Buffalo Spirits

by Richard L. Dieterle

The spirit of the buffalo, an animal that seems to traverse the whole earth in its migrations, is the very essence of the land. When Earthmaker created our world, he saw that his creation was unstable and moved about uncontrollably, so he created the land to help anchor it. This land is in spiritual origin a gigantic buffalo.1 However, the chief of the buffaloes is the complex deity Bluehorn. As it is said in Bluehorn's Nephews, "He was one of the chief Waterspirits, that was why he was called 'Bluehorn'. He was a Buffalo Spirit. He was the chief of the buffaloes, but he was a Waterspirit, it is said."2 Bluehorn is also associated with the blue sky and the Evening Star. Esoterically, the buffaloes over which he has command are the vast herd of stars who undertake the massive migration across the dark plain of the celestial sphere every night from east to west, only to come to ground or to disappear below the ground at the end of their journey. What makes them Buffalo Spirits is the mysterious journey they make from west to east, either somehow across the land or perhaps subterraneously, traveling until the herd reemerges in the east following after the setting sun. As the Evening Star (Red Star) who lies close to the horizon of the sunset, he leads this herd of stellar buffalo across the sky. So the Buffalo Spirits, like Bluehorn himself, seem to be split between a celestial home and an abode in the underworld.

Like most spirit tribes, the Buffalo Spirits are of two types, the Good and the Bad. They once lived in the same village, although each occupied a different half. Through the help of a human, the Bad Buffaloes were driven from the celestial spirit village to their present abode in the underworld.3 One of the Good Buffalo Spirits, Curly Hair, came to earth with other great spirits to help Redhorn's father, Young Man, combat the Giants who were preying upon human flesh. Curly Hair lived in an elk hide lodge with his wife Long Hair. During a game of lacrosse against the Giants, Curly Hair killed Red Fox. Although Curly Hair brought him back to life, he cursed his kind to spend the rest of their existence hunting mice. After helping to defeat the Giants, Curly Hair reascended to the abode of the Good Buffalo Spirits.4

The chief of the evil spirits, Herešgúnina, when he was on earth in the form of One Legged One, had control over buffalo. From the hill in which he lived, he would sing,

Buffalo come here,
I will shoot you;
Buffalo come!

and the herd would run before him while he shot as many as he wanted. One Legged One adopted a sister whom he permitted to sing for the buffalo to come. One day when One Legged One was gone, Trickster persuaded her to sing, but when the buffalo came, he deserted her. As a result, the buffaloes caught her up between their horns and squeezed her waist so tight that it almost ceased to exist. When One Legged One rescued her from the buffalo, he made her the queen of the ants. It is on account of the buffalo that ants have such small waists.5 One of the younger sisters of Bluehorn also had a song that brought the buffalo to her. She wanted to trick her younger sister into going outside Bluehorn's lodge so that the Buffalo Spirits, who were in league with her, would capture the young woman. When Bluehorn departed to hunt, she would sing,

He who wears a white buffalo head, Come after me!
He who wears a white buffalo head, Come after me!
I shall give you ribs, I shall give you ribs!

Then they would come, playing lacrosse. One day this woman coaxed her younger sister outside and the Buffalo Spirits captured her. They made her dance in their lodge, but Bluehorn seized her back and killed all but two of the buffalo, a male and a female, both of whom he threw into the west. Ever since, the buffalo have never abused humans again.6

