October 2009
White Buffalo Woman

Dear Friends,

In my last newsletter, I said I would return to the issue of ceremonies and Buffalo Medicine. Such ceremonies can range from specific Buffalo Dances to honor this animal, to hunting preparations, to blessing the parts of Buffalo's Body used by the village, or to specific ceremonies revealed to the people through engagement with Buffalo Spirit.

imgInevitably any discussion of Buffalo Medicine and attendant ceremonies leads to a focus on White Buffalo Woman. That's because nearly all the enduring ceremonies have their origin in Her appearance and the messages She brought to the People. The subsequent Buffalo ceremonies and dances that evolved were ways to both enact and remind the People of their Covenant to continually transform their lives so as to live in balance and respect for All.

In other words, whether from journeys or visions, any seemingly new ceremonies we might receive are connected with a long, long history of the Humans' relationship with Buffalo.

So it is important we give some attention to the story of White Buffalo Woman and the Seven Sacred Rites She brought to the People. Embedding ourselves for a moment in this story raises the significance of knowing the historical context for the current practices of shamanism. There is value in the core shamanism approach while at the same time, we can lose relationship with all who have lived before and tendered for us profound understandings. We can become so enamored of the Here and Now that the Then and There simply slides from consciousness. I tend to think of this as severing the Tree from its roots and living only in the Branches. Eventually they, too, will disappear for these roots sustain the whole Tree.

In the following paragraphs, I am going to provide a historical context from which to view ceremonies of Buffalo, the story of White Buffalo Woman, and some discussion of the Seven Sacred Rites given to the People. This is a longer newsletter than I usually will be writing but given the subject matter the respect it is due requires this. Since reading text on the computer screen can be demanding on the eyes, you might want to read a section, pause, and return to the next ones later.

When the People are Imperiled...

It is important to remember that White Buffalo Woman came at a time of seeming scarcity of food and shelter, a time of violence within one's own tribe, a time of making war on others considered to be "not of me or mine," and a time of great grief arising from the loss of so many to the cycles of war and violence. In short, it was a time of profound dispiritedness in which the very Soul of the People seems to have fled and cannot be found or returned. The recognition of the Soul's departure rose to a critical awareness just as Winter was arriving with its seasonal challenge to the People: "how shall we survive, much less thrive, in the coming long dark coldness." This can be perceived as both literal (the season Winter) and metaphor (the long darkness in our lives as a People).

During all such times, there are some who go beyond the known limits or present boundaries in search of finding that which will return health and spirit to the People. In this particular story, two young warriors go in search of provisions that will enable the People to survive. And in case there is any forgetting of their purpose, the story is quite instructive here.

imgFor when they sight this Being, that turns from a seeming White Buffalo into a Woman clothed in Winter White garments, one of the two men immediately seeks to possess Her for himself; the other immediately thinks of his people and wonders what help She brings for them. The self-desiring one ('this is for me') approaches Her and immediately dissolves into bones at Her feet. The other one is called forth to Her; She tells him to return to the village and tell the People to prepare for Her coming for She brings special help to them.

The young warrior rushes back to his village and shares his encounter with this special spiritual Being who seems to shapeshift from a White Buffalo to a Woman clothed in Garments White. He tells the people they must make preparations for her arrival for she will come in just a few days. And for the first time, a sense of hope arises that they have not been left completely bereft and, indeed, that help from Great Spirit is coming to them.

Upon Her arrival She reminds them of the ways in which they have fallen out of balance and how all other Beings around them have withdrawn from their presence. Yet She assures them that they shall be transformed if they practice the Seven Sacred Rites She gives to them.

She then imparts to the People the steps required for transformation----the transforming Ways that will restore spirit and health. Furthermore, She enjoins them to practice these always yet when, due to human frailties, we once more wander away from the path of Spirit, She reminds them to once again engage in these Seven Sacred Rites and they will find their way to Home. They make a Covenant with Her and among themselves to enact these Rites and together they smoke the Pipe of Peace --- this last act being the ceremonial way of stating "our breath is joined in agreement to decisions made today or to the Covenant we have forged here."

And then She leaves them... disappearing to the distant mountains while once more seeming to shift into the shape of a White Buffalo.

