The men in the tipi began drumming and the Medicine woman at the fire leaned over and stirred the coals. She plucked one from its depths, still beating with red heat and placed it on a mound of dirt that sat next to a pile of sage grass and the sacred Iniskim buffalo rock. Then she pinched together strands of sweetgrass and twisted it till it broke off from its braided length. She placed the pieces of sweetgrass on top of the coal and its sweet, sacred aroma soon filled the tipi. The Iniskim ceremony had begun.Read Shawnee Price's Buffalo Runner
Fort Macleod, AB
Piikani First Nation
I chose to write about the Buffalo Jump because it was such an integral and necessary event in the lives of the Blackfoot people before European contact. The Blackfoot people used every single part of the buffalo and the idea that nothing should be wasted, every last part used, and above all, thanks must be said is something that has since been lost by not only the Blackfoot people but Nation wide. The idea that you give thanks is something that every person of Aboriginal ancestry can probably relate to though everyone would most likely admit to forgetting many times in our everyday lives. Having worked at the Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in Alberta as a tour guide/ interpreter, I can be certain of the accuracy in the details of the story. The Buffalo Jump that I describe in the story is meant to be the actual annual event that occurred in the fall of every year where the clans from the four Blackfoot nations would come together for one massive communal hunt. This story is meant to convey not only the traditional process of the Buffalo Jump but also to reconnect the reader with the simplicity of just giving thanks in our everyday lives.
It will be my day today. Thank you for this day Creator.
“Ninastako, Hurry son!” That was mother calling from the camp. She’s almost as nervous as I am but I can hide it better. I always know when she’s nervous. She paces around the front of the tipi with little áákiim on her hip, and tries to keep busy while hushing the barking dogs.
The dogs seem to sense there is something going on and they are anxious as well. The younger children have already rounded up all the dogs and tied them to the sides of tipis, drying racks, and travois. Where ever there was space and something heavy. One child was already injured from putting two male dogs beside one another and a fight broke out with the child in the middle. He has learned to never do that again.
I run back to the camp leaving my prayer to the west wind. Running makes me feel less nervous. I can push down all those feelings, all the anxiety and tingles and twitches down into my feet, into the soles of my moccasins and it makes me go even faster.
I come running up to mother who is now shaping the point on an arrowhead. The entire camp was bustling around in the grey dark morning before sunrise. She looked up at me, her high cheekbones smiling, making her eyes into two little half moons. “Ninastako, did you pray for today? Did you ask Creator to give you strength?”
“Then hurry my son and join the Iniskim ceremony” she took me by the shoulders and rubbed my arms up and down. I could see the pride in her eyes as she gently shoved me away towards the camp.
I ran over to another tipi and an old woman with spindly white braids looked me up and down. She nodded to me and then pointed with her chin to go inside. I slipped in through the flap and quickly sat down next to my best friend Iiniiohkoomii. We grew up together, him and me. Played in the snow in the winter time while looking for firewood, plunged into the freezing cold river hand in hand, and raced across the prairie grasses for miles and miles pretending we were in the buffalo hunt. I grinned over at him, my niisistowahsin, my brother and he grinned back at me. We didn’t say any words. We had talked about this day for years and it was finally here.
Thank you Creator for giving us this day.
The men in the tipi began drumming and the Medicine woman at the fire leaned over and stirred the coals. She plucked one from its depths, still beating with red heat and placed it on a mound of dirt that sat next to a pile of sage grass and the sacred Iniskim buffalo rock. Then she pinched together strands of sweetgrass and twisted it till it broke off from its braided length. She placed the pieces of sweetgrass on top of the coal and its sweet, sacred aroma soon filled the tipi. The Iniskim ceremony had begun.
Each time the Medicine woman took a new piece of coal from the fire and placed fresh sweetgrass on top of it, we all prayed and listened to her Iniskim song. This happened four times. We sent our prayers for the success of our hunt up with the sweetgrass smoke, past the tips of the tipi poles, into the sky to be received by Creator. Our survival through the winter depended on the success of this hunt.
After the four cycles of prayers, the Medicine woman looked up in our direction and motioned with her hand for us to stand. We did so and the song continued as we walked over and stood in front of the Iniskim alter that was still smoking with sweetgrass. We then took fistfuls of sage grass and began rubbing it all over our bodies all the while listening to her song. We rubbed the sage over every inch of skin and then helped each other with our backs and braids till the sage leaves were rubbed off and our bodies tingled with its new scent. We were finally ready to run.
I loved that run into the hills to find the buffalo. We ran in fluid, dark silence, our moccassined feet barely making a sound through the tall native grasses, our heavy breathing caught in the west wind and sent sailing away.
Give me the strength and speed of the buffalo I prayed as we ran.
They were grazing throughout the bottom of a coulee when we arrived. The same place they were the night before when we scouted the area. We crouched down in the grass at the top of the hill to catch our breath and put on our disguises. Iiniohkoomii and three other experienced runners put the skins of the coyote over their heads and across their backs. I tied the skin of a baby calf buffalo over my own head and under my chin with a thick piece of leather hide and sinew. Anxious already to begin running again.
