Copyright © 2002 by Rick Talbot, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.
This story is an allegorical treatment of the interactions between North American aboriginal spirituality/culture and North American popular (European derived) culture. Specifically, it deals with appropriation and alteration of aboriginal spiritual ideas by non-aboriginals.
What alterations take place? One example is the popular use of terms such as "mother earth" in New Age literature. Here the aboriginal "earth-mother" is transformed from a genealogical relationship into a form of goddess-worship.
Western society relies on possession of material objects to judge the worth of a person. This is an additional factor in the misunderstanding of aboriginal spirituality by Western people, as they try to adapt a religious system based on non-material society.
The symbolisms of cow and Buffalo are based on ideas presented by Dr. Donald Blais (University of Toronto), where the Buffalo is powerful, spiritual and individualistic, and the cow is a dull animal with no inclination toward independent thought. We know that the Plains Indians (sic) have a strong spiritual relationship with the Buffalo.
On a side note it is interesting that the Plains Buffalo, Bovidae Bison bison bison, can interbreed with the domestic cattle, Bovidae Taurus, yielding an offspring that is commercially known as Beefalo (sic).
Let us consider these words spoken by Lame Deer, from his book Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions:
"So I don't mind a young white man with long hair and a beaded headband coming to me, asking to learn about our Indian religion, even praying with us. But I would mind it if he tried to change our beliefs, adapt them to his kind of culture, progress, civilization. . . . You can't take our beliefs out of the Badlands and prairies and put them into one of your factories or office buildings." (New York, Washington Square Press, 1994: 168)
Total Bull and the Buffalo: (A Tale from the Pastureland)
Total Bull returned to his stall in the suburbs after a particularly bullish day at the office. "What a day that was! I got so much work done, but I feel incredibly unaccomplished." Total Bull wondered about this, and about the feeling of emptiness in his stomachs. "Mmm... Haven't chowed-down for a few hours." He went to the kitchen, where his wife had just finished cooking some vegetable lasagne. "Oh, my lovely wife, I'm so happy to see you!"
"Don't lovely wife me! You're late! Where have you been?"
Total Bull sat down at the table and began to eat from the trough of food, which his wife had placed in front of him with a grunt. "I'm sorry. We all had to stay late at the office to work on the new advertising campaign."
"Well, I'm glad that you're home," she said hesitantly and, Total Bull thought, almost sarcastically.
After finishing his meal, his stomachs felt a little better. He told his wife that he still felt a strange feeling of emptiness, which the food had not cured. It was as if he was hungry, but in a way that he had never felt before. In response she batted some Rolaids(r) at him and gruffly hoofed out of the room.
When she returned, Total Bull told his wife that he was going on a trip, and that she should take messages for him. She readily agreed. Before he left, she asked him if he would like to take some flat cut-out cow cookies that she had baked. He thought that it would be nice to have some two-dimensional cows to accompany him on his journey, and so he put three into a hermetically sealed Ziploctm bag. His wife wished him a good journey, and with a snide look of disgust she sharply closed the door as he left - but not after first giving him a warm slobbery kiss.
Now Total Bull went to a place that he had heard of some time ago, although he had never paid it much attention. It was a place to encounter the "inner-self." He found himself in a square room with other bovines who, much like him, sat apart from each other with a blank look in their eyes. The meeting started and the group leader, who was wearing a lavish suit designed by Cowvin, spoke confidently. "Welcome brothers and sisters. You have come here because you are missing something, and I am here to help you discover what that thing is." This creature immediately impressed Total Bull. "Let us all sit in a circle and join hooves, and then we can tell us about each other." They all did so, and each bovine in turn told the rest about his or her own life. Then the leader told them how to visualize their own spiritual wholeness in order to gain success in business and love. Finally, he said that the meeting was over until next week, and if he could have his twenty dollars from everyone please. Total Bull reluctantly gave him the money, but he didn't really feel that he had gotten twenty dollars closer to finding what he was missing.
