The Buffalo’s Walk

by Sam Blowsnake

Hocąk Text with Interlinear English Translation

This excerpt, which is very hard to characterize, comes from Sam Blowsnake's account of the Medicine Rite as told to Amelia Susman. In the Rite there is a band of people corresponding to each of the cardinal directions. Here the leader of the East band is quoted from memory as he gives a speech culminating in a song in praise of the sacred nature of the drum. In the course of this speech, the leader begins to talk in metaphors that become so saturated that they begin to form an allegory of a kind of proto-myth. Is the buffalo just a trope for a drum, or can we reify it into a being that exists in the spiritual plane? Can we liken the one step of the buffalo to the four steps of the cougar (q. v.)? This story, or perhaps description, falls into a kind of twilight zone between metaphorical descriptions of a rite and an allegory about events that took place in primordial time.

(4) And let us move the spirits' own crier back as far as home. (5) And from the East's place to the North's place was a long way. So the crier is going to step to the second place. The assistant to the crier went with this one, it is said. (6) The buffalo bull with the shiny horn is going to stand in front. When he starts to walk, it is said that he is going into the mud of the earth. He pulled out, having sunk as far as his joint. When he started to walk, and as he walked along, the wind blew noisily. (7) This rattle we will shake for that power, for this reason we will do it. The wind that sounds as he walks (8) is the wind that blows all bad things — all bad dreams, all bad pains — to the side of Herešgúnina. Then the day is pretty, with no clouds anywhere. (9) Then from midway between the East and the North, all became filled with life. This we are going to use. My brothers, salutary songs for the public crier (the drum), (10) I mean that we should sing these.

  He went inside the earth, Mąrógeja howá,
  When he was sent; jihiga;
He shook those around the earth, mą́ tinągeré hixgąxgą,
  when he was sent. jihiga.1

Commentary. "the spirits' own crier" — this is the drum, whose sound is frequently used as a signal indicating a wide range of things according to its context. The idea that the drum is the crier or messenger of the spirits suggests the obvious correlate in nature: thunder. Thunder is associated with the Thunderbirds who fire lightning from their eyes. The lightning is their fire, just as the sacred fire of sovereignty is the fire of the terrestrial Thunderbird Clan. The fire is the messenger to the spirits in light, and its counterpart is the drum, which is the messenger in the domain of sound. So lightning and thunder are respectively counterparts to fire and drums, and may be thought of as the signals of the Thunderbirds. This would make thunder the drum of the spirits.

"a long way" — in the circuit of the lodge, the North is the very next position after East. However, in speaking in temporal terms, where each of the cardinal positions is assigned a season, North is most distant from East. In time, East corresponds to the first warm season and North to the last cold season, the first and last seasons respectively. These temporal assignments were made earlier in the rite (for which see below).

"to step" — the drum is actually rolled so that it "walks" to its station. "Hąké réxoruporugera ru’ąnąka hija wagikérenįną. Hawaną ránąka mąnį́gigi hikisgé hijá wagikére" — "They do not place it there by lifting it. They place it there by rolling it so that it resembles walking."2 The word translated "to step" is hije, which means something rather more like, "to assume a position by means of the feet," and can therefore also mean "to stand" (Miner), a kind of zero-grade step.

