Traverse Classics: Promise of the White Buffalo

Traverse Classics: Native American legend says the pure-white calf completes a 2,000-year-old prophecy, and that her tawny adult fur will turn white again when there is peace in the world. But in the meantime, she and a handful of other rare bison like her have become cultural ambassadors in a most unusual way.

There’s a sense of urgency about Walt Romanik’s daily check of his buffalo herd as he wheels his black pick-up over a bumpy field. The last time he ventured into this pasture, it was with a veterinarian. He is hoping that Buffalo No. 19 is faring better today.

Romanik hops out of the truck, wearing blue jeans and a brown feed cap, spits out a wad of Skoal, and throws open the heavy gate to one of several buffalo grazing areas. Across the road, dozens of bison graze lazily on newly grown grass. But he’s looking for a specific buffalo, one with a hurt foot, hiding somewhere in a grove of trees. He’s been keeping a close eye on her—and his concern has nothing to do with the $23 or so a pound he could get selling her as tenderloins to the state’s fanciest restaurants.

No.19 was born a pure white—making her a holy creature to Native American and other tribal people around the world. Even beyond that, Native American spiritual leaders have proclaimed her the fourth of four special white buffalo births, the completion of a quadrumvirate that fulfills a 2,000-year-old Sioux legend.

Over the past three years, the 70-year-old farmer has heard from Indian chiefs, grandsons of chiefs, all manner of holy men. They’ve given him peace pipes and left offerings of tobacco on his fences. And they’ve told him pretty much the same thing: this Northern Michigan calf—born white before turning various shades of brown—is a sign that the world is at a crossroads. In their beliefs, No. 19’s birth is akin in importance to the birth of Jesus in Christianity. Romanik and his wife Marilyn, he was told, have been chosen as caretakers, like Mary and Joseph were. And that’s something that Romanik, a devout Catholic, doesn’t take lightly, whether or not he believes in the legend or thinks it’s all just an interesting coincidence.

True miracle or genetic fluke? Like other spiritual matters, we may never know. But several white bison have been born on small Midwestern ranches in recent years, throwing together bison ranchers with native peoples. The lessons they’re learning from each other, some say, are just what a beautiful spirit woman intended many generations ago when she stepped out of a cloud, took the shape of a white buffalo calf, and then pledged to return again to help bring unity among all people.

“It’s bridging a gap. It brings a lot of people closer together,” says Arvol Looking Horse, a Lakota Sioux chief who determines the calves’ holiness and lives on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. “People who have never had any belief in tradition or culture or a way of life all of the sudden know in their heart that something is happening when something as strange as a white buffalo being born takes place. It’s not only the native people. It’s all colors.”

A white buffalo calf has been the most holy being to the tribes of the Great Plains for at least 19 generations—ever since a starving Lakota tribe sent two scouts to search for food. As told by holy man John Lame Deer in American Myths and Legends, the two men climbed a high mountain and saw not the game they were seeking, but a beautiful young woman—more beautiful than anyone they had ever seen—floating toward them dressed in white. She wore her blue-black hair loose except for a strand tied up with buffalo fur, and her dark eyes sparkled with great power. She was Ptesan-Wi, the White Buffalo Woman—a spirit who came in human form but was also a buffalo and sister to mankind.

"It's bridging a gap. It brings a lot of people closer together."

When one of the men reached out to touch the holy woman with “bad thoughts” in his mind, she turned him into a heap of blackened bones. But the other scout was respectful, and the woman told him to prepare the rest of the tribe for her arrival. Four days later, she returned and taught the tribe its most sacred laws and ceremonies—the sweat lodge, the vision quest, the sun dance ceremony and more. She pledged to return again in a time of great need and said her coming would be a sign that people had to take better care of the earth and each other—or they would perish.

