“The Buffalo Wife,” A Crow (Apsáalooke) Myth
An Apsáalooke Crow man falls in love and has a child with the magical Buffalo Woman, which requires him to prove his love and devotion to her and her Buffalo Nation.
As Told by Grandmother’s Knife and Gray Bull to Robert H. Lowie in 1914, Influenced By a Caddo Variant
The story is shared as well by the Assiniboin, the Cheyenne, Arikara, Skidi, Arapaho, Blackfoot, Caddo, and Omaha.
Some young Crow men were hunting and the one named Braveness for his valor in the hunt retraced his steps. He came to a coulée with a spring. A buffalo cow was stuck in the black mud and drew his bow. She saw him and being medicine, transformed into a young and beautiful woman. “Come here,” she said, I expected you. Please help me out of the mud.”
“You are not of my people,” said Braveness, surprised at finding her there. “How did you know I was coming this way?”
“I am Buffalo Woman, and I have seen you from afar,” she said.
Braveness, who had never known woman, made passionate love to Buffalo Woman. Then he lifted her from the mire and said, “Wife (he’ ha), we live in different worlds. I shall return to mine, and you to yours.” Hence, Braveness continued on his way.
That winter this buffalo became pregnant. Then in spring she gave birth to a boy.
Born human, he stood up straightaway like a calf. Because they were medicine, they transformed this little person into a calf. The little child of the woman possessed by the Crow had no buffalo father. “Mother, where is my father?” “You are an Indian, your father is a Crow,” she answered. “To my father let us go, these calves are always mocking me.”
So, she set out with her child, and when the sun went down found the Crow camp. This buffalo turned back into a fine-looking Crow woman. Her child also was turned back into a human. The boy, looking about for his father, befriended the son of the head man and went into his lodge. The head man took pity on him and sent out a messenger to all the young unmarried men. When he returned, the head man said, “Your father lives in the last lodge. Go take hold of him.”
The boy ran over, embracing Braveness, and said, “Here is my father.” The latter took him in his arms and sat down with him. “Son, how am I your father?” “My mother is a buffalo and you possessed her in the mud. She waits over there.” Braveness said they should go to her. Upon seeing the beautiful woman, he said, “You have returned, Buffalo Woman. Please, let us live as a family.” They went back to his lodge and were married.
The Trials of Love and the Buffalo People
For a long time they remained among the Crow, and Braveness loved them very much. Their son learned to hunt with a bow and arrow. One day Buffalo Woman said: “Will you do whatever I may ask of you, Braveness?”
“Yes,” he replied, “if what you ask is not unreasonable.”
“I want you to go with me to visit my people.”
Braveness said that he would go, and the next day they started for her home, she leading the way. After they had walked a long distance they came to some high hills, and she turned round and said to Braveness: “You promised me that you would do anything I say.”
“Yes,” he answered.
“Well,” she said, “my home is on the other side of this high hill. I will tell you when we get to my mother. I know there will be many coming there to see who you are, and some may provoke you and try to make you angry, but do not allow yourself to become angry with any of them. Some may try to kill you.”
“Why should they do that?” asked Braveness.
“Listen to what I am about to tell you,” she said. “I knew you before you knew me. Through magic I made you come to me that first day. I said that some will try to make you angry, and if you show anger at even one of them, the others will join in fighting you until they have killed you. They don’t like the stand-up-straights. They see you as greedy exploiters with no respect for the buffalo people.”
“But you are now my wife,” Braveness said.
“I have told you what to do when we get there,” Buffalo Woman continued. “Now I want you to lie down on the ground and roll over twice.”
Braveness smiled, but did as she asked. He rolled over twice, and standing found himself changed into a Buffalo.
For a moment Buffalo Woman looked at him, seeing the astonishment in his eyes. Then she rolled over twice, and also became a Buffalo, and so did their son. Without saying a word she led them to the top of the hill. In the valley off to the west, Braveness could see hundreds and hundreds of Buffalo.
“They are my people,” said Buffalo Woman. “This is my home.”
When the members of the nearest herd saw Braveness, Buffalo Woman, and their child coming, they gathered as though waiting for them. Buffalo Woman led until they reached an old Buffalo cow, and Braveness knew that she was the mother of his beautiful wife.
