The legend of the buffalo dance details the ancient hunting habits of the Blackfoot Indians in Montana and their ties to the land they migrated upon. Like many of the plains tribes, the Blackfoot followed the great bison herds. By hunting the buffalo, the Blackfoot gathered food and supplies for living. The typical method of hunting the buffalo involved driving them to the edge of a cliff and sending them over. The animals would die on the rocks below and the tribe could skin them for their hides, butcher their meat and even use sinew and bones for making tools.
On the night before a great hunt, the shaman or tribal medicine man would smoke and offer a prayer of good hunting to the moon and the sun. At dawn, he would dress in buffalo skins and a head dress and dance on the cliff edge to lure the buffalo as other men of the tribe herded them.
The Maiden and the Bison
One year, however, the buffalo wouldn't go over the cliff. They turned away, over and over again. The Blackfoot began to starve. After many moons and no successful hunts, the Blackfoot were weak and growing weaker. A young Maiden set out to gather water, tired and weary, she was surprised to see a herd of buffalo on the cliff overlooking the water hole.
She offered up a sweet prayer to the spirits pleading with the buffalo to just come over the cliff so that her people could be fed. If they would just jump, she would give herself in marriage to whomever they chose. To her utter surprise, the bison leapt over the cliff, crashing into the rocks around her, plenty to feed and clothe her whole tribe.
The tribe celebrated, but the maiden's father quickly realized she was missing. A great bull of the bison had stolen the maiden away, claiming her for his bride per her promise. Her father, a great medicine man, called to the birds and sent them in search of his daughter. They searched the land far and wide, finally spying the maiden amongst the bison.
They bid her meet her father.
She did, but the bison followed and in a fearful stampede, her father perished. Broken hearted, the maiden cried for her father and her bull husband spoke to her. "You mourn the loss of your father, yet your people take our mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters with every hunt. If you can restore his life, then you may both be free."
The maiden searched the trampled mud. Finding a knuckle bone, she carried it with her to the fire. She wrapped it in a robe and began to sing an entreaty to the spirits. She sand and danced throughout the night, until finally she pulled back the robe and revealed her father, healthy and whole.
Her bull husband bowed to the spirits great magic and struck a pack with the Blackfoot. Every year the brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers of the buffalo would give their lives to feed the people of the Blackfoot and every year, the Blackfoot would honor them in song and dance to restore them to the living.
The ritual of life and death continued until the buffalo died out.