This is the essence of the story... a story considered sacred among the People of the Buffalo and with wisdom Ways from which all People can benefit. As with all great stories, we are invited to find where we are in the narrative: for example, am I going beyond my known boundaries in search of help for the People; am I among those staying in the village yet praying for the ones who have gone beyond the known boundaries in search of help. Am I the one who, when seeing help approaching, wishes to have and keep this just for me or am I seeking to know the nature of the help that has arrived for everyone? Am I among those preparing the space for the arrival of the Messenger? Or am I one who has lost all hope for change and biding my time while others focus on the need for help? Am I one filled with a vision of Hope... and can I gather with others so filled and practice Agreements that will restore health to the Whole?

At one time or another, we are each of these. The invitation is to know which of these we are now; to see if I am doing or being as I wish and, if not, to take action so that I can be doing the task that aligns with my desires. We are not called to sit in judgment of one another but to recognize we are a Circle in which every place creates the Circle---equally important is to remember that everything is always in flux - including Circles - so I might wish to now rise and change my place or role in the Circle - thus does change occur, thus does Community evolve

It is not possible within the purview of this newsletter to discuss the complete Seven Ways but I will list them and then explore one or two that seem especially relevant to our times. In focusing on these, I am not assuming our task is to enact these in their original form----or attempt to undertake ceremonies that are particular to a certain people and an historical time. Rather, the task is to examine the principles embedded within them, and to take note of those that seem to be of enduring value. Then in collaboration with our helping Spirits, we develop Ceremonies of Transformation that return us to our 'human selves'...  the human-ness that Creator wove within us as one species within the Sacred Web.

Stepping Forth - or Walking the Agreements

These Seven Sacred Rites are referred to in different terms (depending on translation of the Lakota language). They can be translated as "The Seven Sacred Rites" or "The Seven Sacred Ceremonies" or "The Seven Sacred Ways." Words are important for they carry power and meaning. I refer to these often as "the Seven Sacred Ways" yet sometimes I use Rites or Steps or Ceremonies.

What's important to note is that whatever noun is used (Rites, Steps, Ways, Ceremonies) a verb is implied in the noun. Most indigenous language is verb governed especially among the tribes native to North America. The language of modern cultures is almost completely governed by Nouns. This is an important distinction and unless we are aware of this, we miss the action-taking behavior that is implied in the noun; that is, we miss the verb carried within the noun.

The reason I prefer to use the word 'steps' (rather than Rites, Rituals, or Ceremonies) is because steps implies doing something; steps implies 'stepping' so when the word 'step' falls upon the ear, in the deepest places of our being to which language speaks, we experience the call to move... or to step... and the prompting is given - and received - to now move or step into a particular direction. When we hear that there are 'Seven Steps', deep in our mind we know several actions are now being elicited and purposefulness is also assumed. Although each step has its own integrity, it is the cumulative power that develops when they all are practiced. And though they are spread out over time, sometimes dependent on Season or individual life cycles, all together they address the integrity of the Whole.

In discerning what of White Buffalo Woman's teachings are important for us to remember, and find ways to practice today, it is important to be aware of their totality while knowing that maybe only some (or even none) are Steps for us today. Certainly I think we are being gifted by being reminded of them: there is something important for us in hearing that Buffalo is calling to us, or Buffalo is emerging from the mountains, or this year Iniskim came sliding from the crack between the Worlds.

imgI'm also pleading with those of you fully acquainted with, and fully embracing, White Buffalo Woman's story and the Seven Sacred Rites that She brings. Be patient with others of us as we seek to understand some specific wisdom teachings embedded within the whole story. It is a delicate dance to find meaning in the part while not necessarily embracing the whole but this is the arrow threading through all evolution - whether biological or spiritual. And we are at a critical point in human's spiritual evolution --- we are at a critical point just as were the People when White Buffalo first came to the Plains.

In noting the Seven Sacred Rites, it is important to always bear in mind that these are ceremonies for the whole village - that is, Buffalo Medicine is focused on the ills and the health of everyone - including the larger world within which the People live.

I am listing these Steps in the order they were given - as far as any historical documentation is concerned. Then I will choose the one or two that seem so acutely relevant to us at this time. I am not interested or competent to present some full blown historical document on White Buffalo Woman and/or the Seven Sacred Rites. I am simply taking one story and giving some perspectives on that story for our shamanic community. However how I share this story and the choice of Rites to focus on is not based on my simple self-interest but rather on what I feel is the message coming on the first Winds of Autumn, blowing cross my vision, rousting me and perhaps the rest of you towards preparation for Winter Long.