For two moons they stayed with the herd. Every now and then, four or five of the young Buffalo males would come around and annoy Braveness, trying to arouse his anger, but he pretended not to notice. One night, Buffalo Woman told him that she was ready to go back to his home, and they slipped away over the hills.
When they reached the place where they had turned themselves into Buffalo, they rolled over twice on the ground and became man, woman, and child again. “Promise me you will not tell anyone of this magical transformation,” Buffalo Woman said. “If people learn about it, something bad will happen to us.”
The Secret of A Magical Transformation
They stayed at Braveness’s home for twelve moons. One day while Buffalo Woman was cooking dinner, their son slipped out of the lodge and joined some other children at play. They played several games and then decided to pretend they were Buffalo. Some lay on the ground to roll like Buffalo, and Buffalo Boy also did this. When he rolled over twice, he changed into a real Buffalo calf. Frightened, the other children ran for their lodges.
About this time his mother came out to look for him, and when she saw the children running in fear she knew that something must be wrong. She found her son changed into a Buffalo calf. Taking him up in her arms, she ran down the hill, and out of sight of the village she turned herself into a Buffalo and with Buffalo Boy started off toward the west.
Late that evening when Braveness returned from hunting he could find neither his wife nor his son in the lodge. He went out to look for them, and someone told him of the game the children had played and of the magic that had changed his son into a Buffalo calf. Braveness followed his wife’s tracks down the hill and found the place where she had rolled.
After a time he went out to search for them. In order that he might approach the buffalo without being discovered, he rubbed himself with filth from a buffalo- wallow.
In the course of time he came to a place where some buffalo were dancing. He could hear them from a distance. As he approached, he met his son, who was now, as before, a buffalo-calf. The father explained to the boy that he was mourning for him and his mother and that he had come to take them home.
Buffalo Boy told his father that the young males who hated stand-up-straights planned to have a foot-race. “They will challenge you to race and if you do not outrun them they will kill you,” he said and returned to the Buffalo, leaving his father alone.
That night Braveness could not sleep. He took a long walk outside camp. It was a very dark night without moon or stars, but he could feel the presence of the Wind spirit.
“You are young and strong,” the Wind spirit whispered to him, “but you cannot outrun the Buffalo without my help. If you lose, they will kill you. If you win, they will never challenge you again and you can take your family back.
“What must I do to save my life and keep my beautiful wife and son?” asked Braveness.
The Wind spirit gave him two things. “One of these is a magic herb,” said the Wind spirit. “The other is dried mud from a medicine wallow. If the Buffalo catch up with you, first throw behind you the magic herb. If they come too close to you again, throw down the dried mud.”
A Contest for Respect, A Test of Devotion
The next day was the day of the race. At sunrise the young Buffalo gathered at the starting place. When Braveness joined them, they made fun of him, saying a man had not the power to outrun them. Braveness ignored their jeers, and lined up with them at the starting point.
An old Buffalo started the race with a loud bellow, and at first Braveness took the lead, running swiftly. But soon the others gained on him. With their hard breathing closing upon his heels, he threw the magic herb behind and they slowed. Growing tired, he worried he could not run any more. He looked back and saw one Buffalo with head down and coming fast, closing the space between them. About to catch him, Braveness threw down the dried mud from the medicine wallow.
Soon he was far ahead again, but now he had expended the Wind spirit’s powers. As he neared the finish line, he heard the pounding of hooves coming closer behind. At the last moment, he felt a strong wind on his face as it passed him to stir up dust and keep the Buffalo from overtaking him. With the help of the Wind spirit, Braveness crossed the goal first and won the race. After that, none of the Buffalo ever challenged him again, and he went to the lodge of Buffalo Woman’s parents. “Let us return to my people, the Crow,” he said. They gave him food and the parents said, “He has come from afar and you must take him back.”
The next day they went home. Wherever his wife went thereafter, he went with her. The Crow saw that one had truly a buffalo wife. When buffalo breed, they are wont to walk with them, the Crow said. Finally, what they said was: “One who loves his wife, that one has truly a buffalo wife.” They stayed among the Crow Indians; whether they died, we don’t know. When a young man, Buffalo Boy married among the Crow and stayed with them.
Adapted from Myths and Traditions of the Crow Indians, By Robert Lowie, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and and London, 1993, Originally Published: New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1918.