The sun was still asleep when St. Joseph’s Indian School students and staff rose on a chilly November morning. The grass was covered in frosted crystals, and breath from the group exhaled as clouds into the cool autumn air.
They had all risen early for one special purpose: for it was the day of the buffalo harvest.
“You guys ready?” hollered LaRayne, Native American Studies teacher, from the driver’s seat of the bus after everyone had taken their seats.
“Let’s go!” shouted one of the eighth grade students.
And with a cough and drowsy rumble from the engine, the group set off toward Lower Brule, S.D., where two Native American elders of the Kul Wicasa Oyate tribe (Lower Brule Sioux tribe) would be waiting for them.
As the long stretches of prairie passed along the highway, the students sat quietly in their seats. Although there had been much commotion and conversation before the bus departed campus, somehow the quiet of the outside had made its way in — a hushed anticipation filled the air.
The prairie was a blank canvas of yellow grasses, dotted only by dark specks of cattle and bare trees. As a rusty orange and red sunrise broke free from the horizon, other animals began announcing themselves with the start of the new day. Wild turkeys, horses and deer were present along the bumpy, winding roads, but the animal students were most excited to see on this special day, superior among the rest: the tȟatȟáŋka — buffalo.
Arriving in Kul Wicasa Oyate
As the group arrived, the first stop was at the Tribal Offices to get acquainted with the elders and wildlife officials facilitating the day.
“Mitákuyepi!” said Alvin Grassrope, one of the elders. “That’s our Lakota way of greeting you — of saying good morning, my relatives.”
The students responded, but went quiet to listen to how the day was going to play out. This was to be a first time experience for all of them.
“What you are going to witness,” said Alvin, “is such a wonderful thing. He [the buffalo] is going to sacrifice himself for you … now that is a very, very powerful thing.”
Dewayne Goodface, the second elder and one of the last fluent Lakota speakers, agreed and addressed the students.
“I am very glad to have you here. I hope you learn something so that you may pass on your experience to others,” he said.
Students again boarded the bus until arriving at the location near the buffalo herd, where a male buffalo would sacrifice himself for the benefit of St. Joseph’s students and their families.
As the hunters got into position, students and remaining staff joined together in a circle of prayer atop a hill overlooking the river valley. Everyone was given the opportunity of purification during azilya — otherwise known as smudging — by prayerfully wafting smoke from burning sage toward their bodies.
“Great Spirit, we pray for open ears and hearts today,” prayed LaRayne. “We pray our students will carry these lessons with them for the rest of their lives.”
Others around the circle took turns saying what they hoped the day would bring to them. Students and staff listed understanding, spirituality and connection.
“I hope I learn something that I can pass on to others,” said one eighth grade student, Sheryea.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
The hunters and elders determined the location of the herd in Lower Brule would be problematic, as the bus would be unable to travel to the spot of sacrifice. A secondary plan went into motion taking the group to Kennebec, S.D., approximately 15 miles west to another buffalo herd more easily accessible.
Students watched from a distance as the trucks carrying the elders and hunters closed in on the herd. Soon, a popping sound of a gun cracked the stillness of the prairie.
“When I heard the gunshot I was sad, but thankful for the sacrifice. It was a great experience for me,” said Neleigh, one of the eighth grade students.
The tȟatȟáŋka — buffalo — is a symbol of self-sacrifice; it gives until there is nothing left. And this young buffalo perished for the betterment of others, his relatives.
Students joined the rest of the group and stood in a circle around the brave buffalo. As the adults began dressing the animal, they were able to view and learn about the parts of the buffalo, each having a special and specific purpose.
Joe, Mission Integration Director, said during this time of silence and amazement, the students and staff members were connecting their own spiritual lives to the buffalo.
“Students saw their ancestors in this buffalo,” he said. “They saw sacrifice for the love of others.”
And with that came an immense amount of appreciation from the students.
“I was thankful for the buffalo who gave his life to us,” said Richard, an eighth grade student.
Using All the Parts of the Buffalo
Historically, the buffalo provided for every need the Lakota people had by way of sheltering them with its hide over their tipis, covering their bodies as clothing and their feet as moccasins. Other parts of the buffalo created utensils such as needle and thread, cups, bowls and more.
And this buffalo truly sacrificed its life for the blessing of St. Joseph’s Indian School.
Like the students’ ancestors would have done, St. Joseph’s planned to make use of nearly all the parts of the buffalo following the sacrifice. The buffalo hide will be displayed in the Native American Studies classroom to remind younger students of something to look forward to when they become eighth graders. The skull will be kept and used during purification and ceremonies on campus.
None of the meat from the buffalo will be wasted. As students were taken to the Aktá Lakota Museum for extended learning from the elders about the buffalo, the buffalo was taken to a processing facility where the meat was made into buffalo sticks (similar to jerky). The sticks were given to all parents and guardians as they returned their children back to St. Joseph’s following winter break. Other portions of the buffalo were turned into ground meat, which will be used to cook family meals in St. Joseph’s homes and the dining hall.
“The opportunity to feed our students, as well as their families during what’s been a very difficult season for many, is a tremendous blessing,” said Joe.
Sacrifice Comes Full Circle
And, although many suns have set since the day of the buffalo hunt, the blessings from it continues. As more homes and students sit down together for meals, the buffalo will again be what brings them together — what binds them …
“We like buffalo and have used the meat already in our home to make a buffalo stew and a casserole,” said Rich, a houseparent. “Suffice it to say, we had no leftovers. The girls — all of us — enjoyed it very much. Tara (the other houseparent and Rich’s wife) and I got the last little bit in the pan when they were done and shared it.”
Showing gratitude with meals and moments like these are what tie the whole experience together.
Wóphila tȟáŋka— many thanks — to all staff members, outside agencies, tribal members and elders who made this cultural experience a reality for St. Joseph’s Indian School students. Also, a thank you to generous supporters around the world. Cultural opportunities such as this are possible thanks to your wačháŋtognaka — generosity.
Learn more about the Lakota culture by visiting stjo.org/culture.