On the way out of the building, he treaded by a bulletin board. He noticed an advertisement tacked on the board. It read: "Are you tired of New Age encounter sessions that don't get you any closer to one-ness?" He wasn't tired of them, as it had only been his first session, but he could see that at twenty dollars a pop, he would tire rather quickly. He continued to read the ad: "Come to the medicine wheel ceremonies of Light Beer. Learn the traditional ways of healing the self. - Sponsored by the Upper Holstein County New Age Society." This seemed interesting! Total Bull thought that if he looked at the traditional way of doing things that he would have a better chance of finding what he was missing. He noticed the location of the event, and realized that he would have to stampede in order to get there on time and secure a place.
When he arrived at the rear of the Bingo Hall, he sat with the other bulls and cows who were sitting inside a circle of flaps. Light Beer was in the middle, and he spoke to the gathered herd. "This ring of flaps is our medicine wheel. It is a place of gathering and healing. Using the medicine wheel and assorted crystals, we can help ourselves to understand better who we are and to guide our journey to spiritual wisdom."
It was then that Total Bull realized that Light Beer was not livestock, but Buffalo. He was amazed that standing there before him was a real live Buffalo. He always thought that Buffalo were a thing of the past. Light Beer explained that "My people, the Buffalo, believe that the Creator made all things, and that all things have their own sacredness." Total Bull listened ever so intently. "The flaps that you are sitting on have power of their own, the power that was given to them by the Creator, Waka-Waka."
Total Bull paid close attention as The Buffalo-man explained that his people believed all things had a spirit, and all living creatures had a right to live on this planet. He said, "Because of the ways of bovine society, our mother earth has been injured. Whenever you cut trees, or mine metals, or hunt for sport, you assault mother earth. Now she is paying you back." Total Bull understood when Light Beer explained that this was the reason why people were getting sick.
Light Beer spread his arms out in a gesture. The beads on his necklaces rattled against each other, and his tie-dyed shirt lifted over his ample tenderloin. "This is why many of you domesticated cattle feel emptiness. You are out of touch with mother earth, and therefore with the Creator." Light Beer gave more demonstrations of his people's ways. "Use all of what I have shown you as a way to change how you live. Only by changing the way you live can you come back into favour with mother earth." Total Bull was completely shocked.
Light Beer ended the gathering and went inside his Winnebago RV. Total Bull sat in silence as the other cattle began to mosey-off. He could hear their moos as they vowed to change their ways, and to get in touch with the sacredness of the earth. As they sauntered away they discussed the universal presence of "Walkin' Talkin'," and others spoke of the great powers of "Willy Wonka," and rambled about the kindness of "Honky Tonkin." It seemed to Total Bull that if the other cattle couldn't remember the name of the Creator, Waka-Waka, then they could not follow the traditions taught by Light Beer.
Total Bull was still sitting on his medicine wheel flap long after every bovine had left. He heard a door creak open - Light Beer had squeezed through the doorway of his trailer. "Why are you still here, domesticated-livestock friend?" asked the plastic Buffalo-man.
"Because," began Total Bull, "I am missing something, and I want to have it." Light Beer smiled at the steer and took a seat next to him.
"My friend, it is good that you are looking for that which you are missing." The Buffalo laid a hoof on Total Bull's shoulder, and offered him some of his bottle of Red Enginetm. "But you can't just 'have' it."
Total Bull was confused. "I don't understand. If I am missing something, and not having it makes me feel so empty, then doesn't it stand to reason that I should have the thing that fills my emptiness?"
Light Beer, always the intelligent elder Buffalo, laughed and said, "Bull, the problem with your people is that you want to acquire everything here-and-now. No patience with you cattle. Now listen. What you are looking for you can only gain through time. You can not get it quickly, nor can you own it."
Total Bull understood, and asked, "What do I do, Light Beer?"
Light Beer, dressed comfortably in his Cherokee jeans, relaxed and stretched out. "I think that the emptiness that you feel is your lack of communication with Waka-Waka. Did you know that the eagle has the most powerful voice of any animal?"
"Well it does. And look at how the eagle lives. It flies high, and it is free."
The steer nodded in understanding. Light Beer added, "You know, if you could be free like the eagle, going where you want, flying with the wild winds, you would come to understand things more easily. Waka-Waka comes to us most naturally this way."
Total Bull replied, "But I have a job and a mortgage! I can't be free as a bird."
