Buffalo People in Navajo Mythology

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Encounter with the Buffalo People


The day after the last ceremony was over Holy Man started out on another hunting trip. He went toward San Francisco Mountains on top of which there is a lake called Crescent lake. From this place he saw what he thought were four mountain sheep. He was afraid of them, remembering his experience on Black Mountain when Thunder captured him. He made a detour of the lake to to get a closer view, but now the animals were on the opposite side. Four times this happened. The fourth time he was able to see that they were buffalo, one black, one white, one blue and one yellow.


Holy Man started to pursue. The buffalo moved on and he followed expecting to get within shooting range. They moved along the Little Colorado ( presumably across the mountains near Oraibi. Interpreters note ) across Black Mountain and toward Chinlee valley. Holy Man followed. At a point between Chinlee and Round Rock the buffalo stamped on the ground causing a spring of water to flow. They drank from it. They went on between the Lukachukai and Carrizo Mountains to a place called Red Water where they arrived at sunset. All the way, whenever Holy Man stopped to rest, the buffalo also stopped as if they were leading him on. At Red Water the buffalo waited and showed themselves to holy Man as Buffalo People. That night Black and Blue Buffalo, the males, gave White and Yellow Buffalo to Holy Man for his mates. They all remained there for the night. Apparently the Buffalo People had heard of Holy Man and these four had been sent to get him so that their prayers and paintings night be included in his powers. They had danced at the Fire Dance at Black Lava Rock, but had not had an opportunity to teach him anything.


The day after Holy Man had lain with the Buffalo women he was ill with fever. He was in a sweat and had a headache. This was because he had not observed the prescribed restriction to remain continent for four days after the ceremony. Toward dawn one of the buffalo lay down at the east, one at the west, another at the south and the fourth at the north. Wherever they had lain the warmth and perspiration of their bodies made herbs grow. With these they cured Holy Man of his illness, then took him to their home. As they approached he could see a large pointed white object with a black tip, a black pointed object with a white tip, a yellow pointed object tipped with blue, and a blue one tipped with yellow. These were the houses of the Buffalo People. The Buffalo explained that they had brought an Earth Person back with them, and that he had spent the night with the female buffalo. These women were really the wives of the Buffalo-who-never-dies, and their father was the chief of all the Buffalo People. The Buffalo-who-never-dies was the son of the head of the White Buffalo from the far east. The family was angry to hear that Holy Man had taken their women.

They brought food in four baskets, one of jet, one of whiteshell, one of turquoise and a yellow one of abalone. The baskets contained health-giving herbs sprinkled with pollen. After they had eaten, the head of all the Buffalo said, "Now you are in danger. But the people of the earth should know about our powers. What can you do? Can you protect yourself? Do you have any arrows? Holy Man said he had two, an eagle-feathered arrow and a yellow tail-feathered arrow. He then made two wands, the feathered wand of mountain mahogany and the red-feathered wand of oak. The Buffalo chief then asked him if he had any sacred soil from Taos (Jemez) Mountain, Mt. Taylor, San Francisco Peaks and La Plata Mountain. Since it is customary for a medicine man to have a small sack containing this soil, he could answer that he had. Then the Buffalo chief said, " You seem to know how to take care of yourself." While the chief was talking to him Holy Man could hear his mother-in-law speaking, although he had never seen her. Holy Man made four mountains using some of the soil from each sacred mountain, and named them. He started to arrange them in a row, but the Buffalo Chief said, " If you make them that way the Buffalo-who-never-dies will demolish them at a single charge." Then he arranged them in the four directions and finished before the sun set.

The night was longer than usual, so long that Holy Man called for the dawn. The sun finally appeared but instead of the usual white light, in the east there was a red glare which shone over Rushing Water. This red light indicated danger. Just after the sun rose Buffalo-who-never-dies charged in a mighty rush which took him across Rushing Water toward the house of the Buffalo Chief where he asked for Holy Man. When the Buffalo People saw him coming they all wailed and shouted, and Holy Man took his two wives to the top of Jemez Mountain. The angry Buffalo discovered them there and charged, rushing past the mountain in a half circle, and returning, rushed at it from the east demolishing that side. Holy Man and his wives stood on a sunbeam as he shot at the charging Buffalo with the eagle-feathered-arrow. The arrow went home but did not kill. The sunbeam carried the party to the mountain of the west, San Francisco Peaks. The Buffalo-who-never-dies charged and demolished the west side of the mountain, and Holy Man shot him with the feathered wand. The sunbeam carried the hunter to Mt. Taylor, the mountain of the south, where once more the Buffalo charged. This time he was shot with the yellow tail-feathered arrow. The sunbeam moved with its party to the the mountain of the north, La Plata. As the Buffalo-who-never-dies charged from the north, he rushed so hard that he missed La Plata Mountain, and Holy Man, hitting him with the red-feathered wand, finally killed him.

Since this animal embodied the life of all the Buffalo People, all buffalo died with him except the women Holy Man had taken for his wives. When he realized this, Holy Man sat down on a rock and bowed his head with remorse as his bow lay lifeless on his knees. The older Buffalo woman sat down on one side of him, put her arm around his shoulder and said, "Now what can we do? You killed all our relatives." On the other side the younger, embracing him, said, "Since you have so many powers, even power to kill, you must also have power to bring them back to life." He replied that he had. Then he told the women to turn their backs and not under any circumstances to turn their heads, for if they did so, his powers would fail. They obeyed and he went to his victim and pulled out the weapons, one by one the eagle-feathered arrow, the feathered wand, the yellow tail-feathered arrow and the red feathered wand. As he did so he rubbed dust from his own moccasins first on one side of the buffalo, then on the other, then on its head, and all the while he prayed. when Holy Man had finished the last prayer Buffalo-who never-dies came to life. He rose and said, "Your power is greater than mine. I give up and you may have the two women."

Holy Man told him how to bring the other buffalo to life saying that each in turn could restore the next one. They did this and all were restored save one, for one of the wives disobeyed and turned her head for just a moment. The Black Buffalo accounted for all their numbers, as did the White and the Blue Buffalo, but the Yellow Buffalo missed one and found him lying dead. Holy Man told them that there were four old Turkey Buzzards who could bring him to life. They made offerings of valuable skins and precious stones to the Turkey Buzzards, but they refused to help. Then Big Fly whispered that they should withdraw these offerings and give just a little carrion. They tried that and the Turkey Buzzards performed a ceremony which brought the Yellow Buffalo to life.

References Navajo Medicine Man Sandpaintings, By Gladys A. Reichard; Pgs. 68, 71p

Buffalo ('ayani) (U) are interesting for historical as well as ritualistic reasons. Featured in myth, they are strange and therefore supernatural.

The episode of Holy Man overcoming the Buffalo in the Shooting Chant, though a subsidiary theme, is highly developed. The sandpaintings that recapitulate the encounters with Buffalo are among the most elaborate, and emphasis on such experiences is one of the main points of relationship between the Shooting and Flint chants.

Buffalo-who-never-dies is the chief and four others are named; one male is called Abalone Woman. Buffalo homes, described in myth and depicted in sandpainting, are tepees. Buffalo behave much like Plains Indians. They are said to know how to shoot their arrows along the blood vessels, making exceptionally bloody wounds (Names, Con. B; Reichard 1939, pp. 68ff., Fig. 9, PI. XXIII, XXIV; Newcomb-Reichard, PI. XXIII-XXVIII; Haile 1943a, pp.81, 187, 208).

Navajo Religion, Vol II; Gladys A. Reichard, 1950

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