Before she left, Ptesan-Wi gave the sacred ceremonial pipe to the chief saying, “respect it, and it will take you to the end of the road.” Against the backdrop of the setting sun, she rolled over four times, changing into buffalo of four colors—symbolic, many tribal spiritual leaders believe, of the skin colors of humankind.

As soon as she vanished, buffalo in great herds appeared, allowing themselves to be killed so the people might survive. “And from that day on,” Lame Deer wrote, “our relations, the buffalo, furnished the people with everything they needed—meat for food, skins for clothes and tipis, and bones for many tools.”

The pipe given by Ptesan-Wi was passed down from generation to generation in the chief’s family, each carrier learning in a vision on the deathbed who the next sacred pipe carrier should be. As the chief’s descendants watched for the sacred woman’s return, the Lakota and their tribal neighbors found in the bison not only food, clothing, recreation and more, but an intermediary to the Great Spirit.

Then the white man came along. Crews laying the railroad west slaughtered the bison in staggering numbers for food and sport, and the government hired buffalo hunters to help end the “Indian problem” by wiping out the sole source of survival for many tribes—with that, much of their culture as well. Though powerful and fast, the bison were no match for the guns of white men like William Cody, alias Buffalo Bill, who once boasted of killing 48 buffalo in under an hour. By the beginning of the 1900s, a herd of some 70 million had dwindled to an estimated 600—perhaps only 40 or so then living in the wild.

By the time Arvol Looking Horse was born on a reservation in the sacred Black Hills, the once powerful herds of the West, like the calf woman herself, were little more than legend. Even Arvol didn’t pay the legend much mind, despite the fact his grandmother was keeper of the ceremonial pipe. Then his grandmother took to her deathbed and received a vision: Arvol—then a boy of only 12—was to be the tribe’s 19th generation carrier of the pipe. He was the youngest in history to hold that responsibility, and yet the responsibility didn’t worry him. As many as 2,000 years had passed without an appearance of the sacred woman in the form of a white bison calf; what were the odds that she’d come on his watch?

“I thought it wouldn’t be in my time I would see this,” Looking Horse said from his reservation home. “I thought I would live here, speaking my language and hauling water from the river.”

But Looking Horse’s life changed dramatically when a white bison calf was born in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Aug. 20, 1994, on a tiny hobby farm in an area known as a hotbed of white supremacist activity. A short feature story was picked up by the Associated Press, and the news eventually reached Looking Horse.

This calf, Looking Horse determined—like three more that followed within the next three years—fulfilled the legend. While other white bison have been born, and their births considered holy and rare, these four were special. They were all female—like the spirit woman—and none were albino. Instead, they were born with dark eyes and muzzles and subsequently changed colors, just as the calf woman had as she left.  While most bison calves were born in spring, these four all came in late summer—around the time the calf woman first visited the tribe. With the help of sacred ceremonies, Looking Horse determined these to be the signs the tribe had been waiting for, culminating with that July 1997 birth of No. 19 (also called White Medicine) on the Romaniks’ Michigan ranch.

“And now the stories of prophecy become reality,” Arvol says. “We’re right in the middle of these crossroads.”

Looking Horse isn’t wasting any time. The Lakota chief has learned English, bought himself not only a telephone but also his own Web site, and become a sought-after participant in world peace events. This past summer, he served as delegate to a United Nations conference for world spiritual leaders. He has met with such leaders as South Africa’s Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, and is focusing on creating a new international day of peace and prayer. Each June 21, he says, he wants everyone in the world to pray together for peace—from whatever place they consider most holy.

Meanwhile, reports of new white bison births keep flowing in—from one in Ohio this past summer to another in South Africa, where a water buffalo was born white. To him, it’s all a sign that conditions in the world are “great urgent,” and that we’re not responding quickly enough. “Either we unite spiritually with many nations of the world,” he says, “or be faced with a lot of sickness and tears from a relative’s eyes.”

