As far back as he can remember, Glen Still Smoking II has known the story of the buffalo stone.
Called iniskim by traditional members of his Blackfeet tribe, the small stone, usually a fossilized shell found on the Montana prairie, is used in a ritual for calling buffalo.
Often the stone is in the shape of an animal, and is considered an important medicine object, Still Smoking said.
One of its magical qualities is how it is found.
"You don't look for it," the University of Montana student explained. "It chirps, it calls out to be found."
Several years ago, a buffalo stone called to Still Smoking's father, a stone he gave to his son.
Still Smoking carries it with him, and he packed this special gift when he headed to the Smithsonian Institute earlier this month as part of a historic UM student research team tasked with locating, assessing, copying and bringing home the millions of documents and records pertaining to Montana's Indian tribes.
The students are three weeks into the monthlong project; already, the five have discovered stories of their ancestors and their tribes.
So it was with great awe and excitement last week when Still Smoking came upon a document from the mid-1800s, a 35-page, detailed retelling of the buffalo stone story and its meaning.
What he learned is that the story he was told as a boy is very much the same story told on the faded parchment.
At the time, the discovery was the highlight of his trip, but then, two days later at the Library of Congress, Still Smoking and Helen Cryer came upon a 90-minute Blackfeet audio recording taken in 1898 by Walter McClintock.
On this recording, one of the earliest recordings ever made, a Blackfeet named Cream Antelope tells the story of the buffalo stone.
"This whole experience has been pretty monumental for me," Still Smoking said. "It's the first time I have been on the East Coast - there are a lot of new sights, and I've already gone through three disposable cameras."
"I can't believe I'm here," he said. "I'm learning quite a bit about my tribe and my people."
The First Buffalo Stone
One time long, long ago, before we had horses, the buffalo suddenly disappeared. All the hunters killed elk, deer and smaller game animals along the river bottoms then. When all of them were either killed or driven away, the people began to starve. They were camped in a circle near a buffalo drive. Among them was a very, very poor old woman, the second wife of her husband. Her buffalo robe was old and full of holes; her moccasins were old and were torn to shreds by the rocks she walked over.
While gathering wood for the fire one day, she thought she heard someone singing a song. The song seemed quite close, but when she looked around, she saw no one. Following the sound and looking closely, she found a small rock that was singing, "Take me! I am of great power. Take me! I am of great power."
When the woman picked up the rock, it told her what to do and taught her a special song. She told her husband her experience and then said, "Call all the men together and ask them to sing this song that will call the buffalo back."
"Are you sure?" asked her husband.
"Yes, I am sure. First get me a small piece of the back of a buffalo from the Bear-Medicine man." Then she told her husband how to arrange the inside of the lodge in a kind of square box with some sagebrush and buffalo chips. "Now tell the men to come and ask them for the four rattles they use." It is a custom for the first wife to sit close to her husband in their lodge. But this time, the husband told the second wife to put on the first wife's dress and sit beside him. After all the men were seated in the lodge, the buffalo stone began to sing, "The buffalo will all drift back. The buffalo will all drift back."
Then the woman said to one of the younger men, "Go beyond the drive and put up a lot of buffalo chips in line. Then all of you are to wave at the chips with a buffalo robe, four times, while you shout like you were singing. The fourth time that you shout, all the chips will turn into buffalo and will go over the cliff."
The men followed her directions, and the woman led the singing in the lodge. She knew just what the young man was doing all the time, and she knew that a cow-buffalo would take the lead. While the woman was singing a song about the leader that would take her followers over the cliff, all the buffalo went over the drive and were killed.
Then the woman sang a different song: "I have made more than a hundred buffalo fall over the cliff, and the man above hears me."
Ever since then, the people took good care of a buffalo stone and prayed to it, for they knew that it had much power.