Teachings from the buffalo

The buffalo was a lot of work and required a good deal of attention. I hoped to have it around for a long time, and so I gave it a name, William. Looking back, I’m glad I named him. Not only had he once been a beautiful, young, wild creature living outside of Behchoko, but he was also a precious gift, and a wise teacher.

It was late May and still quite chilly. My furnace wouldn’t start, so I called a repairman. At the time, my little trailer was filled to capacity with William, my buffalo hide, which I had gotten from a Dene elder through a friend of mine. I had finished scraping the hide, which was lashed to a large eight-by-eight-foot frame and was now leaning up on an angle across my living room for temporary storage.

When the repairman arrived, he barely managed to squeeze past the frame and then immediately set to work on the furnace. He quickly found the problem and as he was explaining that the ignition nozzle needed replacing, I realized that he had not said a single word about the buffalo hide. In fact he’d acted as if it weren’t even there.

“You aren’t surprised to find a buffalo hide in the living room?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said, continuing to work. “I’ve lived up north for a while. Used to live in Coppermine. Seen lots of strange things in people’s houses… lots of animals in the living room – people cutting up whole carcasses.”

“Like what?” I asked, more surprised by his answer than he was by my question.

“Seals, rabbits, even a whole caribou. People don’t do things the traditional way anymore. Why work outside in the cold when you can work inside where it’s warm?”

Aha! I thought, feeling bolstered by this revelation. Bringing wild animal parts inside the house is not weird. It’s just a sensible northern thing to do.

Until now, the only comments I had heard were from friends. While they were in support of my project to tan and paint my own buffalo robe, they also thought it was strange to bring the buffalo into my house. But I was in the midst of brain-tanning it, which is a natural tanning method using the animal’s brain for softening the hide, and I didn’t want to leave it outside where dogs, wolves, ravens or some other animal might want to chew on him.

Later that same week, as I was relaxing and brushing William’s thick plush fur, a story I had come across at the library seven years earlier, when I first arrived north, suddenly came to mind. It was a Dene creation myth, but it was unlike others that I had read. As I recall, the myth was that human beings were created first. Then some of them chose to sacrifice themselves in order to provide for others. They agreed to be transformed into trees and animals, so that other humans could survive. That was the story and for some reason, it had remained lodged in my head.

As I sat with William, all at once I felt imbued with the meaning of that myth. It was what my dream was trying to tell me – a dream I was given on the same morning I began to work on William several weeks earlier. At the time, I was worried about tanning the hide myself, so the dream felt like I was being given permission, but now I knew there was much more to it than that.

In the dream, a group of people of all ages is on the top floor of a house. It is one large, bright, open room, empty of furnishings. There are two friendly young animals frolicking amongst us. One is an ordinary domestic dog. The other is an unusual wild buffalo – more like a walking buffalo hide than a real buffalo.

Eventually, both animals approach me. While playing with dogs is nothing out of the ordinary, I am not familiar with how to interact with the buffalo. The buffalo seems to understand this and helps me out. It motions sideways with his eyes, indicating that it’s okay for me to touch it. I pet its side. It’s pleased, so I rub its head and shoulders. I can tell it’s happy, so I’m happy. Later, I notice that there is now a chair in the centre of the room. Seated on it is an elegant and handsome man. I know he is a symbol of love. The room radiates with warmth and light.

As I sat brushing William, all at once the dream, the myth, and the buffalo all fit seamlessly together and I was overcome with a powerful feeling of gratitude and love. The awareness came flooding through me – not through my head, but through my heart.

Tears began to stream from my eyes, and I knew. The buffalo was a gift. It came in love and was happy to give its life. In turn, I would love and care for it. We were grateful for one another. The world was one big room. Everything roamed freely. The upper floor was consciousness and awareness. There were no belongings or furniture because nothing in the world belongs to anyone. And yet the room was full. It was full of love and joy and sharing.

And then I understood. The Dene story of creation was a story of love too – for it is through love that one is willing to sacrifice oneself for the lives of others. In the beginning, the whole world was love and everything in it was a gift of love. The myth was a reminder: of this knowledge, of love and respect, and of the fact that we are sisters and brothers with all of life. This was the myth and wisdom of the ancient culture of the Dene. This was life when the world was new.

As a Dene Elder told me soon after, “When you know something, and it isn’t just in your head, but it hits your heart, that’s when it’s solid.”

Mahsi to the buffalo for this gift… this gift of love.

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