The United Church of Christ is mourning the death of a dedicated pastor and inspirational leader in the Dakota Association UCC. Pastor Byron Buffalo passed away unexpectedly Tuesday evening, July 17. Buffalo, a licensed lay minister, served on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota — pastoring two of the Dakota Association's 13 Lakota Churches on Native American reservations. He also founded a lifesaving ministry with horses for Native youth.
"Byron Buffalo was a man of few words but amazing action. His ministry was the most creative I've ever witnessed," said the Rev. David Felton, conference minister emeritus, South Dakota Conference UCC.
Buffalo pastored Upper Cheyenne UCC in Bridger, S.D., since 1998 and Frazier Memorial UCC, also on the Cheyenne River Reservation, since 2002.
"When you needed someone to really listen and give you a genuine answer, ask Byron. When you needed a friend and someone who really understood you and gave you wonderful feedback, ask Byron. And when you needed a someone in your darkest hour, you could go to Byron. He would be by your side through it all," said Louie Blue Coat, a longtime Dakota Association staffer who pastors Virgin Creek UCC and worked closely with Buffalo. "The life of a Native Pastor is one of fixing a flat tire in the rain or a blizzard on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere, or trying to finish your scripture in a comfort service for a teen suicide while trying to maintain your professional demeanor, or even trying to make every meeting and church service while you have 10 things going on at once! Byron did it with ease."
"As someone who has a foot in two major denominations in America, I have noticed that the Pastors/clergy who minister on our Indian Reservations are the hardest working pastors in the country. Often times, their ministries take them long distances across the reservation, daily, mostly on dusty gravel roads, and serving long hours. Byron was one of the hardest working clergy I know," said Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo of the UCC Council for American Indian Ministry. "His compassion for the people bought him to the farthest reaches of the Cheyenne River Reservation. His sharing of the good news, and his music helped many people grow in their faith journey. He was a visionary and practiced community development in his ministry, building up local communities to be more self-sufficient."
"His churches are located in the poorest county in the United States," Felton said. "The medium family income is less than $8,000 annually. Unemployment is 80%. Drug and alcohol problems are everywhere. Because of the hopelessness of the situation, youth and young adult suicides are frequent. Into this chaos Byron began this amazing ministry. He knew that through working with horses, people will learn how to work and relate to other people. The youth and young adults learn responsibility, dignity, pride, and a sense of self work and accomplishment. They took pilgrimages to sacred places such as Wounded Knee and Little Big Horn. Through these experiences they learned what it means to be Lakota and what it means to be a child of God. On Tuesday, as he was preparing with his riders for another journey he suffered a major heart attack and died almost instantly. The riders, on their own, made a sacred journey the next day to honor Byron."
Buffalo started the Horse Ministry in 2010, one that Helgemo called, "one of the most powerful ministries we have in Indian country. He offered this ministry among many youth in the western side of the Cheyenne River Reservation. We celebrate the ministry of Byron Buffalo and offer gratitude for his presence among many people. He was a treasure and a warrior for youth."
"Byron loved being with the youth," Blue Coat said. "He turned a lot of them from suicide and gave them hope. He showed them that there are people who do genuinely care for each and every one of them!"
Buffalo was also a champion of creation. With his wife Toni, the program coordinator/administrator of the Dakota Association, the Buffalos were instrumental faith leaders and water protectors at the Standing Rock Reservation — fighting to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) from crossing under the Missouri River. They also put their bodies on the line on the Cheyenne River Reservation in opposition of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
As Byron Buffalo so eloquently said in September 2016, "We need to be compassionate for everything that He has created, and to take care of everything that He has created. To know that when God said everything is possible, we believe that, all the way to the end. We limit ourselves as churches or we limit ourselves as individuals when we don't believe what God has said, that everything is possible. And we limit God also."
"Byron was a person of few words and a spirit that ran deep," said the Rev. James Moos, national officer of the UCC, executive minister of Global Engagement and Operations. "While we live in an age that worships information, Byron exemplified wisdom, a virtue which is badly needed in the church and world."
Funeral services for Byron Buffalo are scheduled for Tuesday, July 24, in Bridger, S.D, with burial at the Bridger UCC Cemetery. His family has invited "ANY and ALL horseback riders are welcome to lead him home."
"Byron was a true and faithful servant of our Lord every day of his life, and he died doing what he loved and surrounded by people who loved him. We have lost another pillar in the Dakota Association," Blue Coat said. "We remember him and his family as we celebrate his life and remember the scripture: 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!'" Matthew 25:23
Cards for his wife Toni and his family may be mailed to P.O. Box 863, Eagle Butte, SD 57625.