When deciding on a research topic, “The White Buffalo Calf Pipe” stood out due to the fact that it appeared to be different than any other reading in James E. Miller Jr.’s, “Heritage of American Literature.” “The White Buffalo Calf Pipe” is a tale written by the Teton Sioux people, a Native American tribe, and has a rich historical background that allows readers to dive deeper into the culture of the Native Americans and their use of political, religious, and spiritual symbolism, along with their harmony with nature.
“The White Buffalo Calf Pipe” is a very old tale, dating back to the time of the Native Americans who authored the tale. There is no specific date attached to indicate when exactly this story was written by the Teton Sioux tribe. However, some research can be gathered in order to give an estimate of when this tale was written. Historical records indicate that the well-known explorers Lewis and Clark, encountered the Teton Sioux tribe during their expedition.
Since Lewis and Clark’s expedition occurred in the very early years of the 1800s, one can inferred that the tale by the Teton Sioux tribe either before or right around the early 1800s.
It would be unlikely for the tribe to formulate a tale after this time period because the United States was beginning to push Native Americans out of their territory. Through research and evidence, it can also be concluded that the people of the Teton Sioux tribe were residing in the plains towards what is now considered the western United States.
This tale, which can now be considered a literary work, was written at a point in time when the people did not have many options for food. If the people of the Teton Sioux tribe were unable to find any game animals to eat, then they would starve.
The inability to find food had the possibility to cause desperate times and deaths within the tribe. On the other hand, when the tribe was able to find a game animal to eat then they truly cherished the meat that was obtained from the animal. This is key information to keep in mind while reading the tale of “The White Buffalo Calf Pipe,” because buffaloes were not simply another animal to the Native American people. The buffalo was one of the largest game animals that a tribe could find in the western plains. That being said, the people truly relied on the buffalo to feed their tribe.
When examining this information, it becomes apparent to readers that the tale of “The White Buffalo Calf Pipe” provides much more symbolism than a simple story about a buffalo calf and a pipe. It is also important for readers to note that this tale was written in order to explain one of the Teton Sioux myths. The context of this tale according to Miller, is that the tale “reveals the origin of the special peace pipe, as well as the ways it is to be used and the purposes it serves in ritual and ceremony,” (Miller 1939). One of the most important historical aspects for readers to keep in mind is that the Native American culture differed enormously from the culture of today’s society, and that this literary piece should be read with an open mind and respect for the tribe’s beliefs.
Since there is no specific author mentioned for writing the tale of “The White Buffalo Calf Pipe”, biographical information of the author is attributed to the Teton Sioux tribe as a whole and their culture. The Teton Sioux tribe was a branch of the larger Sioux tribe, which was “one of the largest Indian Confederations of North America,” (Miller 1939). As previously mentioned, the people of the Teton Sioux tribe relied heavily upon buffalo in order to feed their people.
These tribes were also thought to be nomadic, meaning that they moved continuously in search of more food. In fact, historians believe that the Teton Sioux tribe only hunted buffalo and did not participate in standard agricultural farming. By having such a heavy reliance on the buffalo, this shaped the Native American culture to not only cherish the meat, but also respect the game animal themselves because they knew that without these animals their tribes would face starvation.
Historical encyclopedias also elaborate on the importance of the buffalo in the Teton Sioux tribe. In the Sioux culture, the buffalo was considered to be one of the “four powers presiding over the universe,” (Britannica). The tale of “The White Buffalo Calf” was written with the setting of the Sun-dance ceremony of the Sioux tribes, which was possibly the “most important religious event” for the Sioux tribes (Britannica). The people of the Teton Sioux tribe also faced many trials and tribulations when the United States began sending troops to push the Native Americans out of their own territories.
Eventually so many members of the Sioux tribe had been killed, that the people fled to Canada and only returned to the United States when they had planned to surrender. This long-term conflict between the Sioux tribes and the United States resulted in the Sioux leaders having a consistent wariness of the United States government. The Sioux people have a rich history and culture, which is infused into their literary works that explain the myths.