What's important to remember is the song and the promise that seemed to come from the very breath of this White Buffalo whether wearing her animal hide or her Winter White Womanly garments:

"For you who have lost your footing, for you who walk out of balance, for you whom grief is the habitat of your family, here are the Steps that shall return you and move you to health and the return of your Soul as a People. The Whole Earth aches for your return... and cannot be without you whole. Please come Home... "

The Seven Sacred Rites from White Buffalo Woman:

  • The Keeping of the Soul (Nagi Gluhapi Na Nagi Gluxkapi)
  • Purification or the Sweat Lodge (Inipi)
  • Crying for a Vision or the Vision Quest (Hanblecheyapi)
  • The Sun Dance (Wiwanyag Wachipi)
  • The Making of Relatives (Hunkapi)
  • Preparing for Womanhood or Puberty Rite (Ishna T Awi Cha  Lowan)
  • Throwing the Ball (Tapa Wanka Yapi)

**An historical note: "Throwing of the Ball" was one of the original Seven Rites and was replaced, at some point in the late 1800s with a Healing Ceremony (Yuwipi) that is done for healing and to practice "the seeing way". Many now consider this considered the Seventh Rite. I am listing both because the "Throwing of the Ball" has significant wisdom for our times

The Grief of One Can Cloud the Eyes of Everyone

While meditating on these Seven Rites, I found myself exploring their similarities with major spiritual practices in other cultures around the world.

I was also intrigued with the fact that The Keeping of the Soul is the first step or ceremony that White Buffalo Woman instructed the People to take. Obviously Dying and Death are experiences that all Beings have to address and find ways of recognizing as an event that affects everyone and not just the one who dies at that particular moment or even just one's loved ones.

However, recognizing and announcing this as the first and necessary ceremony to undertake gives it a singular importance. In this particular Rite, upon the death of the individual, not only is there the burial and prayers said for the departing Soul, but some item connected with the one who died, is set aside and tended for a defined period of time. During this time attention is paid to grieving. At the end of a year, the Soul is completely released and understood to have crossed to Elsewhere.

I started thinking about those still living, for these are the ones who do the ceremony, and why is it so important that the living spend a certain amount of time tending the Soul of the dead. That brought me to thinking about the impact of grief upon the living, upon the whole community. I also thought; "how interesting that I am writing about this topic at this time of year. Here we are in the midst of Autumn, Winter is only weeks away. A major teaching for me in my life's journey is that Winter is a most decisive time during which some Beings shall not survive the long Dark."

imgIn Autumn we bring in the Harvest; we set aside supplies for the Winter; and we prepare our shelters to endure the challenges of this season. Preventive measures are taken to ensure our immune systems are active on our behalf. Focusing on this step, I thought, is one way of aligning appropriately with this seasonal shifting now with us --- at least in the Northern Hemisphere.

And why would NOT tending the Soul be seen as such a major threat to the health of a whole People? This question returns me to the issue of loss and grief. How is it that the grief of one, or of several, could threaten the integrity of the whole, of the many?

Grieving for one who died, by its very nature, takes our attention away from the Living and attaches it to the one 'not here' with us. As anyone who has grieved knows, it is terribly difficult to be interested in all the activities around us when we are sickened in heart from our loss. Even things requiring minimal attention sometimes just seem impossible to attend... and we can grow a resentment towards those who want us Present and withdraw ourselves even more. All Peoples recognize and honor some grieving... and all spiritual paths provide for some period of grieving---the major difference among traditions has to do with the length of time allowed before the Call goes out "come to us, come back to us" to the griever.

Lifting of the Grief - Returning to the People

The most instructive understanding of grief comes, for me, from the Iroquois Condolence Ceremony. This is a ceremony proscribed for 'the lifting of grief.' Using contemporary language, basically the one doing the lifting of grief from another, speaks words that indicate why it is so important to 'lift the grief' from another. Preparation for the actual ceremony instructs the grieving one to make a necklace or string of wampum beads. While making this, one is to grieve or reflect upon the cause for the grieving. The ceremony involves using this string or necklace to wipe away or to lift the grief and the effects of grieving.

It is understood that of all human emotions, grief is the one that most blocks us from joining fully in the life of our community, our world around us. It affects all our senses and self-expression. For example, during the ceremony, the one lifting the grief takes the beaded string in his or her hands and then uses that, in a swiping motion, to wipe the tears from the eyes so that one can now 'see' life around and also envision a new world. The obstruction in the ears is removed and lifted away so that one can now hear and listen... to the voices of the living community. The grief caught in the throat is removed and lifted so that one can speak forth again and can speak one's self... while also giving voice for and on behalf of the community. Blockage of the heart is removed and lifted so that one can become newly attached and heart-fully inclined to those around one and to the whole community.

