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Buffalo Ceremony is remarkable event
By Dr. Harriet Skye, Vice President of Intertribal Programs
22 July 2009

BISMARCK (UTN) - Students and staff are accustomed to taking part in traditional ceremonies on the campus of United Tribes Technical College. But one held on July 7 as part of a cultural awareness series was more notable than most.

      It was the Buffalo Ceremony, the ancient rite observed when taking the life of these animals for the benefit of the People. A group of men and women from the Oglala Sioux Tribe demonstrated and taught the ritual and the work involved.

TOUCH TO HONOR: Students from Theodore Jamerson Elementary School watch respectfully as Elroy Cross, Wamblee, SD, in regalia, carries out a dancer’s responsibility in the age-old Buffalo Ceremony of the Lakota. Cross touched the dead animal, as the students later did, out of honor, respect and thanks. The ceremony took place at a cultural day camp celebrating the old ways at United Tribes Technical College. United Tribes News photo Dennis J. Neumann

      Buffalo were once an abundant provider for tribes on the Great Plains. It was the supermarket and shopping center of its day, supplying food, clothing, tools, utensils, medicine and equipment from all the parts and pieces harvested from its body. This formed the basis of a life-sustaining and sacred relationship between buffalo and our People that is still revered today.


       The animal killed for this event was taken only a few hours earlier from the Standing Rock Tribal buffalo herd and trucked to Bismarck, where UTTC spectators witnessed the final steps of the observance and participated in the butchering. The respectful audience was made up of students from Theodore Jamerson Elementary School (TJES), the K to 8 grade school on the college campus, and members of the college faculty and staff.

Marcell Bull Bear conducted the Buffalo Ceremony at United Tribes.

      Marcell Bull Bear, Kyle, SD, conducted the ceremony accompanied by dancers Elroy Cross, Melvin Bad Hand, and Bull Bear’s grandson Myles, 6, all in traditional regalia. Other relatives and friends helped with the work and rendered four honoring songs at the drum. One called forth the spirits; in the second the dancers touched the buffalo; the third recognized the Veterans; and the last one thanked the buffalo for providing itself as food for the People.

      After an explanation and interpretation from Bull Bear, a Lakota studies instructor at Oglala Lakota College, the adults were soon about the task of teaching and demonstrating how to take apart the buffalo with their knives and saws. The curious youngsters paused only a short time before joining in. The process took the better part of the afternoon. As was done in times past, everything from the animal was used; nothing wasted, overlooked or discarded. Soon choice pieces were sizzling on a grill, the inviting smell of dinner wafting out across the college campus.


      In the memory of Tom Red Bird, it was the first he had heard of this ceremony being held at United Tribes. Red Bird teaches Lakota language and culture at TJES and helped organize the event, along with staff members of the college’s Strengthening Lifestyles Program. The ceremony was photographed and videotaped as a teaching tool.

      Tom said he believes it will help bring about pride among youngsters who haven’t learned about their cultural heritage. He particularly liked the way his students jumped in and participated, touching the animal to honor its sacrifice and grabbing hold and stretching the hide to make it easier to skin. He called it the ultimate hands-on activity.

      Tom said his TJES students could spend the entire upcoming school year learning about the buffalo. Among the things they will do is work on the hide and eventually draw on it. It will take longer for the skull to be ready. After months of curing, when the bone is clean, the students may draw designs and put it on display in the school.

       Tom pointed out that nowadays people don’t have the patience it takes to process the buffalo’s gifts. He said he’s hoping the students will learn to appreciate the work of our ancestors and connect with their values.


      I had not seen an event like this for a long time, maybe over 50 years. And it was very spiritual. As someone who grew up on the reservation, I was assured that we really haven’t been assimilated, as people would like to think we are.

      I found it comforting to see children and youngsters involved in the ceremony, watching and participating in how the buffalo was skinned and butchered. Some even took part in the ritual of eating the raw liver.

      It was a wonderful exercise in culture and also an exercise in sovereignty, including food sovereignty. We know exactly where the buffalo came from and what it had been eating. We know the people who took it, prayed for it, thanked it and processed it. It was an important activity to have in a tribal educational setting.


Professor Laurin Raiken of New York University witnessed the Buffalo Ceremony at United Tribes, including the butchering that left this hide that will be tanned by students. United Tribes News photo Dennis J. Neumann

      The event was made all the more special because I was able to share it with a friend and colleague. The timing was such that Laurin Raiken, New York University (NYU) professor, was visiting United Tribes on the day of the ceremony.

      Professor Raiken teaches at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study and is one of my former instructors at NYU, and one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. I have often bragged up UTTC to him and, after many years of my invitations, he decided to pay us a visit.

      Along with the Buffalo Ceremony he took in other events of cultural days, met with our college administrators, talked with staff and faculty members, toured the campus and even prayed in Hebrew in our Wellness Center Healing Room. He said he was particularly grateful for the way he was welcomed in a spontaneous, natural, relaxed way. The visit, and especially the ceremony, turned out to be a profound experience for him.

      Professor Raiken is a public scholar who embraces all ethnicities. He loves Native American culture. He has met many Indians in New York at the Native American Community House. But, he admitted that he never lived in an American Indian community.

      “One would think that the integration and sharing amongst Native people is a thing of the past,” he said after the Buffalo Ceremony. “Well, it’s alive right here. All aspects of life are integrated and shared and lived on this campus. It’s not just the hallowed halls of academia. It’s a living, learning community.”

      I couldn’t have said it better myself!

      And the thing he loved most was the participation of people of all ages.

      “In advanced, technological civilization we have stratification and division and segregation of ages,” he said. “In New York [young adults] are considered cool but when you get older you are discarded. Little children are expected to be little adults and no longer allowed to be kids. What I like here the most is…all the ages living together. Having the children around enlivens everything.”

      You can imagine my joy that a friend and respected scholar would clearly recognize a core value that we hold in high regard at United Tribes, that of educating the entire family. Inviting the Buffalo Ceremony to campus was a great example of how our educational values are helping to keep our culture alive and well.