As previously mentioned, “The White Buffalo Calf Pipe” is a tale written by the Teton Sioux Native American tribe. The tale is formatted in a manner that has a nice flow and is easy for readers to process and comprehend. The tale begins by describing how all of the different band of the Sioux tribes, such as the Teton band, come together in an assembly once a year in order to recap events that have happened to each of the bands within the past year. This assembly was also used for legislative purposes, such as changing laws if need be. Once the assembly ended, each band of the tribe would return to where they usually resided. In this tale the Sans Arc band of the Sioux tribes has started making their way back and were in such of meat to eat, buffalo to be exact.
When the band as a whole was unsuccessful, they sent two of their younger men to go in opposite directions in hopes of a more successful search. These men were still unsuccessful in hunting down a buffalo to kill, or even seeing a single animal. After this unfortunate luck, the men decided to meet back in a central location. It was at this point in time that the men saw a beautiful woman approaching them, the tale refers to her as the young Maiden, who claims to be from a tribe by the name of Buffalo. The young Maiden then tells the men that she has something special to give to their tribe, and gives them specific instructions on how their tribe should set up the camp in order to prepare for this gifting. She leaves the men by telling them that she will be visiting their tribe the next morning. During the men’s conversation with this young woman, one of them had indecent thoughts about her body.
As soon as the man had these thoughts, he was consumed by a large cloud and then was left with only his bones as remains. After this entire encounter ends, the only remaining man runs back to his tribe to tell them the news and the tribe begins preparing for the young Maiden’s arrival. Just as she said she would, the young Maiden arrives at the tribe the next morning, carrying a pipe. The chief of the Sans Arc band welcomes the young Maiden, and humbly apologizes for only being able to offer her water due to the current state of poverty. When this exchange ends, the young Maiden presents the pipe to the people.
She gives a short speech to each of the different groups of people within the Sans Arc band, such as mothers, children, men, and the chief, acknowledging their hard work and determination. After presenting the pipe the tribe as a whole, she lights it and lets out a puff of smoke to dedicate the pipe to Wakanj’tanka and nature. While reading, I inferred that Wakanj’tanka was what the Native Americans held to be their higher being. When this dedication is complete, the young Maiden hands over the pipe to the chief of the tribe and leaves the people who are in silence. Once the young Maiden had left the tribe’s camp, she transformed into a buffalo calf, a white one to be precise.
The tale ends without any explanation as to the significance of the white buffalo calf or why this young woman is the one who transforms. The fact that the woman transformed into a buffalo, which the Teton Sioux people thought governed over them, reinforces the idea that the young woman was sent by a higher being. There are speculations that the white buffalo calf pipe that the young woman gifts the tribe, in terms of the physical pipe itself, symbolizes a rebirth.
When I first began reading “The White Buffalo Calf Pipe”, I was expecting to have some confusion about this tale due to my experience with reading other works from Native American tribes. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to find how easy this tale was to read and how clear and concise each piece was. Oddly enough, I felt a personal connection to some of the aspects of this tale. The piece of this tale that mentions how the Sioux tribe would gather as a whole once a year in order to “celebrate victories, success on the warpath, and other good fortune which may had occurred· while each band was acting somewhat independently,” (Miller 1939) reminded me of my own family.
I come from a family that is very large and abnormally close in terms of extended family. During the majority of the year, we are all split off into our own immediate families and spread across Texas. Each summer, around the middle of July, we all find our way to the Texas Hill Country for a family reunion. It is at this reunion that all, eighty or more, of us share our stories from the past year which range from new jobs, to break-ups, to babies. We also tell each other about any issues we have had or enemies that we have made, just like the Sioux tribe does.
When I got past reading the introductory details, I knew that there would be a more in-depth meaning to this tale than the simple story that I was reading. I kept this thought in the back of my mind and became very wary of every detail. The young maiden immediately stood out to me as an important aspect in this story, possibly providing some very extensive symbolism. When she mentioned that she was a part of a tribe that were called the Buffalo tribe, I knew that this was not just a meeting due to coincidence.
