Column: The white buffalo returnI wonder if very many people know that there are three white buffalo walking the earth at this very time. They live in North Dakota.
By: Phil Baird, United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck, N.D., The Jamestown Sun, Worthington Daily Globe
I wonder if very many people know that there are three white buffalo walking the earth at this very time. They live in North Dakota.
For tribal people, the very existence of these beings is an amazing occurrence. To understand why, is to connect with the spiritual foundations of our lives as tribal people.
Most people who are familiar with Lakota culture have heard about the White Buffalo Calf Woman. She was the spirit person who appeared long ago when the people were experiencing very difficult times. The truth about her has been handed down the generations. It forms the basis for the belief system that is central to our traditional culture and highlights the sacredness of the white buffalo. During her unexpected visit, the White Buffalo Calf Woman introduced the “cannunpa” (prayer pipe) and the seven sacred ceremonies that would guide the values and lives of Lakota People.
Other tribes may have their own perspectives about the white buffalo. As for Lakota people, we continue to practice the ceremonies today — including the sundance in summer — just as we offer the utmost respect for the cannunpa. The original pipe is cared for by Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe, who resides on South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Reservation.
According to our belief, after sharing her gifts, the White Buffalo Calf Woman said she would return when the people needed her. She began walking away as a two-legged (human being) but then rolled on the ground and changed into a buffalo. Her hide turned different colors each time she rolled. After the fourth time, she disappeared into the horizon as a white buffalo. Ever since, the white buffalo has been embraced as a sacred being and treated accordingly.
By any measure, a white-colored buffalo is a rare event in nature. If one is inclined to look to science for answers, the appearance of a white buffalo becomes a question of genetics in the North American bison species. My college study of animal husbandry offered the explanation that albinism is caused by the appearance of a recessive gene in the DNA. Considering that millions upon millions of bison roamed the Great Plains, the huge population numbers were bound to produce animals of this type, so it was reasoned.
But the large herds didn’t last. In an effort to destroy the lifestyles and economic foundations of Indian tribes, the buffalo herds were purposely exterminated in the late 1800s, and their numbers greatly diminished. Some sources say there were fewer than 1,000 buffalo by the start of the 20th century. Depopulating the herds impacted the gene pool leading to fewer chances for albino bison, making them even rarer, perhaps even nonexistent.
In the process of rebuilding bison herds during the past 100 years, a number of white buffalo have appeared. Here are the ones I know about.
During the Depression years, in May 1933, a white buffalo bull was born on the National Bison Range on the Flathead Reservation near Pablo, Mont., and named “Big Medicine.” Big Medicine turned out to be a non-albino animal. But within a few years, in May 1937, he sired an albino calf. That calf was raised at the National Zoological Gardens in Washington, D.C. and later died there in the 1950s. Big Medicine died in August 1959 at the age of 26 years and for many years his preserved body was on display at the Montana State Capitol in Helena, and maybe still is.
In North Dakota, an albino bison calf was born in the spring of 1955 at the C.C. Koltes farm six miles north of Fargo. Another white buffalo calf had been previously born in the same herd in December 1953 but died a month later.
There have been other reports about white buffalo in private herds. The animal receiving a lot of public attention in the 1990s was born on a Wisconsin farm. “Miracle,” as she was called, was regarded as both a biological and spiritual phenomenon, and gained international fame. But she was not an albino and her hide eventually changed colors.
The birth of a true albino buffalo occurred on July 10, 1996. “White Cloud” was born on the D. Shirek ranch near the Spirit Lake Nation in north central North Dakota. Believing such a special creature should be shared with the world, the Shirek family approached the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, N.D., about placing the animal in the museum’s herd. The albino cow took up residence there amidst a lot of fanfare and public support.
White Cloud is still at Jamestown and her presence continues to bring forth new gifts. Until last year, none of her calves were albino. But on Aug. 31, 2007, she produced a white bull calf, which was named “Dakota Miracle.” Then this spring, on May 31, 2008, another white bull calf was born in the Jamestown herd — this one to a non-albino cow. The museum caretakers believe that one of White Cloud’s non-albino calves sired this newest white animal. So, now there are three white buffalo walking in this world against tremendous genetic odds. If there are others, it would be good to have those animals recognized and identified.
From the tribal point of view — that the white buffalo is sacred — White Cloud and her offspring raise questions that go to the heart of the Lakota cultural and spiritual way: Have the white buffalo appeared because people throughout the world are experiencing hard times? The White Buffalo Calf Woman said she’d return to help the people. Certainly tribal people here and all over continue to face very difficult times. The human race as a whole continues to be in conflict, group against group, and with Grandmother Earth, as never before. Have we two-leggeds lost our way in how to live in harmony in the diverse global society and with the planet? What effect do our attitudes and lifestyles have on the world around us? Are we prepared to face the consequences of our own actions?
Lakota people believe that the presence of the sacred white buffalo is a spiritual message to human beings. The albino bison at Jamestown are more than just reminders of the prophecy. Lakota people and other tribes should actively acknowledge the physical and spiritual presence of these messengers and talk about what they mean for the people in these times and for the future. Only through that will we connect with the spiritual foundations that served our people for so many generations.
Baird is vice president of academic, career and technical education at United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck, N.D.