The Lakota’s sacred story provides a source for spirituality and guidelines for living life.
She brought the sacred pipe. She brought meaning, essence, life, spirituality. She brought hope.
To Philomine Lakota, language teacher at Red Cloud High School on Pine Ridge, White Buffalo Calf Woman is more than just a story. White Buffalo Calf Woman’s actions and words serve as a blueprint for how Pine Ridge Lakotas should live.
Philomine Lakota tells one of the origin stories of the Lakota.
When Debra Whiteplume, an environmentalist, mentions White Buffalo Calf Woman, she quickly rises to find sage to burn.
Theresa Two Bulls, president of the Oglala Sioux tribe, has a passage of White Buffalo Calf Woman’s wisdom on the walls of her office, reminding that “When one sits in the Hoop of the People, one must be responsible, because all of Creation is related, and the hurt of one is the hurt of all, and the honor of one is the honor of all.”
For many Lakota women, the story represents the solidarity of the culture as its foundation point, but also shows the fluidity of storytelling itself.
No definitive version of the story exists. One should never be defined. The story shifts and shapes itself to the people, it grows and adapts. Through the oral tradition, it was handed down, and the story changed over time and will continue to change. What most versions agree upon though, is that White Buffalo Calf Woman brought the canunpa wakan, the Sacred Pipe. She also brought the sun dance, the inipi (sweat lodge) and the hanblecia (the vision quest), among other rituals.
In “The Sacred Pipe,” Black Elk lists seven rites given by White Buffalo Calf Woman for proper living. University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Tom Gannon believes the Lakota practiced more ceremonies originally, but after contact with European settlers, only seven were highlighted to better transition Lakota spiritual belief into the Catholic seven sacraments.
In Standing Bear’s “Land of the Spotted Eagle” White Buffalo Calf Woman is even referred to as “Holy Woman” and delivers a version of the Ten Commandments, Gannon said in his research on Ptsesan Winyan.
The Catholic connection runs throughout the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman, down to her words to return to the people. Some parallel this to the second coming of Christ as the Messiah.
These Christian influences on the myth are part of the history of change within the story. Some of the newest adaptations to the myth create a ‘pan-Indian’ respect for women, spreading the legend across all Native cultures — even those that didn’t share the myth originally.
There are many versions of the White Buffalo Calf Woman’s story. Alex White Plume tells the version of the story that was passed down to him.
In addition to the rituals, White Buffalo Calf Woman’s actions inspired many cultural distinctions between men and women including gendered language, women’s postures and roles, as well as general guidelines like the placement of the doors in a tipi.
The four sacred colors of the Lakota — red, white, black and yellow — can also be traced to the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman. After giving the Lakota people those sacred instructions for living, the woman turned into a calf as she walked away from the tribe. Each time she laid down to rest, the calf was a different color, and these colors would make the sacred hoop for the Lakota.
“Besides the buffalo ‘alliance’ that she brings, she also gives to the Lakota,” Gannon said. “Probably at a time of great cultural peril, a crucial centering, symbolized not only in this holistic number four, but realized in the various rituals of cultural healing and social integration that she’s taught them.”