In sickness and in health, Jean Buffalo spent her days working passionately for the betterment of the Red Cliff people, for women and for the future of everyone’s children and grandchildren.
Along the way, she enjoyed and sparked a lot of laughter.
Excilda Jean Buffalo, “Migizii-kwe,” (Eagle Woman), died June 15 at home with her family after a long, courageous battle with cancer.
In her 51 years, the daughter of Henry Sr. and Ruth Buffalo gave a lifetime of service for tribal government, for justice, for schools, for housing and for the environment.
Her impressive list of service spans her adult years, not halted during the past decade when she often struggled against different forms of cancer.
She was elected tribal chairperson and also as a tribal council member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. Of the Maang Doodem, Loon Clan, she came from a long line of tribal leaders back to Chief Buffalo, whose 1852 journey mainly by canoe from Wisconsin to Washington D.C. reversed a plan for forced removal of the Ojibwe from Wisconsin and Michigan. Recently a pipe specially made for and used in his meeting with President Fillmore was brought back to Red Cliff.
While she did not have legal training from a university, Jean Buffalo became an associate, chief and appellate judge for the tribe and served on the Wisconsin Tribal Judges Association and on the Tribal Law & Policy Institute Advisory Board.
She was the proud mother of three daughters – Salena, Edwina and Sonia – and grandmother of six. Her own mother lives in nearby Washburn, Wisconsin.
She cared greatly about family issues. She served on the Red Cliff’s Family Forum Policy Making Council, on the board of its First American Prevention Center and was an 11-year member of the tribal Housing Authority and was still its chairperson. In the wider community, she was the former president of the Bayfield School Board. She and childhood friend Pam Barningham were among those who helped the school district to recognize Ojibwe heritage in studies and with a school pow wow.
The governor of Wisconsin appointed her to serve on the Wisconsin Women’s Council. That year at Christmas, Jean thought she should give the governor a gift, too.
“We need to bring him a tree,” Barningham remembers Jean saying. “You know, the one that goes in the Capital.”
What followed, in what some say is typical Jean Buffalo fashion, was Red Cliff gifting the state Christmas tree, a trip with the huge tree down in a semi-trailer truck and a tree full of decorations made by people from the area.
Living by the shores of Lake Superior, which holds 10 percent of the world’s fresh surface water, Jean carried great concerns about the environment, too. She helped to found and then served as the first president of Wisconsin Tribal Conservation Advisory Council, a group with representation from 11 different tribes in the state.
Among her latest service was on the Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program, which had undertaken review of the feasibility of removing nearly 1,500 barrels dumped in 1959-1962 into Lake Superior by the Honeywell Corporation at the direction of the U.S. Department of Defense. The Red Cliff Ojibwe have been a major voice calling for their removal. When a meeting on that subject was held in Duluth, she left her hospital bed for a few hours to attend. “She did a beautiful presentation with her granddaughter there. Not one person there … knew that she had come from the hospital,” said Barningham, adding that she was a bridge builder. “She had that ability, she didn’t go in like a headhunter. With her kindness and sincerity, they believed in her.”
Jean was a warm person who took time for friends and family. She loved beading, gardening, spending time on Lake Superior, cooking and softball.
One friend described her as unique and extremely active. Many recall her as a sharp dresser with beautiful long hair before her illness. “When she walked into a room, you noticed her presence, stature … Her laugh was so contagious, it would stop traffic,” said Barningham, whom Jean considered a “spiritual sister” along with friend Carolyn Gougé.
Jean’s partner, artist Rabbett Before Horse Strickland, said, “Words cannot fill the hole left in my heart by her passing, a day has not and will not go by without my missing her,” he said.
In an exhibit catalog of Strickland’s work, Buffalo recounted Ojibwe traditions and stories reflected in his art. In that book, From Dreams May We Learn, she wrote about the creation of butterflies, a narrative in which Nanabozho asks the Creator to let him something to bring joy to children. “After some thought, Nanabozho collected all the colored pebbles and threw them into the air, so high that they went to the moon,” she wrote. “The moon immediately changed the stones into butterflies of many soft colors, fluttering and dancing in the wind, making the eyes of children twinkle. They became the spirit of children’s play.”
So it was probably with playful intent that she gave the name “Memengwaa,” or Butterfly, to the registered paint horse that she won in a raffle at a Las Vegas convention. It took a year to get that horse to Wisconsin, but Jean did not give up on that … as she did not give up on any of her undertakings.
To follow in Jean’s energetic, compassionate path is the advice Barningham said she would give Jean’s daughters and grandchildren.
“When someone asks you who you are, you tell them you are the daughter of Jean Buffalo.”
Jean is survived by her partner, Rabbett Strickland of Bayfield; three daughters, Salena (John Gordon) Buffalo of Red Cliff, Edwina Buffalo of Red Cliff and Sonia Reyes-Buffalo of Red Cliff; six grandchildren, Quincy, Madosin, Maleyna, Giizhikokwe, Richard and Stella; her mother, Ruth Buffalo of Washburn; four brothers, Henry (Mary Jo) Buffalo of Minn., Richard (Robin) Buffalo of New York, Joseph (Colleen) Buffalo of Red Cliff, and Steven (Amy) Buffalo of Milwaukee; a sister, Mitzi (Gordie) Cherti of Eagle River; spiritual sisters Carolyn Gougé and Pam Barningham; former husband, Jose Reyes-Llanes of Washburn; and numerous nieces and nephews. She was preceded in death by her father.