With bison ranchers now raising hundreds of thousands of bison across North America, it’s tempting to dismiss the white bison births as a logical outcome of bigger herds: The more buffalo we have, the more likely the chances of genetic variation. So are we seeing a miracle or just a statistical result? Perhaps a little of both, concludes anthropologist Robert Pickering in his book, Seeing the White Buffalo.

When a white calf was born on the Janesville farm of Dave and Val Heider in 1994, such a birth was so unusual that even its rural white owners named her “Miracle.” In the earlier part of the century, there were at most a handful of known births of white bison—the most recent in Alaska in the 1950s. The odds of Miracle’s birth was estimated to be anything from one in a million to 1 in 40 million.

"People are essentially turning that spiritual area into a shrine."

And yet, the country’s bison population is growing at about 15 percent a year—expanding from less than 600 nationwide in 1900 to some 350,000 today. Bison now roam in 20 countries and all 50 states (the hearty animals who love the cold do especially well in states like Michigan, home to the nation’s 11th largest bison herd). Most are being raised on private ranches, where they’re bred for the most desirable characteristics, be that juicier steaks or genetic diversity (a way to protect against disease).

“When I look at this in terms of genetics and population growth, I can’t say I’m surprised to see more white buffalo being born,” says Pickering, who has received reports of more bison of all shades being born.

“One conclusion I make in my book is that as ranchers try to increase the number of bison in the country and as they also try to expand the genetic diversity of their own herds, we’ll see more variation in color than we did in first three-quarters of the 20th century.”

And yet the mystical connection between humans and bison persists—prompting even Pickering, a self-described “late 20th century scientifically oriented anthropologist” to walk to the Janesville fence for his first look at tiny “Miracle” with an air of expectation.

“I’m looking into these deep brown eyes expecting some flicker of recognition,” he says. “It ain’t there.”

And yet there’s no denying that others have had a far different experience, he says. The Heiders told him of a Catholic priest who walked to the fence and was moved to give up his ministry, and hundreds of others who said their lives were somehow changed. While the offerings were initially traditional native gifts—tobacco and cloths of sacred colors—they evolved into buried crystals and pictures of dead relatives. “People are essentially turning that spiritual area into a shrine,” Pickering says. “How does that happen? What does that mean?”

Regardless of why you believe more white calves are being born, Pickering says, you can’t dismiss the fact these white calves are touching thousands of lives. How you react to the calf, Pickering says, seems to depend on “what you bring to the fence.”

When Dave Heider, a Janesville, Wisconsin truck driver,  saw the pure white coat shining on his new bison calf, he gave a loud whistle and shouted, “I’m rich!”

And then the holy people started coming. People like Floyd “Looks for Buffalo” Hand, an Oglala Lakota spiritual interpreter who has since become known as the messenger of the White Buffalo Woman. He told the Heiders that the bull who sired Miracle would “lay down his life” for the calf and saw, in a vision, a large obstruction in the bull’s intestines. Twelve days after the white buffalo calf was born, the bull died, and the vet found a large blood clot in the stomach. Perhaps more than the birth of the white calf itself, that prophetic vision unnerved the Heiders. They realized then they were dealing with more than a genetic fluke.

Offers poured in—including a trade of 750 buffalo (the equivalent of $2.5 million) from one tribe. But the Heiders stuck with the advice of tribal leaders who said the white buffalo was to stay where she was born.

“She was put here for a reason,” Dave Heider has said. “I’m not sure what the reason is, but she belongs here with her family. What the hell! I was born poor. I’ll probably die poor. In the meantime, I’ll do the right thing.” For their response, the couple has been named members of the Lakota tribe, an honor not lightly bestowed. They’ve spent a New Year’s Eve with rocker Ted Nugent, who wrote a song, “The Great White Buffalo,” and who sought to buy Miracle. And they’ve greeted thousands of people, including the Dalai Lama, nearly the entire Green Bay Packer football team, and at least four people claiming to be Jesus.

