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Flying Bird Image

When Everybody Called Me Gah-bay-bi-nayss,
An Ethnographic Biography of
Paul Peter Buffalo

Timothy G. Roufs
University of Minnesota Duluth

a note on tenses
a note on style

orignal tapes information

Table of Contents



Buffalo Image


Paul Buffalo's mother, herself an Ojibwa(1) medicine woman, told Paul, her oldest son, shortly before she died, that she had a dream revealing that one day someone would come to write down their Indian ways of life. She told him that when that time came he should speak of those things she had taught him: "You are the oldest and I have taught you my ways. Someday someone will ask you about these things. I have dreamed about that. Keep these things that I have taught. Someday people will want to hear about them again."

In 1965, after watching this writer studying in his community for a number of months, Paul Buffalo, the old woman's son, told the writer, "I have been watching your work. I have some things I'm supposed to leave behind, but few will listen to me now. Would you write them down for me? Someday people will want to listen again, and when they do, you can give them these words." Believing this writer to be the person his mother dreamed of, Paul Buffalo began what became a twelve-year process of systematically recounting his life experiences.

Mr. Paul Buffalo (Gah-bah-bi-nays),(2) in the last twelve of his seventy-seven years, systematically recorded most of his beliefs and left a legacy of approximately 3,500 pages of life history materials. During the twelve years of taping life history materials, Paul Buffalo discussed every aspect of his public and private life, including descriptions of his religious beliefs and herbal medical practices.

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Paul Buffalo collecting medicine

Paul Buffalo Meditating Medicine.
Leech Lake Reservation, Minnesota, 1966
Photographer: Tim Roufs

He spoke of his heritage, his years as leader of the Local Indian Council, his beliefs, his language, the changes he had seen, the things his elders told him and his personal experiences of life. He was only one of many with similar experiences, but he was one of the few Ojibwa leaders who would talk at length about the past. A few months before he died in June of 1977 he said, "I've told you all now. I think we're done."

These pages contain those things that Paul's mother had taught him, and those things that he lived and learned and drempt and contemplated. It is thus that we have a rare personal statement about some of those beliefs and experiences.

A descendant of Pezeke, the great "Chief Buffalo" of Lake Superior, Paul Buffalo was born near the fork of the Leech and Mississippi Rivers in 1900. On the Fourth of July in 1900. Or at least that's how they reconstructed it. What they really only know is that he was born on the day that the whites were temporarily crazy with celebration.


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Pezeke -- "Chief Buffalo" of Lake Superior

Be-she-kee (Buffalo).
Photographer: Whitney Gallery
Photograph Collection, Carte-de-visite, 1860

Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location no. E97.1B r3 Negative no. 36707

Pezeke, "Principal Chief of the Lake Superior Chippewa Indians."
Original by Francis Vincenti, 1855
U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.

(One of two busts of Chief Buffalo, one in marble carved from life in 1855, when he was 95, and one copied in bronze.)


Grave of Bez Hike - Chief of the Chippewas, Madeline Island.
Photographer: Monroe P. Killy (1910-)
Photograph Collection, 1970
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location no. Collection I.69.284

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Paul Buffalo's Home Area
Map prepared by Matti E. Kaups, from
The Anishinabe of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Timothy G. Roufs
(Phoenix: Indian Tribal Series, 1975; Reprinted, Cass Lake, MN: Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, 2013), p. 75.

Few individuals have witnessed so much cultural change as have recent generations of American Indian people. Few of these native Americans would discuss at length their early days before whites brought radical change to their native ways of life.

From the turn of the century to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the world of Paul Buffalo and his people changed drastically in response to lumbering, mining, transportation, and communications developments.

In his early youth Paul Buffalo witnessed the traditional ways of northern Minnesota Ojibwa and their continuing encounter with the white man and his roads, railroads, river boats, values, and ways of life.

And they were white men in those days. He remembers the first white woman that moved into his family's area. She was the mother of his life-long friend, whose funeral sermon begins Paul's story in Chapter 1.

Paul Buffalo participated in the early logging activities of northern Minnesota, and during the 1930s acted as a councilman and representative of his people.

Mr. Buffalo had a gift of recounting "campfire talk" of the old days and of making his cultural principles, values, and perspectives on history relevant to present times.

Although baptized in the Christian religion, Mr. Buffalo continued native Indian practices. His knowledge of Indian religion and ways of life, and his awareness of present-day concerns and problems, gave him rare insight into the beliefs of his people.

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"Chippewa Burial Ground"
Leech Lake Indian Reservation
Cameron Booth (1892-1980)

Exhibition: The Color of Winter, James J. Hill House.
Art Collection, Oil, 1936
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location No. AV1988.45.346 Negative No. 15367

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Totemic Markers in front of "Spirit Houses."
Mille Lacs, 1947
From The Anishinabe of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Timothy G. Roufs
(Phoenix: Indian Tribal Series, 1975; Reprinted, Cass Lake, MN: Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, 2013), p. 17.

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"Spirit House" at Townsite.
Ball Club, Minnsota, 1965
Photographer: Tim Roufs

People of Minnesota and the United States are overdue to learn a personal story of the people that whites have called "Chippewa" and "Ojibwa," and who call themselves Anishinabe. In the spirit of earlier books setting forth the traditions of North American Indian peoples, books such as Crashing Thunder, Black Elk Speaks, Cheyenne Memories, and The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian, the following memoirs aim to provide for "people who want to listen" a personal account of the early life of a modern Ojibwa Medicine Doctor. They faithfully represent the thirty-five hundred pages of transcribed oral narratives, and attempt to retain Paul Buffalo's interesting and subtle ways of saying things. Subtle, because great metaphysical and spiritual assertions are enmeshed in simple description of ordinary events. Interesting, because they are.