The Buffalo heaved a heavy sigh. "It is true. The domesticated-livestock creatures are not free. Stop trying to control everything. Hey, did you know that the French for mortgage means pledge until death?"
"That's about when I'll pay it off," Total Bull said sarcastically. "But what do I do now?"
"First, switch to an accelerated weekly payment plan. You can shave years off your mortgage. Then go and find a copy of The Wealthy Grazer. It's full of tips about making money work for you, rather than you working for your money!"
"Wow, thanks Light Beer! How do you know all this stuff?"
"How do you think I could afford the wide screen television in my '95 Winnebago Chieftain?"
"Mmm..." Total Bull said in mixed awe.
"Listen, you have to leave the path that you are on. The Upper Holstein New Age cattle take what I teach them and go home feeling good about themselves."
"Isn't that a good thing?"
"Sure it is. But these bovines will misuse my teachings."
"I don't understand."
"Well, think of it this way. You can be like most of the Upper Holsteins and learn about the eagle, then go home and just think about the eagle, while still living like a pigeon. Or you can try to live more like the eagle, and then begin to really understand what it means to be an eagle."
"I still don't get it."
"That's okay. You'll figure it out for yourself one day. Just don't go and open a Buffalo-themed bookstore, okay?"
Not understanding Light Beer's last remark, Total Bull continued, "Are you happy about teaching cattle?"
Light Beer smiled. "I love it. Even if only one or two from each group goes away with a simple understanding, then it's worth it."
Total Bull shook the Buffalo's hoof. "Thank you, Light Beer, I know what I have to do now." He said.
Light Beer stood in silence for a few seconds, then said, "Ummm... Of course I do!"
"And once I've learned the Buffalo ways, then I will find what I'm missing."
"Let me tell you something. I once had a student who learned much from me. I taught him about our ways, and I thought that I could do as good a job as one of the holy bulls. I was wrong. I told him about the power of deer antler, which could cure impotence in bulls. This was a secret, and I was demonstrating to him my faith in him. Well, his old ways took over once he realized the money he could make on antler powder. There is this 'natural remedy' now, made by one of the big companies. And he, this wealthy bull, who used to be my student, is now a real Frankfurter. Would you do this to me?"
"I've never been in a situation like that before. I don't know how I would act."
Light Beer considered this, and said, "At least you are honest. That is a rare thing to have in a domestic bull. Go out to the Buffalo Preserve and visit Sage, and tell him I sent you."
"Thank you, friend." said Total Bull as he stood up.
"Before you go, I see that you have cut-out cookies in cow shapes. Why don't we share them together?"
Total Bull thought that this was a good idea. He gave one cow cookie to Light Beer, and ate one himself. He quickly felt the hunger in his stomachs become satisfied by the cookie. It was more filling than it looked. After sharing this light snack with Light Beer, he left the Bingo Hall and headed for the Buffalo Preserve.
Total Bull arrived at the Buffalo Preserve in the early morning. He found the dwelling of Sage. It was a small two-room shanty. It had no electricity and no hot water. Total Bull was amazed at how a Buffalo could live in such poor conditions.
Sage answered the knock at his door. He looked into Total Bull's eyes for a second, and then nodded. "Come in, you have much to learn."
"Yes. Especially considering that Light Beer sent you."
"How did you know that?"
"By the look on your face. You expected a mystical, stoic Buffalo who speaks in short phrases." Sage paused then said, "Par example: Me mystic Buffalo.... You come in now.... Tell Sage, great chief, why you here...."
"Excuse me?" asked Total Bull in a perplexed manner.
"Ha ha! How many cattle think that's how we talk? Seriously!... I like you, bovine! Now come in and have a seat."
Total Bull went inside the shanty and sat in one of two chairs. Sage sat in the other one. "Talk to me," said the old Buffalo, wiping drool from his weak old mouth.
"Why did you say that I have a lot to learn, 'especially' considering that Light Beer sent me?"
"Did you see the new Playbull, with that naked figure grazer, Cowina Witt?"
"No. Why did you say 'especially' considering..."
"She's one hot sirloin, for a cow that is. Still nothing like a Buffalo female though."
