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Buffalo skull ceremony recognizes support for Indigenous students

TMU and U of T Indigenous Student Services come together for buffalo skull gifting tradition
By: Kaitlyn McGuirk
May 09, 2024
A buffalo skull sits on a red blanket with sage bundles around it.

To begin the ceremony, sage was ceremoniously offered to the buffalo spirit and skull in thanks for its sustenance and to acknowledge the education it will bring to students, faculty and staff. All photos by Kaytee Dalton

On a mild day at the end of March, Indigenous students and staff came together for a special ceremony to gift a buffalo skull from TMU to the University of Toronto (U of T).

The ceremony, which took place in the teaching lodge on the U of T’s St. George campus, began by offering sage to the buffalo spirit and skull in thanks for its sustenance and to acknowledge the education it will bring to students, faculty and staff.

“Students haven’t had access to ceremony in institutional settings,” said Michael White, director of U of T’s First Nations House Indigenous Student Services. “It's very significant that we are together in a teaching lodge, in a forest, in the middle of downtown Toronto and we get to do these things. It’s such an honor that we get to carry this buffalo skull for the students, for First Nations House and for the University of Toronto.”

This event in 2024 came at an auspicious time as both UofT’s First Nations House and TMU’s Gdoo-maawnjidimi Mompii Indigenous Student Services and Indigenous Initiatives in the Office of the Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion (OVPECI) are celebrating their 30th anniversaries of supporting Indigenous students at their respective institutions.

“When I was a student at TMU, there were no support services for Indigenous students,” said Monica Mckay, director, Indigenous Initiatives, in the (OVPECI). “It’s been a long journey, but it fills my heart to come together in ceremony in places that worked very hard to keep us out.” 

The buffalo skull gifting tradition began when Jesse Thistle, a Metis-Cree from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and a York University alumni, had a vision about bringing buffalo skulls to people and institutions to help fulfill a prophecy. 

The prophecy is that education is the new buffalo for Indigenous Peoples on Turtle Island – it is the means by which Indigenous Peoples will rebuild healthy families, reclaim their culture and languages and help build vibrant Indigenous communities. Education will provide for Indigenous Peoples just like the buffalo once did. 

Thistle’s vision is to put buffalo skulls in universities across Ontario. In 2015, he gifted a buffalo skull to the Centre for Aboriginal Students Services at York University with the promise that they would in turn gift one to another educational institution. They did this with a gift to TMU in 2016. In accepting the skull, TMU’s Indigenous Education Council (IEC) in the Office of the Provost and Vice-President, Academic, and Gdoo-maawnjidimi Mompii Indigenous Student Services in the OVPECI made the promise to source and gift a buffalo skull to another university and so on.

A white circular lodge amongst trees.

The teaching lodge on the University of Toronto St. George campus where the Buffalo Skull ceremony took place. 

Melvin John leading the ceremony.

Sema (tobacco) was given to Melvin John of Kehewin Cree Nation to ask him to offer the ceremony. He guided the ceremony, shared teachings of the buffalo and blessed the buffalo skull.

A buffalo skull is displayed in the teaching lodge, between two eagle staffs.

Following the ceremony, the buffalo skull was hung in the west door of the teaching lodge, above the sage, sweetgrass and red blanket and between the U of T eagle staff (left) and the TMU eagle staff (right).

Michael White, Jenny Blackbird, Monica McKay, Cher Trudeau, Amy Desjarlais, behind them is the buffalo skull and TMU’s eagle staff.

UofT’s First Nations House Indigenous Student Services, Michael White (left) and Jenny Blackbird (centre-left) with TMU’s Indigenous Initiatives, in the OVPECI, and Indigenous Education Council members, Monica McKay (centre), Cher Trudeau (centre-right) and Amy Desjarlais (right) with the buffalo skull.

Trays full of food by Anishinaabe chef Charles Catchpole.

To end the ceremony and event, everyone in attendance came together to feast, courtesy of Charger Foods, owned by Charles Catchpole, an Anishinaabe chef and entrepreneur, and a member of Couchiching First Nation. The menu included cornbread, bannock, Medicine Wheel rice salad, salad, smoked chicken legs, poached trout, vegetable medley, and sweet potato cake and white cake for dessert.

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