"the second place" — the second place (hinųpéja) among cardinal directions is North, since circuits of the lodge are counterclockwise: East, North, West, South, East. However, earlier on in the Rite, it is made clear that the four quarters correspond to the four season, but in the reverse, sunwise order. They prayed first to East saying, "... you grow life ... When you send sunshine to the earth, all grass stalks and trees, all the different fruit, everything comes up well" ("... wąkšígoįra tiré rašą́nągerá ... Mąną́gere hatakác ragá, xąwį́ hurá, nąrá házokirájera haną́c, p’į hahúnągerá.").3 Then to South they declared, "It is your sacred role to make a Road by which they may make themselves life. ... When your wind comes, so it is that for everything it grows life" ("Wošgą́šįnį́wįra wąkšígoį k’ik’ų́ ’ųį́rekje, nągúižą š’ųwį́gi ... Égi máįtacehašįnįrá hugá, jagúraną́c é wąkšígoįrá hitiránągerá.").4 The West is a warm time of rain: "When you make it rain on the ground, everything moves around, and life comes up well" ("Mąną́gere hanįžú rawíga, žešékjį janąga máįxgąxgą́gere, wąkšígoįrá p’į huágera.").5 Finally, North represents the coldest time of the year where everything freezes. They petition the North that he may freeze all that is bad.6 These seasons are assigned the quarters so that they have the values of those opposite them. When the drum engenders life, it is said to do so from between North and East (see below). What is meant by the "between position" is further explored below.

"assistant" — Susman says in a notebook comment on this passage that "every spirit has an assistant." Are we to understand this as meaning that every spirit impersonator has an assistant (warucára)? Or should it be taken literally? In everyday life, a man's nephews are his assistants, and prepare the feasts for him when he is the host, and carry his Warbundle when he is the warleader. Here, however, we can probably understand this to mean that the drum moves and, of course, the drummer goes along with it as its "assistant." On the other hand, the music associated with this part of the Medicine Rite involves the drum supplemented by gourd rattles. These would then be the drum's appropriate assistants in making the sound.

"buffalo bull" — this would seem to be another image of the drum. The choice of this animal is not accidental. The Buffalo Clan has the function of supplying the criers who sends out the chief's orders to the community. They are by descent and spiritual affinity, of the stock of buffaloes. Buffaloes are appropriate criers, since they seem to go about the whole of the land, and their bellows are heard for miles.

"shiny horn" — this is obscure. Does the drum have a metal part, or is this a reference to the gourd rattle? It may be a subtle reference to the property of the Buffalo (drum) in admitting light. In the Medicine Rite, hąp, which ordinarily means, "light, day" is used metaphorically for life, although in the present passage, the literal wąkšígoí is used. The buffalo as shining is a symbolic way of describing the drum which gives Life, as when it says further on, "all became filled with life." Also, in Hocąk semiotics, sound stands for light, and it is probable that the converse is true. If so, the sound of the life engendering Medicine Rite drum may metaphorically exemplify hąp, "life."

"the mud of the earth" — in the story "The Four Steps of the Cougar," the steps of that animal represent the progress of the seasons, with stepping into snow representing the two seasons of cold, and the stepping into earth representing the two seasons of warmth. The position of the drum on this occassion is exactly midway between (hocakéną) the North, which represents the time of greatest cold, and East, which represents spring. The symbolism of time and place can be tabulated. The quarters are set out in ritual order.

Quarter Time Moons
East First Warm Season
(April - June)
Fish Appearing (Ho-iroginįną)
Earth Drying (Mą-įtawušira)
Earth Cultivating (Mą-įna’ų)
North Second Cold Season
(January - March)
First She-Bear (Hųjwi-conįną)
Last She-Bear (Hųjwi-oragnįna)
Raccoon Mating (Wake-kiruxe)
West Second Warm Season
(July - September)
Corn Tasseling (Wa-xojra)
Corn Popping (Wa-tajoxhi)
Elk Whistling (Hųwą-žuk)
South First Cold Season
(October - December)
Deer Pawing (Ca-mąįnąǧo)
Deer Mating (Ca-ikíruxe)
Deer Antler Shedding (Ca-hewakšų)

Compare this to the table at the "Four Steps of the Cougar," which orders the quarters sunwise. The position between the East and the North in temporal terms is the moon (wi-ra) called "Fish Appearing" (Hoiroginįną), which is the time when the lakes and streams thaw out, a time of mud. This occurs a week or two into April, which is the time when it ceases to snow.

"the wind blew noisily" — this simile suggests that singing takes place as the drum is rolled into position, although Sam Blowsnake does not mention it. Wind can also symbolize breath, , which has the secondary meaning of "life."

