If they knew what a buffalo means to an Indian


RAPID CITY, S.D. -- After more than 400 years of European immigration to this land euphemistically known as the "New World," the lack of knowledge and understanding the settlers still have of the indigenous people who have populated the Western Hemisphere for so many thousands of years continues to amaze me.

When the National Park Service decided to slaughter thousands of buffalo at Yellowstone National Park, to prevent their diseases from reaching livestock on nearby farms, it was duly reported on network television. The newscasts concentrated on the wholesale slaughter, without mention of the religious or cultural significance of the buffalo to the Indian people.

It reminded me most poignantly that the cultural gap between the settlers and the indigenous people was as wide as ever.

On March 6, the tribal people of America and Canada held an international day of prayer and mourning for the needless slaughter of the buffalo.

To the mass media, this was a non-news event. Indian people have learned to expect this. Why should they report on anything that is beyond their understanding and comprehension? After all, the European settlers had no point of reference to measure the feelings of the American Indian on anything spiritual or traditional. They could just as well have settled on the planet Jupiter.

When the Indian nations of this hemisphere say the buffalo is sacred to them, that is exactly what they mean. Of all the creatures indigenous to this continent, the buffalo best signifies the cultural and historic differences between the red man and the white man.

When the Great Plains were dotted with millions of contented, grazing bison, the indigenous peoples thrived. The buffalo provided food, shelter, clothing and tools. Before the hunt the tribal people offered prayers to the Great Spirit. After the hunt they again offered prayers.

The skull of the buffalo was used in religious ceremonies. The tribal people considered the buffalo to be their relative, and they used all of this magnificent animal to survive. Even after their own deaths, they were wrapped in its hide and placed upon scaffolds to offer up their own physical beings to those upon which they fed in order to survive.

Was there any spiritual comparison the white man could make to these powerful beliefs of the Indian people? Always considering their religious beliefs to be more important, the white man dismissed the spirituality of the indigenous peoples as unimportant. They found it a waste of time to learn anything about the spirituality of the Indian people then, and I believe they still consider these beliefs to be insignificant.

Even if Christians do not share the same beliefs as the Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists or any other major spiritual group, they do not shrug off these other religions as insignificant. Why are they so inconsiderate of the beliefs of the indigenous people?

Missionary zeal

We have enough of our own indigenous people brainwashed and indoctrinated with the religious beliefs of the immigrants. With the financial and military support of the federal government, missionaries set about zealously to convert the people they considered to be heathens without souls.

If it was just a matter of conversion by comparison, perhaps the rate of success would have been minuscule, but with the construction of boarding schools and the literal theft of Indian children from the influence of their parents and grandparents and the all-out assault on the traditions and languages of these children, conversion took on an entirely different dimension.

"Kill the Indian and save the child" was church and government policy for many, many generations. Is it any wonder that there is such a wide gap between the cultural and spiritual beliefs of the traditional Indian people and the mostly Christian and Jewish newspeople of the mass media? Throughout the history of the Europeans there have been efforts to destroy those religions that did not fit in with the popular beliefs.

Hundreds of Indian tribes would have given the buffalo protection and shelter rather than see them slaughtered. They were never given this opportunity.

Rosalie Little Thunder, a Lakota woman, after viewing a video of the slaughter, said, "This isn't the stuff on national television. This showed the calves being killed. They don't die right away. They kick and kick. It showed people at auctions buying buffalo heads for one dollar."

Perhaps she spoke for all Indian people of this continent when she said, "I just wonder how they can kill the buffalo. I think when people look at a buffalo they automatically think of Indians. I wonder what they are thinking."

Tim Giago is editor of Indian Country Today. Its Web site is http: //www.indiancountry.com/

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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