With great thanks and warm appreciation to Aanatsoyi’kayaakii Alvine Mountain Horse for providing the Blackfoot translation of “Buffalo Stories.”
When Peter Weasel Moccasin (Miiniipooka/Berry Child) was a little boy, in the days before he was sent away to residential school, when his family didn’t have the things people have today – television or electricity – his father would keep the house warm at night with the woodstove, carrying a kerosene lamp, and on many nights, he would tell his son a story.
“Winter nights were long nights,” Weasel Moccasin remembers. “I was just four and five and six, and used to sleep on a mattress on the floor.
And some nights, my dad would call to me, he would say ‘My son, are you awake?’ And I would say ‘Yes, I am awake.’ And then he would tell me a story, a legend of the past. Even when I left for residential schools, when I would come home, he would still share with me these stories.”
All of those stories his father told him were connected, Weasel Moccasin explains, and were the same stories his father had heard from his father before him. While the topics and focus changed each night, they all provided lessons on the connections between people and the challenges they faced, and the world they lived in.
“He didn’t give me answers,” Weasel Moccasin says. “He said the answers are in the stories. He wanted me to understand. And when I started to have grandchildren, he said to me, ‘I told you a number of stories, a lot of stories. Do you remember them?’ I said, ‘Yes, I remember them.’ Then he said to me, ‘So how did you understand them? What did you learn from them? How did you figure out anything from them? How are you going to handle your life? How are you going to choose the path in your life?’ ”
The sharing of stories, Weasel Moccasin says, can provide a wealth of different lessons at various points in a person’s life. One story can provide guidance to a person one year, and reassure that same person a decade down the road. Sharing a story is one of the best ways to teach, and listening to a story is one of the best ways to learn.
In this storytelling spirit, the Wider Horizons team asked three instructors in the Centre for Business, Arts and Sciences to share three stories of buffalo, and some lessons they have learned. Here’s what they had to say.
A Buffalo Harvest
By Sandra Bartlett Atwood
Instructor in Indigenous Studies
Centre for Business, Arts and Sciences
Many students here at the college have mentioned to me that they didn’t know that Blackfoot culture is a living culture. They see Blackfoot people (Niitsitapi) engaging in modern professions like nursing, policing, agriculture, social work, business management, education, construction and others, and assume that their culture is preserved as history, a memory, rather than an ongoing way of life.
Recently I was invited to a buffalo (iinii) harvest, where I got to see first-hand just how alive Niitsitapi culture is today. Several families gathered together and made camp. One individual who had been transferred the right to kill or capture iinii was selected to take the animal, which is expected to be done with only one shot. From a distance, I witnessed one iinii from the herd step forward and offer itself just as I had been told would happen. This animal was treated with the respect and care of a beloved relative who had given their life so that others might live and, in this case, learn too.
This particular harvest was meant to pass this knowledge on to future generations. The Elders and students made tobacco offerings and prayed, thanking their brother for helping them preserve their culture. I was told that every part of iinii had been vowed for ahead of time. I was also instructed that they only had about three hours to harvest the meat and especially the intestines for them to be usable.
I come from a long line of avid hunters, yet I had never seen anyone harvest the intestines, spleen, and stomach of an animal before. The hooves would be used for rattles, the robe was to be tanned, the tongue would be used for a holy soup at a later ceremony.
I watched in delight and wonder as one little girl tenderly clutched the one-gallon bucket that contained iinii’s heart, for hours, walking it around to show others and smiling with pride to have the privilege of such an honourable task.
I observed another young woman being taught by her mother who had the rights to harvest organs and entrails. She couldn’t have been more than 10 years old and yet she confidently and humbly laid out the intestines down a shallow slope in the grassy field and then squeezed her fingers across them to empty their contents at the bottom of the slope. She then ran water through them and repeated the process until they were clean.
Some older boys had been transferred the right to put a knife to the animal and harvest the meat. This too was done methodically and respectfully. Sinews were carefully removed from the back strap and everyone got to take home some of the meat. Throughout the day, an Elder was teaching the Blackfoot words for the parts of the buffalo and the processes involved in the harvest.
I’ve been told that in the Blackfoot language there are no words for the past and future tense, only the present. Indeed, that day, time seemed to stand still. The past, present and future existed together as the ancestors smiled on us for maintaining the treaty Niitsitapi have made and renewed with iinii since time immemorial.
Four Iinii Bulls
By Marcia Black Water
(Iito’taawaohkaakii / Walking Beside)
(General Studies 2004) - Indigenous Coordinator and Instructor
Centre for Business, Arts and Sciences
When I was a young child, I had a dream that had me wake up, still hearing the wind in my ears, feeling the cold of an impending spring storm and the sound of hooves grinding as they walked on gravel.