Finally, a profound understanding is rendered in that the memory of the loved one is not removed but rather the memory becomes the basis for a new story... a story of one's self that has taken these memories and uses them as part of the fuel for being Present rather than removed (my heart is 'elsewhere') from the community.

In the Seven Sacred Rites from White Buffalo Woman, all other actions, all other ceremonies, are predicated on this lifting of grief or this condolence ceremony. For how can we move into any new direction or create structures of transformation when we are only partially Here and much of our heart is focused Elsewhere.

In reflecting on this ceremony, I wondered how many of us take time in our lives and in our circles to see if there are others around us who have lost someone or others of us who are stuck in and with our grief for no one has come to offer us such condolences. I wondered for myself, too, have I shared and called for my griefs to be lifted or did I park them in an internal closet somewhere... a closet where I spend attention from time to time. If so, dare I open the doors of my Being and trust my community to help lift my grief - to clean out my closet(s).

Sometimes people share such losses with us or we hear about them from some other person; yet there are also times when such loss occurs and no one else knows for the one grieving has not the desire or energy to so share. It might be useful to consider raising this issue when we gather in our circles whether physically or thru our online communities; that is, let the question be heard: "Have any of us lost someone we love?" since last we gathered. And if we find this to be the case, to then take time for the one grieving to share as fully as possible; to journey and see what ceremony is appropriate, and to be mindful of this loss over the coming months.

In other words, all spiritual paths recognize death as a major event that affects everyone. All spiritual paths recognize the Soul has its own time of moving to Elsewhere and the living have their own time of mourning, of still being 'attached' to the dead; and then comes a time of attachment lessening and eventually a full return to the living. In our shamanic community, are we encouraging and encouraged to tend both the Soul of the Dead and the Souls of the Living... where and how do we manifest this tending?

The Making of Relatives

There are two more, of the seven, steps that seem especially connected with the focus of these three last newsletters:

  • The Making of Relatives (Hunkapi) and
  • Throwing of the Ball (Tapa Wanka Yap)

Together with the Keeping of the Soul, they speak to how  the whole of the community is strengthened and enabled to  take right action. The other four rites focus on practices  whereby the individual takes action, sometimes independent  of anyone else, in order to find vision, to cleanse or purify one's self, or to recognize a new status in the community (e.g.  puberty or becoming a mother). Again, all of these steps are ways of restoring health and spirit but the reason I am focusing on the communal aspects is because these have  become the most neglected in our contemporary world and yet  they are the certain avenues to finding our way to Home again.

Consider, for example, how much the media plays upon our fears of scarcity, our anxious thoughts that others will have while me and my family goes without... as though there is some limited, defined amount of food in the world and a limited supply of love. If there be such a limited amount, then there is a primordial place in each of us that propels us to make sure we have... and Then, perhaps, there is some remaining amount we can share... whether that be of material or non-material items. The perception of limited resources, held over time, inevitably leads to struggles and conflict and a definition of 'who is me' and 'who is not-me or not of mine.' And just as in the White Buffalo Woman story, probably half of the time we will grasp for 'just-for-me and mine" and half the time we shall give thought to "what is there for the People."

And in the midst of this scarcity mind-set comes White Buffalo Woman saying,
  I bring you seven steps to take to restore health, abundance  and prospering of all. One of these steps is to "make  relatives;" that is, to bring together others, to forge  new and strong relationships with others and let this be  manifested by the giving and receiving of gifts, of sharing  food, conversation, and shelter. Thus shall you bond with  others in creating extended family relationship.

imgSuch a message coming, in the midst of scarcity and war would seem to go against all reasonable norms for human survival. Yet it was the taking of these steps, and the results of this step in particular, that led to the forming of many different tribes and peoples into one Nation - that is, what the French labeled the Sioux (composed of 7 different tribes) yet which the tribes themselves translate as we are "the People." By the People, is meant I may speak Lakota, Mandan, Hunkpapa, (etc.) but this is simply the local language of those of us living by River. I am also One with those living near the Mountain or those in the Flat Lands... of all you can see close and beyond me I am One... we are 'the People.'

