The Buffalo Dance: A Blackfoot Myth
The following is a Blackfoot myth told by Joseph Campbell.
In order to feed their people for the winter, Blackfoot tribes would drive large numbers of buffalo over a cliff, killing the animals at the bottom and harvesting their meat and skins.
One year, however, an unfortunate tribe couldn’t seem to get the buffalo to go over the cliff. Every time they would drive the animals to the edge, the buffalo would turn aside and run along the edges of the cliff back to safety. This was a terrible situation for the people, who were facing winter starvation.
One day, a young woman, getting water for her family, looked at the cliff and the buffalo and said, “If you would just go over the cliff, I would marry one of you.”
Suddenly the buffalo poured over the cliff face. The girl watched in shock as a distinguished-looking buffalo (who happened to be the herd’s shaman) came trotting over to her and told her he was taking her up on her offer. The girl protested that she couldn’t leave her family, but the buffalo shaman gestured to the dead buffalo and said, “All of my relatives lay dead at the base of the cliff. We have kept our word – now you must keep yours.”
The next morning, the family awoke to find the girl gone. Looking at the tracks outside, her father saw that she had gone off with a buffalo and set out after her. After a long while a magpie visited him and told him that his daughter was not too far away. The magpie agreed to carry a message to the girl – to meet her father at the buffalo wallow.
The girl, desperate to see her father, knew that they were in a dangerous situation. Before she could come up with a plan, her husband, the buffalo shaman, tells her to go to the wallow to bring back water. Once there, her father tries to convince her to go with him, but the girl is afraid and goes back to the buffalo.
Of course, the buffalo shaman can tell something is up, and he takes the rest of the buffalo to the wallow where they dance together and then trample the father to death, so that he disappears entirely into the earth.
The girl began to cry, and the buffalo asks her why. “Because he is my father,” she said. The buffalo replied, “And what about us? Our families, our children, wives, parents, sisters, and brothers are all dead at the bottom of your cliff. Who mourns for us?”
Unable to get the girl to calm down, the buffalo tells her that if she can bring her father back to life, she can go free. The magpie helped her to find a small piece of her father’s bone, which she covered with a blanket on the ground. She then sang a magical song and brought her father back to life.
The buffalo, amazed, said to the girl, “If you know how to do this, why don’t you do it for us?” And so, they showed the girl their magical buffalo dance and song, and asked her to teach it to her people so that they can bring the buffalo back to life.
The girl and her father took the buffalo’s request back to their people, and forever afterward danced and sang to bring the buffalo back to life.
The conclusion on Tuesday…it may be preachy.