakened by the tremendous roar of the leaping and landing buffalo. He rejoiced for now his people would not starve. But, when the dust settled and he looked around for his family, he realized that his daughter was not there. “She goes to the stream to fetch water every morning,” said his wife. “She is the reason you have something cool to drink when you wake.”
The chief ran to the stream, fearful he would find his daughter’s trampled body. But he found nothing. No daughter. He knelt down to read the ground and then he knew the truth. “She has run off with a buffalo,” cried the chief.
His wife packed him a lunch and the chief set out in search of the herd. He soon came upon a place where the buffalo enjoyed wallowing in the cool mud. The chief knelt behind a large bush. A raven landed on the ground near the chief.
“Wise Raven, I ask you. My daughter has run off with a buffalo. You have such a good view of things when you fly. I ask you, have you seen my daughter?”
“Oh yes,” said the Raven. “Indeed, there is a pretty girl amongst the herd on the other side of the waddle.”
“This is good news, Raven. Thank you. I ask more of you now. Will you go to my daughter and tell her that her father, the chief, is here on the other side of the waddle? She should come to me at once and I will take her home to the safety of her family.”
The raven flew off with the chief’s message. The buffalo were all asleep, but the chief’s daughter was awake, thinking about what her life would be like now that she was the buffalo king’s wife.
Raven landed near the chief’s daughter and gave her the father’s message.
“Oh, no, Raven. I cannot go to my father. The buffalo would be angry and would trample him to death. Tell him to stay still and I will think of some way out of this.”
Raven flew back to the chief with the message. At the rustle of the Raven’s wings, the Buffalo King awoke. He pulled off a horn and gave it to his new wife. “Take this to the creek on the other side of the waddle and bring me a drink.”
The chief’s daughter did has her husband asked, thinking she might see her father so she could kiss him good-bye.
When the chief saw his daughter, he ran to her and took her in his arms. “Thank goodness I have found you. Now you must come with me back to your family where you belong.”
“Oh no, father. I cannot go with you. I agave my word to the buffalo king and he has a fearsome temper. I am his now, and if you take what is his, he will trample you to death and then trample our people.”
The chief took a deep breath in preparation for a lecture to his daughter on the roles of father and daughter when a deep rumbling shook the ground beneath their feet.
“Oh, no,” cried the Chief’s daughter. “He has seen me with you.” The Buffalo King let his heard in a fierce charge. They trampled the chief so thoroughly that his body disappeared.
The chief’s daughter began to weep. “Why are you crying, wife?” asked the Buffalo King.
“He was my father and you killed him.”
“Many of my herd was killed to feed your people and you did not cry for them.”
“I’m sorry, husband. He was my father, my family. He raised me and taught me and my love for him runs deep and strong. I will cry many tears for a long time because my father is dead at my husband’s hooves.”
The Buffalo King saw that the chief’s daughter’s feelings were strong and would prevent her from ever having tender feelings for him. “I’ll tell you what. If you can raise your father from the dead, you can go back with him to your family.” Some of the herd snickered, which only served to increase the resolve of the chief’s daughter.
“I accept your challenge,” she said. To the raven, the girl said, “Please, Raven, see if your sharp eye and advantageous perspective can spot some small fragment of my father’s body.” The raven hovered above the ground for some tense moments, then dived to the ground, picked something up with his beak and laid it at the girl’s feet. It was a single vertebra from her father’s spine.
The girl laid the vertebra tenderly on the ground and covered it with her shawl. Then she began to sing a powerful song. The song told the history of her people. She sang of the beginning times and the times of great sorrow and of great joy. She sang of heroic deeds and the things done every day that carried her people through time. The girl’s song was so powerful that the Buffalo King cried, much to his embarrassment.
Then, the shawl seemed to grow. Underneath it the form of a man took shape. The chief’s daughter pulled on the shawl, and there sat her father – alive and whole.
The Buffalo King was dumbstruck by what he’d just seen. “Who would have dreamt the girl’s song could have such power,” said the Buffalo King. He knew he had to let the girl go back with her father and he grew sad at the thought. Then, he had an idea.
“Girl-who-used-to-be-my-wife, if you hold such power, why couldn’t you bring my buffalo family to life after they die from the leap off the chief? Your people could eat and my herd could continue to roam the prairies.”
The chief’s daughter thought a moment, and then agreed. “It is only fair that, because you provide food to my people, I give your herd the chance top live on.”
The Buffalo King gave a signal to his herd, and the beasts turned and walked away.
“Noble creatures, buffalo,” said the chief. “Come, daughter. No more excuses. It is time to go home.”
“Yes, Father, it is time to go home,” said the girl.