"his joint" — the symbolism of the limb joint is presented more vigorously in "The Four Steps of the Cougar." As we have seen in a previous entry, the time to which the step refers is the beginning of the Fish Appearing Moon in early April. This time is metaphorical joint (wokšųkšu) between the Second Cold Season (as I am terming it), and the First Warm Season. This corresponds to the interstice (or "joint") between the North position and the East position. This is the very beginning of our season of spring, a time of new beginnings, which therefore corresponds diurnally to the rising sun of the east.

"Herešgúnina" — this is the Hocąk devil. His path is said to be a spur to the left off the main and true Road to Spiritland.

"clouds" — since clouds obscure both Day (Hąp) and its light (hąp), the very metaphor for Life, it follows that in this context they are unpropitious.

"midway between the East and the North" — since it is from between (hocakéną) the North and the East positions that the drum radiates its life engendering effects, this would confirm what we have otherwise surmised as to its position at this place in the ritual circle. Actually, hocakéną is a noun meaning "middle" (Miner), which is to say, "exactly between." In the Hocąk we have, "hąp’okurégi siníwagúregi hocakéną-ra." Here -regi has a spatial meaning, indicating the place at which something takes place, and is usually translated, "to, on, in, from." So the drum sends out life from midway between the North and East positions.

"shook" — shaking is associated with resuscitation. When one of the Twins is killed, the other simply shakes him, and he comes back to life. The genesis of life is understood as a process of awakening. Earthmaker himself awoke from nothingness into being. Shaking is used to awaken people from sleep, and therefore into consciousness. Since shaking is the means by which intrinsic existence emerges from oblivion, so the drum in its shaking of the earth, is life engendering, awakening all to its motion in sound.

Comparative Material. ...

Links: Buffalo Spirits, Herešgúnina.

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, 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; mentioning drums: The Descent of the Drum, The Friendship Drum Origin Myth, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, The Spirit of Maple Bluff, Tobacco Origin Myth (v. 5), Young Man Gambles Often, Trickster and the Dancers, Redhorn's Father, Ghost Dance Origin Myth II, The Elk's Skull, Ghosts, The Four Slumbers Origin Myth, Great Walker's Medicine, Redhorn Contests the Giants, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 1b), Wolf Clan Origin Myth, Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks, Trickster and the Geese, Turtle's Warparty, Snowshoe Strings, Ocean Duck, Įcorúšika and His Brothers, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Hog's Adventures, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts; featuring Herešgúnina (the Bad Spirit or One Legged One) as a character: The Creation of Evil, The Creation of the World, The Creation of Man, The Twins Get into Hot Water, The Lost Blanket, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Woman Who Became an Ant, The Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Journey to Spiritland, Šųgepaga, The Spirit of Gambling, Bladder and His Brothers, The Two Brothers, The Origins of the Milky Way; see also Black and White Moons, The Shawnee Prophet and His Ascension, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara.

Themes: when an animal spirit takes a symbolic step forward, he sinks into the surface up to his leg joint: The Buffalo's Walk; a powerful spirit sweeps away evils to the bad place (the arctic north): North Shakes His Gourd, The Descent of the Drum (v. 2), East Shakes the Messenger, South Seizes the Messenger, The Four Steps of the Cougar; evil clouds are swept away (to the north): North Shakes His Gourd, The Four Steps of the Cougar, East Shakes the Messenger, The Descent of the Drum (v. 2), The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (v. 4), The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men (v. 2), South Seizes the Messenger.


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

2 Amelia Susman, Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, Jan. 13, 1939) Book 8, 45-46.

3 Amelia Susman, Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, Dec. 13, 1938) Book 7, 19-20.

4 Susman, Notebooks, Book 7, 26-27.

5 Susman, Notebooks, Book 7, 25.

6 Susman, Notebooks, Book 7, 23.