The Heiders treat Miracle like the rest of the animals in the herd, with the same food and care. Yet the visitors keep coming—at least one a day—and some 61/2 years later her attraction doesn’t seem to be dwindling; the opposite, in fact, seems to be true.

“People say that when they first came here they could feel the heartbeat of the Earth when they stepped on our land,” says Dave’s wife, Val. “As time went on, they said, ‘I could hear it a block away.’ I-90 is 3 miles away. Now they say when they turn off the interstate they can hear the heartbeat of the land and feel the energy.”

Hand is one of the truest believers. In a recent book, Learning Journey on the Red Road, he says he had a vision of the spirit woman shortly before Miracle’s 1994 birth. She told him she’d be coming when the cherries were black (around August) to bring a final chance for reason. Then, he was told, we’d get a chance to examine what we’d done wrong, like polluting the earth, along with a chance to make things right.

Others like Victor Douville, a professor of Lakota studies on the Sinte Gleska University on South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation, don’t believe the calf woman has yet returned. He believes she’ll come back on a reservation so that positive change can start with the native ways and spread out to the world. The calf woman said she’d return when the tribe—not all of mankind—was on the verge of extinction, he believes.

“We’ll have real hardship and it’ll be a sign of hope, it will be the beginning of a change,” he says. “I see no great need. Our tribe’s never been in a better position. Certainly nobody’s starving. No great epidemics have occurred.”

"…they could feel the heartbeat of the Earth when they stepped on our land."

But what of such global issues as the warming of the Earth, asks Chief Looking Horse, or the hopelessness and suicide he has witnessed among youth on reservations close to home? He understands the desire of tribal members to see the holy bison appear on the reservation, he says, and points out that one white bison was born on the Pine Ridge reservation. It was accidentally shot and killed a year ago—by order of a tribal police officer who didn’t know it was the sacred white calf (it had changed brown)—when it got loose and was thought to be charging at cars.

What Native Americans refer to as “turtle island” is all of the United States and Canada, and buffalo roamed through most all of it. “In the spirit, there are no boundaries,” Looking Horse says. “There’s no racism.”

In fact, Looking Horse and others believe the holy white calves may have been born on the land of white farmers as a first step in building a bridge between people of different cultures and religions. It’s already happening, he says, even if it doesn’t come as quickly as some might like.

Paula Horn, a member of the Dakota tribe who is helping Looking Horse with his world peace and prayer day efforts, hates that one western rancher charges admission to see a white calf born on his ranch. And she cringes at reports of ranchers who have stuffed white bison when they died as babies—one of them even being offered for sale at $5,200 at the theme-park style Child’s Play Ranch in Hanover, Michigan.

For us, it’s like stuffing us,” Horn says. “ We wouldn’t stuff a baby.”

Some cultural missteps, however, are backed by the best intentions. A couple of hours north of Child’s Play you’ll find another rancher who has stuffed a white baby bison, against the advice of a Sioux leader, but with no thought to profit. Earl Roe, owner of the Double R Bison ranch in South Branch (about 70 miles southwest of Grayling), says he preserved a baby white bison shortly after it died in 1997 so that others could experience what a sacred white calf looks like. He first buried the organs in a traditional ceremony.

“I got her mounted and sitting on the entertainment center above the TV,” Roe says. “She looks at me all the time. We made kind of a shrine to the white buffalo in the corner.”

There must be some “powerful medicine” on his ranch, he says—or at least the right genetic mix—because the same pair of bison had a second white buffalo calf on Sept. 10, 1999. That one is healthy and now a dark brown, and when Native Americans from the nearest reservation in Mt. Pleasant bring offerings to his fence, he takes them into the baby “to keep the evil spirits away from her.” Meanwhile, he likes doing his part to rebuild the nation’s buffalo herd. He’s always loved the independent spirit of the bison, he says, and wanted to “help bring them back to North America after what we did.”

