Spirits in the mists

It was in the month we call winds of the white buffalo, and the smell of deer meat cooking on the fire pit was heavy. The hunt was good and much-needed, for winter surely was almost upon us. Every morning when I awoke to help with the fire pit, the forest looked like it has been painted with ice. This meant the snows were soon to be upon us. But for the moment, it seemed far away.

My brothers and I knew we needed to hunt for meat and hide for warm clothing. So we gathered at the fire of blessing to keep us safe and have a good hunt. It was also a time that we could talk and be carefree for a while, for we knew the cold was an enemy that was hard to fight. So laughter was good, and the stories of our fathers and their fathers gave us the courage and strength we needed.

We decided to go in groups of two or three for a hunting party to increase our chances for more meat. I ended up alone because no brother wanted to hunt with me. At first it bothered me, but I knew my father hunted alone many times and always brought home a fine kill. I always listened to his stories and learned from them. I was very confident that I could do the same. As the sun rose, we gathered together, wished each other well and went our separate ways.

I was going where my father had always hunted, well into the open, where the buffalo knew there was still food to be found. It was a big challenge for one man, but I was sure I would succeed. It was two suns and two moons before I came to the feeding grounds. I made myself a shelter and slept, knowing I needed all my strength and a sharp mind. As I slept, I dreamt of making a fine kill - the biggest buffalo of all. I would have such pride that I could accomplish this. But dreams end as the mind comes to life. I awoke and made a meal and prayed for the food we needed. The ground was starting to freeze and the cold winds were strong that day, but my desire to hunt kept me warm. It was near nightfall when I saw the tracks of many buffalo. My blood raced with energy. The tracks were fresh so I had no problem following them. They led me right to a part of my life I will never forget.

As I approached the clearing there were what appeared to be smoke and clouds; but as I stood and watched, I saw white buffalo - they were spirit buffalo like nothing I had ever seen. They were as big as trees with eyes black as night and bodies made of the clouds. They pawed the ground, their nostrils wide open and blowing clouds that became other buffalo. I stood as if rooted to the ground, not believing my own eyes. Then, out of the mist that surrounded them, the largest buffalo of all approached me. His feet never touched the ground, yet the earth shook. Before I knew it, he stood before me. I looked up, found my courage and gave a greeting to him. ''I am Smoke Dancer, my brother. I am on a hunt for my people. May I ask who you are?''

The animal pawed the ground and, as he did, a story began. It was like I was looking at a time past, hunters on a hunt killing beautiful white buffalo. Not one of them stood. Then, the vision vanished.

''Why do you show me this?'' I asked. The answer came quickly.

''We are the spirits of the white buffalo. All you see here is what you saw in the past, for there are only a few of us left. We have waited long to choose a protector. You, Smoke Dancer, have been chosen to teach your people and all people to protect the white buffalo, for one day there will be a special one and the future lies within it. We still watch over the lands and protect many things. Mother Earth never let anything truly die. Will you do our teaching?''

''Yes,'' I answered. ''Yes, I will. I did not realize there are only a few of the white buffalo left.''

The large animal pawed the earth again and all the others disappeared.

''It is time for us to go, but we will meet again to celebrate the lives of the white buffalo that will be free to live without fear and in the future. Thank you, Smoke Dancer, my brother.''

Before me, he turned to mist and vanished.

I am an old man now, but I know before my time is gone we will meet again. I know I will see that special white buffalo and I will smile; and I will not be the only one, for I know the smiles of all the people who will be smiling, too. All we need is patience.

Lim Lim.

Ken ''Rainbow Cougar'' Edwards, from the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington state, is an accomplished painter and storyteller. Edwards is a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., and a longtime cartoonist for Indian Country Today.