"Why did you say 'especially'..."
"I'll tell you, if you want to know how lovin' is meant to be, you've got to find yourself a Buffalo female. Those cows just don't have it."
"Why did you say..."
"I'm hungry, can I have your cookie?"
Total Bull, not understanding the methods of Sage, but understanding that he was a great Buffalo, and also not wanting to be rude, gave him his last cookie. "Mmmm.... Yummy," said the old Buffalo.
"Now you've given away your last cookie, and so you've demonstrated yourself to be a generous steer. See, cattle tend to give only if they may get something in return, and I don't think that you were expecting anything. In our tradition we Buffalo don't expect anything in return, but because we all give to each other, none of us ever goes without."
Sage stood and paced around the shanty for a minute or two. He scratched at his rump and adjusted his shirt. "I'll sum up for you why you have a lot to learn. First, Light Beer is a good Buffalo, but he doesn't teach traditional ways."
"I know that," said Total Bull. "He only teaches some of them."
"No, Light Beer doesn't teach any of our traditions. This is because he is trying in his own way to get the bovines to change their ways."
"He told me that was his goal," added Total Bull.
"Yes, and he does this by co-opting the traditional teachings in a way that can be used by cattle in their society. But then they're no longer traditional teachings."
Total Bull wasn't quite following. "I'm not quite following you."
"Light Beer teaches for the, ahh... what are they called?"
"The Upper Holstein County New Age Society."
"That's right, and see, the Upper Holstein County New Age Society already has its own ideas about what Buffalo traditions are like."
"Does Light Beer teach them what they want to hear?"
The old Buffalo leaned against his chair and sighed. "Not exactly. It's more that they only graze what they want to graze from his teachings."
"That doesn't sound so good."
"It's not. If they were really learning the traditional ways, there wouldn't be so many Buffalo-themed bookstores these days."
"Well, I swear I'll never open one!"
"Good! Besides, that market is saturated. Now, what the Upper Holsteins learn they strip of its original meaning because they do not learn it in the context of trying to live a Buffalo life. You know, you can be a plow ox, or you can just pull a plough around all day - but I don't think that you'll learn much about what it means to be a plow ox by doing that. In this way, the Buffalo life and spirituality are one in the same thing for us Buffalo, and they can't be separated." Sage sat down and put his hooves on the table. "Because they don't understand this, they change the ideas that they have learned and give new meanings that fit with their current medicine bag of beliefs."
"I saw it happening as they were leaving Light Beer's gathering. They were already making wind, and changing the current of what he said."
"The worst part though, is that they forgot the fact that their ancestors are the ones who put us on the Preserves. We can make them feel good about themselves, but they're still in denial about our being concentrated on rancheros."
"Yes, I know," said Total Bull sadly. "But what can I do to change anything?"
The old Buffalo, tired from the discussion, leaned back in his chair and pondered. "You could stay here and learn the ways from us. Become one of us. It does happen. There are even books written by bulls who have chosen to live in the Buffalo way. You can find one at ..."
"A Buffalo-themed book store?" interrupted Total Bull, who cringed, and with distaste belched from his second, third and fourth stomachs.
"Yes," replied Sage as he began to smile. "You have learned much already. So, will you stay?"
Sadly Total Bull had to refuse. "I'm sorry friend, but I have a wife, a job, and there's a new calf on the way. I have to go home."
"That's too bad."
Total Bull thought about his situation. "I'll write to you from my home. I need to find the thing that I'm missing inside, and I think you have helped me."
"Alright," said the old Buffalo. "I'll be looking forward to your mail."
* * *
Total Bull returned to his home and his job. Although the demands of cow society weighed heavily upon his shoulders, he corresponded extensively with Sage for many years.
One day Total Bull received word that Sage had died. He was truly saddened at this news and went out to the Preserve for the funeral. The grandchildren of Sage were there, and when he made his eulogy, they were moved by the love and admiration that this bull demonstrated. They decided to adopt Total Bull into their clan. He was adopted as a Buffalo, and visited the Preserve to be with his new Buffalo brothers and sisters as often as possible. On the day of his adoption, his new family gave Total Bull a new name: "Totally Cool Bull."
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