Buffalo Spirits have played an important role in the creation of the Hocąk nation. Four Buffalo Spirits lived at Te Šišik (Lake Michigan). The youngest divined that certain animals would be meeting at the Creation Council at Red Banks, so the buffalo brothers set out for the grand assembly. These Buffalo Spirits founded the Hocąk Buffalo Clan. Once the clans were established, the Buffaloes made friends with the Waterspirit people.7 This is an earthly reflection of the unity of their natures in the person of that Great One (Xetega) created by the hands of Earthmaker, Bluehorn, the Waterspirit chief of the buffaloes. Buffalo Spirits have had close relationships to humans in other ways. Once a yųgiwi (princess) of the Good Buffaloes came down to earth to rescue a boy from his abusive sister. Through her great spiritual powers, she was able to accelerate his growth so that he instantly matured. She took him to her abode inside a hill, and married him. There they lived off the offerings that humans made to the Buffalo Spirits. They had a child who could change from human to buffalo calf at will. They later moved to the celestial village of the Buffalo Spirits, where the human did his son-in-law service by reaping gourmet grasses (which the Buffalo Spirits thought of as bears), that the Buffalo Spirits found difficult to obtain. The human was challenged to a duel by four white Bad Buffaloes in succession, each of whom he slew by means of a blessing that he received from an Owl Spirit. The victorious human then drove the Bad Buffalo into the underworld, where they have lived ever since.8

Humans do a service to the Buffalo Spirits in turn by insuring the fecundity of the buffalo herds through sacrifice. When food offerings are presented to the Buffalo Spirits, they appear in their spirit abode in boiling kettles, ready to be eaten when the spirits awake in the morning. Tobacco offering are found on the floor in great abundance, having accumulated from the offerings made by people all over the earth. On special occasions when other offerings are made, they appear at the end of the Buffalo Spirit village, where the noise of the sacrificial celebration can be heard. This, and the smell of tobacco, can be perceived all over the village.9 The spirit chief of the buffalo warns the young Buffalo Spirits that they should not approach the place where sacrifices arrive because if they decide to breathe in the smoke of the tobacco, they will be obliged to descend to earth and be killed.10 As each item, such as a deerskin or deer tail headdress is offered, it suddenly pops into existence at various places at the end of the village. If a Buffalo Spirit should take anything thus offered, then he must descend to earth in the form of a buffalo and be killed by hunters. However, once the buffalo is butchered and eaten, his soul returns to the spirit village whence he came, and he is thus reborn. Consequently, the herds of buffalo are replenished through a never ending cycle of sacrifice and rebirth, a saprophytic relationship that benefits both the Buffalo Spirits and the humans.11 Some humans, who have been blessed with special powers, can bring a Buffalo Spirit down to earth by more magical means. Once a human so blessed had his grandmother roll a rawhide hoop while he fired an arrow through it. As the arrow passed through, the hoop suddenly became a buffalo calf, which fell over dead. From its meat he made a feast for his chief.12

Among the blessings that Buffalo Spirits can give, besides their own bodies, are physical items that can enhance the power of warbundles. A Hocąk chief, Big Fire, was blessed by the Buffalo Spirits with an elaborately wrought buffalo tail amulet which came to be enclosed in a warbundle.13 The Buffalo Spirits also blessed a man named Hojánoka, "Young Man Just Maturing." They took him to their spirit abode where a Buffalo Spirit child gave him a holy buffalo tail, a number of flutes, and a curative herb that could also enhance a person's speed in running. In addition, they taught him the Buffalo Dance and the songs that go with it.14 The Buffalo Dance is always performed in connection with the Buffalo Feast in which food and other offerings are made to the Buffalo Spirits.


In the Buffalo Dance, the leader, who is a member of the Buffalo Clan, impersonates a Buffalo Spirit by wearing its head. In an account of a battle, an enemy warleader named "Red Buffalo" wears (or has) a buffalo head. Since he is able to kill the Hocąk warleader, who could transform himself into a grizzly bear, it should follow that he is himself a Buffalo Spirit. The Hocąk warrior Wazųka, who became a hot'ų, killed Red Buffalo. So heroic was Wazųka that the followers of Red Buffalo brought the battle to an end in his honor by calling out the sacred syllable.15 In the beginning when the Hocągara were like unto the spirits themselves, there once was a man called "Long Wing" who could turn himself into a buffalo at will. This buffalo-power made him the bulwark of the nation and he was almost single-handedly able to save the Hocągara from annihilation by their enemies. However, under his chieftainship the people committed a great sin against the sanctity of the chief's lodge by killing enemies who were there on a visit, and as a result that were stricken with plague and the great power of the nation fell into decline.16

