What Is “Tatanka”?

In the Lakota language, the word “tatanka” is translated as “buffalo” or “buffalo bull.” However, according to native Lakota speakers, the literal translation is something more like “He who owns us.” Lakota elder Birgil Kills Straight explains it this way:

“The four leggeds came before the two leggeds. They are our older brother, we came from them. Before them, we were the root people. We came from them. We are the same thing. That is why we are spiritually related to them. We call them in our language “Tatanka,” which means “He Who Owns Us.” We cannot say that we own the buffalo because he owns us.1 

Today, “bison” is considered to be the correct name for the species. Though both “buffalo” and “bison” are widely accepted and are often used interchangeably, the scientific name for the species is “bison bison.” The term “buffalo” is more frequently used in American Indian communities, especially when referring to the buffalo in its cultural context.

In Lakota, “tanka” means “great” or “large.” The name Tanka Fund represents both our focus on the significant and positive impact of buffalo restoration in Indian communities as well as our partnership with Native American Natural Foods, makers of the Tanka Bar.

History of the Buffalo Nation

The importance of the buffalo to Indian people throughout North American cannot be overstated. Before colonization of the continent and the buffalo’s near extermination, the buffalo was an integral part of daily life. Nearly all activities, such as hunting, cooking, sewing, making art, teaching, praying, singing and celebrating, incorporated and honored the buffalo.

Buffalo are the subject of many traditional stories and are a central part of the religious and cultural practices of many Indian nations across the Great Plains. [More information here.] According to Karlene Hunter, Oglala Lakota, “The history of the Buffalo Nation and the Lakota Nation is so intertwined as to be almost indistinguishable.”

Skull of Buffalo

This “intertwined” history was dramatically illustrated in the latter half of the 19th century. During this dark period, the U.S. government initiated a policy of removal, forcibly relocating Indian people to established reservations across the country. At the same time, European settlers and the U.S. military launched an all-out attack on the buffalo, the primary source of food, clothing and shelter for Indian people in the Great Plains at the time. The military's position concerning buffalo was brutally stated by General Phillip S. Sheridan, who said: “If I could learn that every buffalo in the northern herd were killed I would be glad...The destruction of the herd would do more to keep Indians quiet than anything else that could happen.”2 

In the short span of 30 years, the North American buffalo population went from approximately 50 million to one small herd that at the time found refuge in what is now Yellowstone National Park. During this dark period in American history, not only were the buffalo almost exterminated, but an entire lifestyle and buffalo-based culture that had existed for thousands of years was nearly destroyed.

Buffalo Are Returning

Many Indian people see the return of buffalo as a positive sign. According to Lakota leader and prophet Black Elk (1863-1950), when the buffalo return, the “Sacred Hoop” will be mended and Indian nations will become strong again. Working together with Native American Natural Foods and many other partners throughout Indian Country, we hope to build broad support for this vision so we can help to bring renewed life and strength to buffalo-based Indian communities.

Resources

There are many good sources of information on the history and cultural significance of buffalo. Here are just a few:

LaDuke, Winona, Buffalo Nation, Sierra Magazine, May/June 2000 Issue

Black Elk, Nicholas, and Neihardt, John. Black Elk Speaks. 1932.


LaDuke, Winona (1998). Pte oyate: Buffalo nations, buffalo people. St. Paul, MN: Honor the Earth.

2 Sheridan to Adjunct General, October 13, 1881, Box 29, Sheridan Papers.

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Close up of buffalo in foreground of heard

Historically, buffalo have always been part of the diet and the economy of the Lakota people.

Mark Tilsen, President and Co-Founder,
Native American Natural Foods