In my vivid recall of this dream, I am walking in an open field getting to a near gravel road. As I got to the road, I could feel a vibration of a stampede of animals approaching from the east – they were iinii (buffalo). The iinii came thundering by, stopped behind me and I turned to see them standing. From the herd, four iinii walked forward, stood on their hind legs, and began to sway back and forth. I calmly swayed back and forth in mirrored fashion. The hooves of the herd scraping at the gravel rocks sounded like a raw-hide rattle. I awoke.
I think about this dream in moments of references to iinii as the missing species in the plains ecosystem. In June 2013, I was on a trip with Red Crow College’s Kainai Studies program; a summer course, titled Kainai’ksahko: Learning and Being in Kainai Spaces, provided the opportunity to visit the land and learn through stories from Kainai Elders. It was my first experience with land-based learning.
The course included a visit to Yellowstone National Park, this area being the south boundary of the traditional lands of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Our course cohort had the privilege of having the late Tatsikiistamik Narcisse Blood as the instructor. On suggestion of a man Narcisse chatted with at the gas station, we stopped at a site called Dragon’s Mouth. That day, four iinii bulls were resting at this site. The learning piece Narcisse shared with us is that the bulls stay on the perimeter of the herd, and only go into the herd when mating. While it was not my place to say much, I did notice a significance in this learning to one of our societies.
Narcisse wanted to get some pictures, so we ventured down to a boardwalk to watch the bulls closer. One iinii stood and walked toward us, and just as I began looking for safe exit points, a calm came over me, I felt a soft wind, and everything got quiet. The iinii bull got so close that, if I wanted, I could have touched the furred crown of its head. I watched intensely as it bowed three times, sat on the fourth bow, and I sat down on the boardwalk. I felt a hand on each of my shoulders. Narcisse and his son Joey began to pray. In his prayers, he made a promise that we would return to visit the iinii.
As Narcisse passed in February 2015, this experience at Yellowstone has remained a great memory of my time as his student. Along with his loved ones, our community greatly felt the loss. However, he gave so much of his knowledge, so we now carry and share the teachings.
The Significance of the Iinii
By Jessica Fox
(natoyiipiikihsa’kii / Holy Bird Woman)
English and Indigenous Literature Instructor
Centre for Business, Arts and Sciences
Short walks around her home; tasting the sweet, wild strawberries she had just picked – the stains still fresh on her hands. Rose hips and bright coloured sunflowers; listening to the frogs sing their evening song – these memories are embedded in my mind and were the simple ways my grandmother Piiaakii strengthened my connection (Kakyosin) to the land and animals that lived near her home. When thinking about the buffalo or iinii, this connection has always been strong.
Throughout my life, Elders and family members have taught the importance of the iinii to my people, the Blackfoot. I have learned that we used every part of the buffalo - nothing was ever wasted. The buffalo was never overhunted. This is how the iinii were able to thrive for thousands of years in this place. As a child, I used to imagine what the prairies and valleys would look like filled with herds of this majestic beast. Therefore, it was a happy moment when the Kainai (Blood) tribe brought a herd of iinii back to our territory. I know that passing the herd on Highway 509 is a highlight for me and many family and friends when we travel by.
I have also been taught that in this land, where storms happen regularly - the iinii was an animal that showed its powerful spirit. When encountering a storm, rather than turning and running away, the iinii would face the storm head on. Also, my dad talked about the incredible intelligence of buffalo when we were growing up. He had spent years around cattle and helped my uncle with his. He always said, “you have to keep cows and bulls separate, because if you don’t, they will mate at the wrong time and the calves will die if born in the cold.” Buffalo, on the other hand, naturally knew the right time to mate.
This emotional and physical strength shows just how significant the iinii were and are. This amazing animal has shaped this land, especially in traditional Blackfoot territory. For thousands of years, the plants of our grasslands were impacted and maintained by the iinii. The iinii also directly impacted the landscape. One Elder told me and other members of my class that the trails embedded into the sides of hills were game trails. These trails were carved from years and years of animal travel – especially by the iinii.
Through these teachings and stories in my life, I have come to know the strength and significance of the iinii. As a result, when I had a chance to sign the Buffalo Treaty here at Lethbridge College, it affected me deeply. It is always a bonus to see the two distinct cultures I have grown up in, working together. I did not realize we would all be signing the treaty (I thought it was just for certain people), so when I lined up, I became a little nervous. I think this was partly due to the cameras. At first, I felt indifferent due to historical let down and broken promises in First Nations treaties with the government – especially Treaty 7. However, I felt this signing was significant, and upon reflection, I am hopeful. I understand this treaty as a promise to return to the land, practices and relationships that were alive when the buffalo first roamed this land. I hope this treaty leads to change and has a positive impact on our environment.