Native North American Mythologies

The Native American Great Goddess

Who is White Buffalo Woman?

White Buffalo Woman is a goddess of the Lakota Sioux. According to the myth of the White Buffalo Woman, a certain chief, Standing Hollow Horn, sent out a group of braves to hunt one morning during a period of great food shortage. The hunters saw a strange figure approaching them—really floating rather than walking toward them, making it clear to them that the figure was a spirit, a wakan. Soon they realized that the spirit had taken the form of a beautiful woman with strikingly shining eyes and two round red dots on her face. Her fine clothes were embellished with beautiful white buckskin. The woman’s exquisite black hair was tied back with a strand of buffalo fur. In her hands she carried a mysterious bundle and some dried sage. This was Ptesan-Wi, White Buffalo Woman. Amazed, the braves stared at her, and one lunged toward her with desire, only to be consumed by a flash of lightning. White Buffalo Woman ordered a young man to go back to the chief and to instruct him to set up a sacred medicine tent with twenty-four poles. She would follow soon with great gifts.

When the spirit woman arrived where the Sioux had set up the medicine tent, she told the people to build an altar of red earth inside it. On the altar they were to place a buffalo skull. Now White Buffalo Woman circled the tent several times and then, in front of the chief, opened her bundle. From the bundle she took out the chanunpa, the sacred pipe that would from that day on be a central object in Sioux ritual. Acting as a culture hero, she instructed the people on how to use the pipe, how to grasp the stem with the left hand and to hold the bowl with the right, and how to pass it from person to person.

In thanksgiving, the chief offered White Buffalo Woman the only nourishment they had, water and sweet grass. Sweet grass was dipped into a skin bag full of fresh water and was handed to her. This act, like the passing of the pipe, has always been an element of Sioux ritual. Next, White Buffalo Woman showed the people how to fill the pipe with red willow bark tobacco and how to walk around the medicine tent four times, representing the path of the sun. This was the Sacred Hoop, the Path of Life. White Buffalo Woman continued teaching the people how to use the pipe and how to pray, how to sing the pipe song, how to raise the pipe to Father Sky, how to lower it to Mother Earth, and how to point it to recognize the four directions. “The Sacred Pipe will collect all things together,” she said, “the sky, the earth, the world, the people, and the pipe ritual will please Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery.” When she got up to leave, White Buffalo Woman promised to come back in every new cycle of time. The ages of creation were within her, she said, as she floated off into the red setting sun. As she went, she turned over four times, turning first into a black buffalo, then a brown one, then a red one, and finally into a pure white female buffalo calf. After this, the buffalo came to the Sioux and allowed themselves to be hunted and killed for food and clothing. And to this day the people wait for White Buffalo Woman to return.

A modern drawing by Troy Hosea of the White Buffalo Woman, a goddess of the Lakota Sioux.


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