Paul Buffalo's life history provides a very personal statement about his people and their relationship to the land.

Ojibwa of the Lake Superior area respected their land and lived in intimate spiritual contact with nature.(2)

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Paul Buffalo Meditating Medicine.
Leech Lake Reservation, Minnesota, 1966
Photographer: Tim Roufs

Living and inanimate things shared the same life spirit, from which early Ojibwa inhabitants took their spiritual strength. They shared the land with the animals, mythological peoples, spirits, and deceased relatives and friends.

His narratives reflect a belief in the interrelationship of all things of nature that is, paradoxically, straightforward but intricate. Great and profound questions about the universe intermingle with reflections on experiences of a robin's song. The simple and grandiose coexist in a natural world, and are of equal importance in one's personal life. Death, illness, health, life, law, emotions, friendship, religion, diet, hope, and a thousand facets of life interact as parts of a natural world. Underlying these freestyle narratives are a basic statement about this interrelatedness of all creation, and a self-renewing excitement of nature.

Although Paul Buffalo speaks with extensive experiencing of, and very long familiarity with, the natural world, his attitude is not dulled by habit. After three-quarters of a century his approach to nature remains fresh and sensitive, and, often, one of awe.

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Ojibwa Floral Pattern.
Duluth, Minnesota, 1989
Photographer: Tim Roufs

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You might find the "The Wisdom and Ways of Paul Buffalo" segment of WDSE/WRPT TV's Native Report of interest
(Season 6 Episode 10)

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Tenses in this manuscript are mixed in an unusual way. Paul Buffalo regularly uses the present tense when he's talking about something that happened or started in the past that HE KNOWS continues to be done or exists today. He usually uses the past tense when whatever he is talking about is something that no longer exists or takes place. This distinction has been preserved in the editing.

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Paul Buffalo narrates in an oral tradition. -- Paul Buffalo's style is one sometimes typical of an oral tradition. -- It involves much repetition. In particular, a typical sequence is that a statement is made, then more or less repeated with the main element of the statement/sentence stressed. Oral tradition is often very repetitive, especially compared to printed traditions. Things are repeated to emphasize certain items. Things are repeated to add emphasis. Things are repeated to insure that one does not forget, that is, repetition is used as a learning device.

In the work that follows there is much repetition -- not as much as in the original, but enough, hopefully, to maintain the personal style of Paul Buffalo. Some of repetition is minimized here, although an attempt to keep the original flavor is maintained. Attempts have been made to carefully preserve that tradition, even though this work is in print, since that is the way Paul would have told it to you.

Reviewers who have actually known Paul Buffalo and who have read some of the materials indicate that it is "just like Paul himself talking." Those who did not know Paul Buffalo, or those who are not familiar with his peoples' story-telling traditions, think the following is too repetitious. The goal of this work is to present the material "just like Paul himself is talking."

Perhaps in a separate, future work, these materials can be condensed for those more familiar and comfortable with the printed page.

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Publication of this material is done in memory of Paul Peter Buffalo who died June 28, 1977. I wish to thank Stanley E. Aschenbrenner, Joe Barnes, Joesephine Barrett, Priscilla Giddings Buffalohead, W. Roger Buffalohead, Wayne and Ida Cronin, Leo Gotchie, Roger Lips, Jim Marken, Mammie Marken, Frank C. Miller, Susan Collins Mulholland, Charles I. Mundale, Joe "Sky" Nason, Thomas and Dora Nason, Gretel Pelto, Pertti J. Pelto, Dr. Robert E. Powless, Mike Rynkiewich, Katy Salter, Barbara Simon-Jackson, Kathleen Smyth Roufs, Mr. and Mrs. Cliff Sjolund I, Cliff Sjolund II, Cliff Sjolund III, David M. Smith, Jim and Theresa Smith, William Stockdon, Mr. and Mrs. Orson Weekley, and Joe "Core" Whitebird, for their review of and/or assistance with all or part of this work. Special thanks goes to Lynn Sandness for his invaluable help in preparing the original taped interviews for digitalization <>. To many others we are also endebted. . . . Their names will be added here later.

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1. Uncertainty surrounds the origin of the name "Ojibwa." Historians frequently suggest the name originally meant "to roast until puckered up," referring to a style of moccasin with a puckered seam worn only by the Ojibwa. The name "Chippewa," by which the Ojibwa are frequently known, is thought to be a result of misunderstanding and faulty recording of the native word "Ojibwa." Most Ojibwa consider their appropriate name Anishinaubag, or more popularly Anishinabe, which means something like "real or genuine people." Cf., "Early Indian Life in the Lake Superior Region," Timothy G. Roufs, in Duluth: Sketches of the Past, Ryck Lydecker, Lawrence J. Sommer and Arthur Larsen (Eds.) Special Bicentennial Volume of Duluth's Legacy Series, Duluth, Minnesota, 1976, p. 45 (reprinted in The Minnesota Archaeologist, Vol. 37, No. 4, (November 1978) pp. 157-197.

2. "Forever-Flying-Bird."

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Copyright: © 1997 - 2016 Timothy G. Roufs

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