One of the men motioned for me to creep around to the side of the hill in front of the herd and they would move to come down the hill on the opposite side. Suddenly I was alone and my heart beat faster in my ears than any drum I had ever heard. I hoped the buffalo couldn’t hear it. Even though they didn’t have very good eye sight, they could smell and hear for miles and miles.
When I saw my brothers on the opposite side starting to slowly move down the hill I too crept down and started making the sounds of a sick baby calf, calling out to the mothers in the herd, asking for help, asking for protection. I peeked out from under the robe and saw how my cries had immediately caught the attention of several buffalo cows. They sniffed the air and smelled a baby, one of their own. There was something else in the air too. From behind them, the west wind carried to their noses the scent of a possible predator, creeping up and starting to circle the herd. They began to move towards me.
I continued crying out, catching the attention of more and more buffalo cows. I zigzagged in between them and started to slowly make my way back up the hill and onto the flat prairie, making sure the scent of the calf continued to drag along its grasses leaving a trail of scent to follow. Finally, on top of the hill and heading due East towards where the sun would soon appear, I peeked out again from under the robe. I saw the massive buffalo herd starting to congest, moving closer together to keep from the threat of the coyote scent that continued to circle them, funneling them towards me. The sky was lined with flecks of pink and orange spiraling through the stars, telling me I must hurry. We continued moving and I began to feel the ripple of tension surge throughout the herd. It was almost time.
My legs burned, itching to run again and the flutter in my heart and chest ached to be released. I peeked through the robe and saw the driving lanes on either side. Piles of rock stacked, waiting for us to enter, and then further along, I could see branches of bushes stuck in between the rocks, the faces of my own people crouched low behind them. Waiting. I was so close now.
Suddenly I heard the call from somewhere far behind me. “EYEEEEEEEE! EYEEEEEEE!” It was time. The entire herd had crossed the threshold into the driving lanes and the coyote men at the back had jumped up from their animal cantors, scaring the buffalo into a sudden jolt forward. The jolt rippled through from the back of the herd to the front and I was up and sprinting. My legs felt released, snaking seamlessly through the grasses and my spirit flying with the wind above my head. I screamed out to the rest of the people that sprang from behind the bushes to uptake the surprise but no one could hear me now over the beating thunder of the herd moving as one behind me. I had felt this before, the hot pounding breath on the back of my neck and my own heart beating to the sound of a drum in some far distant sweatlodge.
It was springtime and my people had just heard the first thunder of the year that signaled the Thunderpipes were ready to be opened once again. We had a sweat the night before and Iiniiohkoomii and I were finally old enough to sit inside the sweatlodge. Deep into the hours of the night we sat and sweated and prayed and were cleansed. At one moment though, when the elders were praying for a good hunt this fall, we began to hear thunder. The willow branches that stretched over our heads shook and the thunder entered the lodge in a drum beat that pulsated the rocks sitting in the center pit. Then we heard breathing. Deep harsh breathing and the pounding turned into the hoof beats of a stampede charging somewhere within the circle of sweating men. Everyone looked around at one another wondering where this sound was coming from until I looked up, wide eyed and staring, feeling the breath of a hundred buffalo on the back of my neck.
“tsimá?” said one elder. Where?
The Medicine man looked around at the faces and then at me and motioned Him in my direction. The spirits had chosen me to be the next buffalo runner and if I survived, the Medicine man later told me, I had the potential to become a great leader.
This was that same thunder, the same hot breath pushing me onward, leading the herd into the blinding sun that was now just over the ridge of the cliff ahead. The thunderous buffalo were tight behind me now and I positioned myself above the cliff as I had done so many times before, practicing with Iiniiohkoomii. It was a lane just for me and I didn’t take my eyes off the edge that I must take off from in just the right way. To the leading buffalo directly behind me, all they could see was the horizon spreading out in front of them, an illusion of the flat prairie grasslands expanding for miles and miles.
I took one last step off the cliff, my toes curling over its ledge and my body joined my spirit somewhere up in the sky. I landed perfectly in the little rock crevice that jutted out on the side of the cliff and from my spot I watched as hundreds of buffalo streamed over the top of the cliff, blind to anything else except the hulking animal in front of it. Every single buffalo that was in the run must go over the cliff and be killed for we knew that if any were to survive, they would go back and tell the others of our hunting tricks and we would never be able to use the Jump again.
Hundreds of my people were now at the bottom of the cliffs, racing to kill any buffalo that did not die instantly from the fall. I could remember being very small and staring at a huge heaving buffalo, panting hard from its run but unable to move because of its broken legs. I pointed at the buffalo and screamed at mother to come kill it. She came over and told me “Look him in the eye my son and tell him thank you for giving his life to you. If you give thanks to this bull, he will give his strength, his heart and his spirit to you.”
I turned up to the sky from my crevice and called out, “Thank you Creator for the success of this day” then turned to the overflowing mass below me, “Thank you buffalo for your gift of life to my people. You will be honored.”