The Heart & Soul of the Lakota: The Buffalo

The Heart & Soul of the Lakota: The Buffalo

Posted on June 16, 2011 by
photograph of buffalo by ray tysdal

Buffalo Photograph by Ray Tysdal

At the core of the Lakota culture is the buffalo or Tatanka. For thousands of years, the lives of the Buffalo Nation and the Lakota people were spiritually and physically interconnected – as herds roamed free across the North American plains, this nomadic tribe followed.

As long as the North American buffalo roamed free and bountiful, the Plains Indians were able to remain sovereign. Buffalo were their lifeline—the Indians had a symbiotic relationship with them, and always honored the mighty beasts for the many blessings they provided. – From the article Genocide by Other Means on Indian Country Today

chasing buffalo by paul goble

Chasing Buffalo by Paul Goble

Where the buffalo roam
As the buffalo roamed the Plains, so did the Lakota. The entire existence of the people centered around the buffalo’s epic migration across the vast plains of North America – from Canada to Mexico; the Pacific Northwest to the Appalachian Mountains.

Following and being close to the buffalo was important; permanence was not. Everything they owned could easily be carried by a person, dog, or horse – the portable homes (tipis), the leather or rawhide containers for mobile storage, the cradles specifically made for easy transport, and the ingenious travois gave them the ability to move the entire camp in one trip.

The location of their camp and the length of time at each site (from months to a few days) was almost solely determined by the location of the buffalo herd.

waterhole stamped by richard dubois

Waterhole Stampede by Richard Dubois

Adopting the ways of the buffalo
Pre late 19th century, the great Buffalo Nation numbered in the millions; tribal members were countless. As the bison’s deep understanding of survival is determined by numbers, the Plains Indians knew this to be true as well, and thrived in great numbers.

The buffalo is brave – they were practically invincible and afraid of nothing – and the fearless native warriors reflected these courageous traits in battle. The buffalo were also good family members…and so were the people.

buffalo spirit buffalo skull

Buffalo Spirit Skull by Michael McLeod

Givers of Life
To the Lakota, these magnificent animals sustained all life. The Lakota regarded the buffalo as a gift of the Great Spirit and viewed them as a relative. Whenever one was killed, its sacrifice was honored as a blessing from the Tatanka Oyate.

The buffalo meant everything…they provided us our shelter, our food, our weapons, our toys. The lives of the people once revolved around the way of the buffalo. The buffalo was a connection to the Creator. The buffalo provided for the people spiritually, culturally, and socially. The buffalo gave the people life. The buffalo is life.
- Excerpts from Bison, Givers of Life on Indian Country Today

Our belief today still is, as it once was: As long as there are buffalo, there will remain the Oyate.