“Medicine Women of the Plains” as told by Red Feather Woman/Rose Red Elk

In March, Rose Red Elk visited Mines to help campus celebrate Women’s History Month.Rose Red Elk, also known as Red Feather Woman, came in traditional dress and shared songs and stories with the audience. She is a member of the Sioux/Assiniboine Tribes, hailing from the Fort Peck Reservation in northeast Montana. She described how she grew up listening to tribal folk stories but began her career in science and technology. While at Texas A&M, she started that college’s first Native American science and engineering group. She had a promising career at IBM, but decided that her true calling was the arts. She has now been a professional singer and storyteller for over twenty years; she has put out four award-winning albums and is currently working on a comic book for the Department of the Interior.

Red Elk first shared the story of the Medicine People. The circle, she said, is considered a sacred symbol among her people. The Medicine Wheel is a circle divided into four quadrants; each quadrant is a different color, representing the four peoples of the earth. The Medicine People, while “dreamwalking” around the world, saw that each of the four nations had been given a gift associated with a single element. To the white peoples, Red Elk explained, was given the power of fire, which can be used to destroy but also to purify. To the black peoples was given the power to find and utilize water. The yellow peoples received the powers of the air, putting “mind over matter” and controlling the breath through meditation; Red Elk demonstrated this by leading the audience in a breathing exercise. Finally, the red peoples were given the power of the earth: gratitude towards Mother Earth, and the knowledge that all living things have their own spirit. The gifts were meant to be shared and to help humankind. When the gifts were given, Mother Earth promised the Creator that she would not destroy the humans because she had faith in their ability to use these gifts for good. Red Elk concluded the story by saying that every day, people should show gratitude for the gifts of Mother Earth and the Creator. To drive this point home, she taught the audience a song she composed called “Keepers of the Earth,” which had a strong environmental message.

The second story Red Elk told was about the White Buffalo Calf Woman, the woman who introduced the shanupa, or peace pipe, to Red Elk’s tribe. Long ago, she explained, in a time of famine, when there was no game to be had, the people sent out their two greatest warriors with instructions not to return until they had found food. The first had a good heart, while the second was intelligent but had anger in his heart. As they wandered without success, the angry warrior became discouraged and said they should go back, but the good-hearted warrior said they should press on. There was something strange in the air, and an eerie silence that put both men on edge.

Suddenly, Red Elk went on, the clouds began to billow overhead and a beautiful woman appeared in their midst. The angry warrior had impure thoughts when he saw her, and a dark cloud surrounded him and he vanished. The good-hearted warrior, seeing this, was terrified, but the White Buffalo Calf Woman told him not to fear; instead, he must go back to his people and tell them she would bring them a gift and stop the famine.

The warrior raced back and told the people what he had seen. Everyone – both the animals and the people – gathered in a circle to watch, and at the appointed time, the woman appeared in the clouds as she had before, this time in the center of the circle. She held a bundle. This she gave to the people, who found it contained the peace pipe. The White Buffalo Calf Woman explained to the people that the Creator was unhappy and had caused the famine because the people were fighting amongst themselves and not honoring their elders or their children. The peace pipe would allow them to remedy this by reminding them of where they stood and by carrying their prayers to the creator on the smoke.
When she had said this, the White Buffalo Calf Woman ascended back into the clouds. As she went, she did four somersaults, each time transforming into a buffalo of a different color: red, yellow, black, and white. Then she disappeared. The people did as she had instructed them; the famine ended, and they flourished.

Red Elk explained that the stem of the peace pipe represents living things and that the red clay bowl represents the people. It is smoked facing the four cardinal directions so as to send the prayers in all directions. The pipe must be earned and given, not bought, and cannot be bragged about; ownership of the peace pipe is a great responsibility, one passed down for seventy-eight generations.

Red Elk concluded her talk with a final song, “Medicine Woman,” which she wrote after imagining herself having known such a woman as the White Buffalo Calf Woman. In it, she describes having been taught and inspired by a great medicine woman, and finally becoming a medicine woman herself.

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