The function of the Hocąk Buffalo Clan is to supply criers for the chief. This is because the buffaloes on this earth traverse vast spaces in their wanderings, and are known for their strong voices. In ritual, the drum is the Messenger or Announcer, whose voice informs all as it travels through great spaces in an instant. It is obvious, therefore, that the crier of the spirits is a buffalo. This Buffalo Spirit is also the personification of the drum. In time, he is the source of Light, identified with the beginning of the year, the "elbow" between the end of winter and the beginning of spring.17

Links: Spirits, Earthmaker, Herešgúnina, One Legged One, Owls, The Creation Council, Foxes, Redhorn, Giants, Ants, Rock Spirits.

Stories: about buffaloes and Buffalo Spirits: Buffalo Clan Origin Myth, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, White Fisher, Brass and Red Bear Boy, Bluehorn Rescues His Sister, Bluehorn's Nephews, Redhorn's Father, The Woman who became an Ant, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth, The Buffalo's Walk, Trickster's Buffalo Hunt, The Blessing of Šokeboka, The Creation of the World (v. 3), The Annihilation of the Hocągara I, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Red Feather, Wazųka, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth, Holy One and His Brother, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse, The Story of the Medicine Rite, Black Otter's Warpath; stories mentioning foxes: Redhorn's Father, Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans, Įcorúšika and His Brothers; mentioning ants: The Woman Who Became an Ant, Old Man and Wears White Feather, Hare Burns His Buttocks.

Themes: blessings from Buffalo Spirits: The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth, Brass and Red Bear Boy, The Blessing of Šokeboka, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth; someone can transform himself into a buffalo at will: The Annihilation of the Hocągara I, Brass and Red Bear Boy, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle; a man wears a buffalo head: Wazųka, White Fisher, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth, Bluehorn Rescues His Sister.


1 Henry Schoolcraft, Information respecting the Historical Conditions and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States (J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1852-1854) 4:229. Informant: Šoǧoknįka, "Little Hill," a chief in the tribe.

2 "Blue Horn's Nephews" in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, ca. 1912) Notebook #58: 75.

3 Paul Radin, "Dear Ankle Smelling Feet," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #20, 1-146.

4 W. C. McKern, "A Winnebago Myth," Yearbook, Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee, 9 (1929): 215-230.

5 Paul Radin, "The Woman Who Became an Ant," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #52.

6 Jim Pine, [untitled,] in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) Notebook #26, 262-284.

7 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 197.

8 Radin, "Dear Ankle Smelling Feet," Notebook #20.

9 Radin, "Dear Ankle Smelling Feet," Notebook #20.

10 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 389.

11 Radin, "Dear Ankle Smelling Feet," Notebook #20. For an Indo-Iranian counterpart to this cycle, see the Cattle Cycle discussed in Bruce Lincoln, Priests, Warriors, and Cattle: A Study in the Ecology of Religions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981) 33-39, 159-162, 173-175.

12 Oliver LaMère and Harold B. Shinn, Winnebago Stories (New York, Chicago: Rand, McNally and Co., 1928) 49-56. Informant: Oliver LaMère (Bear Clan).

13 Alan Skinner, "Unusual Ethnological Specimens," Yearbook of the Public Museum of Milwaukee, 3 (1923): 107-108 (Fig. 71). "This armband was ornamented by splitting the leather of the upper part of the tail into long strips which were wrapped with split and dyed bird quills instead of the usual porcupine quillwork, a much rarer technic than the latter, and seldom found. The quills are dyed red, yellow, and black, and are held together by sinew thread along the lines of the cuts in the leather."

14 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 299. Informant: a member of the Bear Clan.

15 John Blackhawk, "Wazunka," The Wisconsin Archeologist 7, #4 (1926): 223-226.

16 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 7-9.

17 Sam Blowsnake's Account of the Medicine Rite, in Amelia Susman, Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, Jan. 17 - 19, 1939) Book 9, 4-10.