Lessons from the Buffalo:
The Plains Indians provide an exemplary model of the proper relationship between the warrior and society.
To the Plains Indians the buffalo was a totem, a spirit, a god. It was the source of food, clothing, shelter, tools and weapons, personal, sacred and religious items — all that sustains life. Living in close proximity, in the same demanding environment and dependent on it for survival, the Plains people studied the buffalo’s behavior, qualities and social organization. As the people’s model for living well, the buffalo gave all and the people worshipped, studied, emulated — and ate.
The people observed that the buffalo were brave, strong and stubborn. They never gave up but always plowed forward into difficult weather or dangerous conditions. Against hunters and the elements they showed courage, endurance and determination and would sacrifice themselves to protect their herd.
The people also observed how buffalo cared for each other and protected their young and vulnerable against threats and predators. During the buffalo hunt, the herd would push its calves into the center. The cows ran forming a protective ring around them. Then bulls ringed the cows, older bulls ringing the younger bulls as well to keep them moving forward rather than turning against their aggressors. Old bulls, like old warriors, declared through action, “I am expendable. Save the young ones. I offer myself first.”
When a buffalo was injured, its herd did not stampede away but gathered around their injured member to try to help and protect it. Buffalo lived not for themselves but for each other.
The structure of society and the warrior’s character traits and place in the community were modeled on this buffalo behavior. When danger threatened his people, the warrior’s proper place was in a protective outer circle around the village. As long as he was able, the older or more experienced the warrior, the farther out he strove to be. Young warriors and bulls had to be restrained and trained until they were experienced and mature enough to not waste lives but provide leadership.
Inside the circle the civilians had been protected and sometimes owed the warriors their lives. Now the civilians gave thanks, honor and duty through tending their returning warriors. They became a circle of welcome. They witnessed their stories, grieved or celebrated with them, attended to their necessary purification and healing rituals. In mainstream society the survivor becoming a misunderstood outcast; in indigenous healing “the man of the dreary edge becomes the center.”[i] As among the buffalo, when a member of the tribe was injured or fallen, the rest of the tribe would surround him offering aid and protection. After battle the concentric circles reversed; the civilians on the outside tended their warriors within. In this way both circles were renewed, the camp’s interdependent social organization remained intact, warriors were restored and civilians gave back, everyone was cared for.
Indigenous peoples recognized and practiced this unspoken yet inherent social contract: when the people are threatened, the proper relationship of warrior to civilians is in the protective outer ring of concentric circles. When danger passes and warriors return, the circles reverse. The citizenry’s task is to receive, support, tend and initiate the warrior in gratitude and honor for the sacrifices made and protection rendered. In a healthy social order, warriors and societies exist in concentric and interchangeable circles of protection.
Just as ethical warriorhood necessitates moral service, warrior return necessitates tending by a grateful and supportive society that recognizes and utilizes the transformations warriors have undergone in life-affirming ways. Without this reciprocal social contract, warriors experience betrayal and abandonment and civilians remain isolated, frightened, ignorant and in moral and spiritual debt.
[i] Earl Shorris, The Death of the Great Spirit, New York: Signet, 1972, 45.