Although I did become slightly confused, only because I thought that she was going to present the men with a buffalo that they were so desperately searching for. I began to develop the inclination that this maiden was sent from a higher power when one of the young men had indecent thoughts about, what I assumed to be, her body and he was then struck down to only bones. This interaction left me shocked, but slightly amused that the man had to pay for his derogatory thoughts. With this in mind, I also felt that it was important to note that the young woman is referred to as Maiden with a capital “M”. I came to the conclusion that this could either mean that the author was simply portraying her as a character, or that she did in fact come from a higher power and the capitalization of her name was necessary.
The ceremony in which the woman is passing over the pipe to the Sioux tribes stood out as something that was very significant because at this point in history, especially within Native American tribes, the men held the power and would usually be the ones to participate in a ceremony like this one. Even though this young women gave me feelings of feminine empowerment throughout most of the tale, through the man being struck down and her important role of passing on the pipe, I did feel that it was quite opposed to her statement that claimed that the women of the tribe were weak. After giving my opinion some further thought, I did realize that the woman was speaking in a very different time frame and culture than what I am accustomed to.
When I finished reading this tale, I was left feeling somewhat awestruck while still being confused. I was amazed at how the entire story played out, from the meeting to the young woman transforming. I still was left unknowing of what the white buffalo calf meant to the Native Americans, and who this young maiden truly was that resulted in her transforming into the white buffalo. I left this story with the feeling of enjoyment from the tale itself, but also curiosity and wanting to investigate more into the meaning of the white buffalo.
Once I had researched more and dove deeper into the tale of “The White Buffalo Calf Pipe”, I decided to reread the story. This time I truly knew the significance of not only the buffalo, but also the pipe itself. I feel like having this information in mind truly morphed this tale into a beautiful literary piece, that shows just how much the people of the Teton Sioux tribe respected the buffalo and how seriously they took their culture. When I had found out that the physical pipe of the white buffalo calf symbolized rebirth, I realized why this gift was of such high importance to the Teton Sioux people. Since the Teton Sioux tribe was experiencing a time of poverty and struggle, the gift of the white buffalo pipe symbolized that they would make it through this time and thrive as a tribe.
In terms of how others perceive the tale of “The White Buffalo Calf Pipe”, there is not a large amount of textual criticism about this specific work. However, there is some literary criticism of some of the works of Black Elk. Black Elk was a leader in the one of the branches of the Sioux tribe, and was distantly related to the chief of the Teton Sioux tribe. The literary criticism of Black Elk is an overview of all of his works, rather than a specific one. This literary criticism is written and explained upon by Clyde Holler, who published the criticism in American Indian Quarterly.
This criticism is not recent, since it was published in 1984, but this piece was one of the most recent and in-depth criticisms of Sioux works that is available. Although, in relation to the time in which the Sioux tribes were thriving and writing these works, the literary criticism is fairly recent. In his literary criticism of Black Elk, Holler makes an effort to tie the cultural beliefs of the Native Americans to modern-day Christianity. This can be related back to the context of “The White Buffalo Calf Pipe” in more ways than one. For example, the tale of “The White Buffalo Calf Pipe” indicates that the Teton Sioux hold the belief in a higher power.
The Black Elk’s works, that Holler was reviewing, also had indications of this belief. Holler even goes as far to say that when the Native American cultures and beliefs are compared to Christianity, there is the possibility of “theological bi-culturalism,” (Holler 168). There was not much information written that criticized the actual writing of the Sioux tribe leader Black Elk, but only the analysis of religious and cultural beliefs. This could be due to the fact that the works of the Sioux tribe have been produced and reproduced in very different formats. There is also the possibility that there is not much literary criticism of the writings of the Sioux tribe because, as seen in Miller’s publishing of “The White Buffalo Calf Pipe,” the text is fairly simple to read and easily formatted. That being said, the points that Holler makes about the similarities between the beliefs of Christianity and the culture of the Sioux tribe is significant and provides a different perspective for readers to keep in mind.
Upon first glance, the tale of “The White Buffalo Calf Pipe” authored by the Teton Sioux tribe appears to be a simple folktale. However once the rich and in-depth history of the Teton Sioux people and their lifestyle is revealed through research, this work appears to have a much deeper symbolism. When the background, culture, and even professional criticism of this tale are taken into account, the reader’s entire perspective and reaction can shift.
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