Some of the changes that occurred from living these Seven Sacred Rites are lost to contemporary consciousness. By the time attention became focused on the Plains Tribes, "the People" were already split up into different groups and severely dislocated, internally and externally, by the conquest of those homelands. However, from our Present Day vantage point, we can imagine what great leaps of human consciousness were made. It would be equivalent for us to forge new bonds and make relatives of those with whom we now compete for resources. It would be for us to make all our decisions based on "every individual is a member of my extended family." I don't assume this was an easy nor ever completely achieved task. The reason it is given as one of the Seven Sacred Rites to be done regularly is based on the recognition this is an ongoing process yet remains the goal. And each of the other rites somehow assists us to transforming a splintered world into a beautifully woven wholeness and holiness.


Shamanic Synchronicity

A few minutes ago, while I was writing the above paragraph, my friend Pirkko, who lives in Indiana, called to share with me a ceremony her Circle is doing today. Part of the ceremony involves the honoring of young mothers. They were also making and providing Corn Dolls. As she shared the activities to be done tonight, I am full of wide-eyed listening. I asked her to write this up, send some photos, and we could put this at the website to share with all of the community. With utter delight and a sense of magic unfolding, I exclaimed to Pirkko: "Your Circle is doing the Fifth Ceremony of White Buffalo Woman!!" and that's exactly what I was writing about when you called. It is the Making of Relatives. Talk about synchronicity!"

imgFor Pirkko is describing the bringing together of women who lived in their greater neighborhood yet were not part of their Circle. And in this gathering, her Circle created baskets of provisions for each woman or mother to have during the coming Cold Winter. Pirkko has her own hope that these previous strangers will come to know their Welcome and perhaps return to future monthly gatherings. This is one of those moments when it's like Spirit rapping on the top of my head and saying "now do you GET IT"... "Carol do you see how important this is... I am giving you all kinds of hints and teachings so that you can see, practice these, and share with others."

So I ask of us again, "Where are we making relatives?" What are we doing with our abundance, as a shamanic community, and extending invitation to others "not of us;" How are we sharing in provisions, in conversations, and in giving and receiving gifts. One of the marvelous teachings in this Step is the recognition that each person is given the call to 'give and to receive'. For those of us with scarce larders, how are we giving? Those of us with full larders, how are we receiving. This implies everyone has enough to give; everyone has enough to receive. I just delight in the understanding that brings me... me with perhaps seeming 'nothing,' has some thing I can give; and me with seeming 'everything' still am asked to receive.

Isn't this simply delightful, trickster-type wisdom... we if can just get it! and live accordingly.

Tossing the Earth Around

My closing remark on the Seven Steps is to focus on the last original one: Throwing of the Ball.

Using a ball filled with Buffalo hair and a Buffalo painted on the outside, the ball would be tossed around, caught, held, tossed. The ball represented the material and spiritual aspects of Earth or of the Universe. There is no predetermination as to whom the ball will be tossed so it requires constant alertness, readiness to receive, readiness to pass on quickly for part of the game is to keep the ball moving rapidly. This is one of those early games, played with delight and laughter and with serious intention for everyone present knew that they were enacting their sacred responsibility to be caretakers or holders of the Earth... they were acknowledging their Ancestors had held and passed on them and now is their time to hold and pass onto their descendants. Buffalo represents this Earth and what they did with Buffalo, they did to the Earth.

imgI have the same feeling now: we are tossing Earth around and it is not a game in which we can afford to drop Earth. Maybe we should create some Earth Balls, get our 'game faces' on, and do some serious practicing while knowing this is for Real.

Interesting enough, this is the last of the Seven Sacred Rites. I've often wondered is that because there is no returning to the first if we don't succeed with catching the Earth ball and/or is it because once we have finished catching and it is time to move on, we resume the other ceremonies that bring us to being able to catch Earth again, move Earth among ourselves, and extend far beyond.

In closing, I want to share with you that writing this monthly newsletter has grown beyond what I originally thought I would be doing. I assumed I'd be writing something regarding the Seasons or Circling activities. Instead I find myself wanting this to be a useful way for us to think together about other serious topics, too, and focus on issues not usually addressed but which have implications both for the understanding and the practice of shamanism. I have opened myself to Spirit and dwell in the seat of the pupil while writing these. I don't know quite where I - or we - are going with this newsletter but that's what it means to be a student. I do know that I am open to focusing, too, on any issue that might be of concern to any one of you.. So, sometimes we may be lead down the path of history and sometimes something altogether different.

And I am preparing another webpage to follow up on points that have been raised in letters to me. We are on a journey together and I hope it is a journey you find useful and enjoyable!

May we enjoy and share the fruits we are given... may we learn all the ways in which we can make relatives, can lift the grief, and toss the Ball.

Love and blessings,

More Information

For more of Carol's writings, you can visit her website www.shamanicvisions.com



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