The Romaniks were just looking for that All-American symbol of the West to supplement a small tourist-oriented game park in Mackinaw City when they bought their first buffalo 20 years ago. At that time, they weren’t even sure bison still existed in the United States, so small were their numbers across the nation. Walt eventually tracked some down and came home one day with 23—instead of the one that wife Marilyn was hoping for. Their tourist park and Christmas tree farm grew to include a bison herd now numbering about 200 animals, an elk ranch, and a profitable meat processing business.

Romanik was named first president of the Michigan Bison Association, and most of the bison that now graze various parts of the state came from his herd. Still, nothing prepared him for the day he drove into his field and saw a bison that seemed to be glowing.

When news got out of yet another white bison birth, spiritual leaders from the nearby Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Odawa Indians brought offerings of tobacco and performed a traditional blessing ceremony, and other visitors still trickle in.

Romanik—an avid hunter and fisherman who hosts a buffalo dinner as a chamber fundraiser—has since found himself taking the Native American viewpoint in discussions on such things as tribal fishing rights. “I always did think the Indians got a raw deal,” he says, “but not nearly so much as I do now that I got to know some and read up on it.”

In the visor of his pickup, next to a traditional Palm Sunday palm, he now keeps one of woven sweet grass. “The Indians gave me this,” he says proudly. “After they smoked the peace pipe with me and [his son] Gregg.”

Back in his field, he breathes a sigh of relief as No. 19 dashes from a grove of trees in sort of a hopping run. “That’s good,” he says nodding. “I’m glad she’s holding the leg up.”

And from his simple home on a reservation in South Dakota, Chief Looking Horse prays for “19” and the other bison calves born white—taking to heart the predictions of other spiritual leaders that the health of the calves is somehow linked with the fate of humankind. As for the fact the sacred animal is limping, it is perhaps a fitting metaphor for the current state of humankind, he says.

“After all,” Looking Horse asks. “Aren’t we?”

You Say Buffalo, I say Bison

Bison are part of the family Bovidae, to which cattle and goats belong. They are not in the same family that Asian and African buffalo are. Because they resemble old world animals, that’s what early explorers called them. The name buffalo is still used interchangeably, but here’s one difference: Buffalo don’t have that large shoulder hump which—combined with its broad, massive head and short, thick neck and small hindquarters gives the bison its rugged appearance.

A New Heritage

When John Hatch looks at his tribe’s totems, he sees cranes, bears, rabbits, beavers. The revered artifacts honor the animals that helped the tribe survive for generations along the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “I don’t,” he says frankly, “see a darned buffalo anywhere.”

But just as Americans have adopted icons of its European ancestry as national symbols, so has the buffalo taken on a pan-Indian appeal, says Hatch, the tribal spokesman for the Sault Ste. Marie band of Chippewa Indians. His Northern Michigan tribe is working to establish its own buffalo herd.

The move is partly good business sense. With growing demand for bison meat and high market prices, ranching makes a good supplement to tribal gambling operations. And there’s a bonus for the tribe’s youth and others seeking to restore a threatened culture and heritage, says Bob Nygaard, the tribe’s director of planning and development. In fact, the Intertribal Bison Cooperative requires members to look at the animal holistically before they’ll provide technical assistance. “Buffalo are very spiritual,” Nygaard says, “not only within themselves but to the tribe that owns them.”

The tribe is the first in Michigan to join the national cooperative, which is working to restore bison on native lands as a way to promote both spiritual and ecological restoration. The association includes 42 tribes with a collective herd of more than 8,000 bison. The Michigan tribe plans to re-fence some 200 acres 15 miles south of Sault Ste. Marie this spring, build a corral, storage buildings and water troughs. They hope to be ready by fall to bring in 20 to 40 bison, likely surplus animals from one of the national parks.

For over 30 years the staff at Traverse Magazine has written about the history and natural world of our region. For the web series, Traverse Classics, we've reached into our archives to bring our favorites to our MyNorth.com audience.

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