In the Presence of a Sacred Transition

Published May 20, 2018

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. – An early morning phone call came, one I would typically never answer. But, for some reason, that morning, I did. She said, “There’s a mama buffalo, stuck in the fence, or trying to give birth.” Patrols alerted. What can we do? Bring tools to cut the fence. I wasn’t even supposed to be here today, but a journey was cancelled. We get there, our other patrol already there with the Sheriff and the local Montana Department of Livestock agent. The fence she was under has been cut, but she’s still struggling. She wasn’t stuck. She is dying. A year ago, the authorities would have already shot her and drug her unceremoniously to the dump, no mercy, no compassion. Not today. Mama buffalo still there, on the ground, struggling and thrashing, trying to bring forth a new life that will not come.

Elder buffalo, pregnant buffalo, breech baby not coming. She is dying. The sheriff and DOL agent standing there, not making a move, allowing us to come to her. I go to the fence, just feet away from her, feeling her struggle and her pain, wanting to comfort her. My sister Justine arrives just then, she comes to me, embraces me, crouching with this buffalo. I have a burning desire to lay my hands on her. I want to go to her and say so to Justine. “Okay, let’s go,” she says. We walk over to her, away from her kicking hooves, to her grand, enormous head. I reach out, not yet knowing how she will respond. I lay my hands on her head. Justine reaches out, too. We were told that she grew calmer when we did this, that before she was much more uneasy and afraid. We stroke her woolly fur, speaking softly to her, letting her know she can do it if she wants to, or she is free to let go. We are here, we will be here to help take care of her family. She is ancient. Her horns so smooth and blunt, like petrified wood. The curve worn down and gone from them.

We realize in the moment we have known this mama since she was just a wee calf herself, and now, we keep vigil with her, now in her old age, trying to bring one last life into this world. It’s not going to happen. We all know this. She knows this, too, but she never stops trying. Speaking so softly to her, loving her, trying to ease her struggle. I bring some sage and we burn it for her. The smoke goes into her nostrils as she draws deep breath after breath. Our hands on her fine, huge head; a head full of the wisdom of the ancients. This buffalo — from the Central herd — she has survived so much! So much! Years and years of relentless hazing; she has avoided capture in both the Hebgen and Gardiner Basins; she has survived the hunter’s rifle. She has brought her family, given birth to many calves, to their traditional calving grounds on Horse Butte — now a place where she can be at peace. No hazing. No slaughter. Raise your children in peace. This last child will not come, though, and she will go with her.

Photo by Mark Wolf – Buffalo Field Campaign

We sing her songs of thanks and praise. Breathe with her, just be with her in death as we were with her in all her years of life. With the sheriff and DOL agent allowing this. Never before would this ever happen. They not only allow it, they, too stand in reverence. Something is shifting. Attitudes are adjusting. The buffalo have been talking and people are starting to listen and hear. The sheriff gently alerts us that there are buffalo coming in behind us. We look, and there’s a family group approaching. The dying mama continues thrashing, trying to bring forth this life that will not come. We stand back to allow the buffalo to come to her. Still close, still with her.

The yearlings and other youngsters are concerned with her thrashing and flee. Their mom comes in, not too close, but close enough to know and pay her respects. Another group comes. Same thing, but this mom approaches a little closer still, reverential communication. The thrashing gets weaker. Another family comes, this lead mom comes in and she does not walk away. She beds down near her.

Justine has to leave. Others ask if we are leaving, too, and I say “no, I’m not leaving her.” The feeling of needing to be with her is so strong, so powerful and sacred. A few feet away now, space for her buffalo relative bedded down close by. Cindy comes to my side. She, too, has known this mama since she was a wee calf, and she has recently lost her own mother, kept vigil as she was dying. This day is holy and profound and we feel we have walked between the worlds. We sit together and hear the buffalo’s breath change. A death rattle grunt. We know it’s not long now. The thrashing loses energy, and with one final long stretch, she lets go. We see her life go out, into the Universe. We go back to her once more in prayer and thanks.

She continues to give herself. Her body went to feed grizzly bears, wolves, and raptors, and her seat of wisdom, her massive, gracious head, has a place of honor with us, holding sacred space, watching to the west, to where her family in generations to come will venture forth and refill the Madison Valley and beyond, with the rumble of the sacred herds.

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