“Get ready,” her husband called out to the tribe. “Now we are ready to go around the banuxta’wu!”
So goes out the call to the women at the Arapaho camp that a Buffalo Lodge is being called together. Once her husband had rode around the camp crying out his message, he would have returned to his wife who had made the vow to hold the lodge. Together, they then went around the camp-circle from left to right, entering each tipi and encouraging the women to join her in the ceremony. In her hands, the pledger held a pipe that would bind those who touched it to her vow.
It was actually difficult to persuade the women to join her because the dancers must make payments during the course of the ceremony. Those that agree to dance, accompanied the pledger and her husband with their own husbands as they continued to visit each tipi, looking for more dancers.
The Buffalo Lodge was for all women, married and not, above the age of 15. Certain men were allowed to assist during the ceremonies and a medicine man was in charge but, for the most part, this lodge and it’s associated ceremonies were strictly for the women. According to the historian Kroeber, it was mostly young women who agreed to join the dance, which involved four days of dancing and racing.
Once the dancers were gathered, a lodge was put up in the center of the camp-circle made of seven tent poles tied together with a rope of buffalo skin. A painted red digging stick was placed across the poles near the top and the other tent poles rested against this brace. Two poles were painted black and placed at the northeast and southwest to represent night and two poles were painted red and placed at the northwest and southeast to represent day. Three to four skin tent coverings were used to cover the poles with the entrance facing the east. The people at the camp contributed all the materials for the lodge.
The pledger of the dance was the highest ranked of the dancers and known as the “white woman”. She was painted white to represent a bull buffalo. Her headdress fell well beneath her shoulders and the white weasel skin hide was covered with either white swan feathers or goose down.
Second in rank was the “owner-of-the-tent-poles” who represented an old bull leading the herd. She wore a buffalo cap headdress painted white with decorated horns. The cap covered her forehead and fell below her neck.
The third rank were known as “red-stand” and the fourth rank, as the “white-stand”. Both these ranks wore leather headbands painted either red or white and stuffed with tobacco. They were decorated with 18 feathers (eagle, flicker and owl) mounted on sharp sticks and set in at regular intervals. These headbands represented rattlesnakes and were decorated with quill embroidery.
Two little girls were selected, painted yellow and known as the “calves”. The rest of the dancers were either painted white to represent the bulls or yellow to represent the cow buffalo. They wore white headbands to represent snakes and walked with two sticks. Each girl was accompanied by their mother who represented a buffalo cow with calves.
The rest of the dancers wore buffalo caps painted either yellow for the cows or white for the bulls. All the dancers had eagle bone whistles and wore wide belts decorated with quill embroidery and buffalo tails and hide.
Each morning of the dance, the dancers face was painted red, the chin was blackened and in the corner of their mouth was painted with small black horns. A black dot was painted on the center of their nose to represent a buffalo calf. The “calves” were both painted yellow and the pledger was painted white.
Each woman has a grandmother who guided her through the ceremony and taught her what needed to be done. The grandmothers, in turn, were guided by an old man (or men). These men represented the first man who brought the dance to the Arapaho after he saw it performed supernaturally by the buffalo.
After the lodge had been erected, the old man directing the ceremony entered, followed by the “owner-of-the-tent-poles”. She represented a bull leading in her herd and the rest of the women followed her into the lodge. They sang as they marched around the tent, their movements imitating that of the buffalo.
The old man moveed a pipe four times toward the earth, each time spitting medicine. On the fourth motion, he touched the ground where he spit. After this, the owner-of-the-tent-poles would then strike down with an ax four times and cut out the ground.
For the next two days, the regalia was being made by each women’s “grandmother” inside the lodge. The old woman would be advised by their husbands and whenever they do not know how to proceed, the grandmother paid an old man for the information. Meanwhile, the participants danced without their regalia.
The white-woman had a bed made for her at the back of the lodge and laid down on it, not allowed to move during the entire ceremony unless ordered to do. If she needed to move, her relatives paid the old man in charge. She abstained from water and food during the entire ceremony.
The calves also were not allowed to move and when they did, their parents had to pay gifts to the old people in charge. Many parents had been stripped of all their property during this ceremony and so not many people allowed their daughters to be calves.
On the third day, the dancers put on their full regalia. They danced, facing their grandmothers who danced first and whom they imitated, each women blowing on a whistle. They danced in order of their rank and for the finale, danced in a circle. Afterwards, the women strung out like a herd of buffalo and walked around the camp-circle four times from left to right before returning to their places inside the lodge.
The owner-of-the-tent-poles, representing the old bull, would have led her herd with the two calves at the end of the procession. During the march, all the women blew their whistles with a long, continuous sound and the old men sang and shook their rattles.
After this march around camp, the women removed their regalia and continued to represent a buffalo herd, now with the entire tribe watching on. They walked in a circle to the first song and by the fourth song, they were running fast. At the end of the song, the women rushed off to a stream near the lodge in a race. The one who reached the water and drank from it first, is called a good cow.
The women continue to act like buffalo and in another part of the ceremony, leave the lodge and run around the camp-circle, acting and walking as if they are in a herd. When buffalo dung was lit, they would act frightened and run back to the safety of the lodge.
At this time, two “buffalo-hunters” would follow them into the lodge with their bows and count coup by shooting one of the buffalo woman who had buffalo fat stuffed under her belt. She would pretend to die and the men would go through the motions of cutting her up and taking out the buffalo fat.
Night time was the other time men, aside from the old men assisting and directing the ceremony, were allowed in the lodge to watch the dancing. The Buffalo Lodge was considered more sacred than the boys’ lodges and ranked, according to Kroeber’s estimation, with the men’s dog-dance.
The Buffalo Dance was last performed in the late 1800’s and disappeared as reservation life changed the tribe’s society. Today, a few artifacts remain from this sacred ceremony of the women’s lodge which was once held in such high regard among the Arapaho people.
This information was taken from The Arapaho by Alfred L. Kroeber, pgs 210-226