The fantastic author, Margaret Coel, has a new book out titled “Night of the White Buffalo“. In the book, a white buffalo calf is born on a white couple’s ranch in the middle of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Just the idea prompted many thoughts and questions, so here are the results of my research on the subject.
According to the National Bison Association, the odds of a white buffalo birth is one in ten million. But there are different ways a buffalo can be born white. Of course, they may be albinos, in which case they will remain unpigmented throughout their lives, and may have other physical problems such as hearing and vision loss. On June 4, 2006, a white dam, Miracle Moon gave birth to Little Dream Walker, a male albino, sired by Arizona Spirit. This was the first white to white breeding. The calf died on June 6, 2006, due to its albinism.
They may be leucistic, with white fur but blue eyes, instead of the pink seen in albinos. In contrast to albinism, leucism can cause the reduction in all types of pigment not just melanin. There is a rare genetic condition where the calf is born white, but becomes brown as it matures. And then there are bison-cattle crossbreeds which inherit a white coat from their cattle ancestry.
Because of the close association many plains Indians had with the buffalo, the white buffalo has become sacred to them and the spirit woman, White Buffalo Calf Woman. There are many variations on the legend, so, this may be a more generic interpretation than told by any one of the specific tribes, but I have tried to include those parts that seem to me to be in common.
There was a time many years ago when the buffalo were dwindling and the people were concerned they might starve. The chief sent out two scouts to search for food. On their journey, they spotted a very pretty woman with long, flowing black hair dressed in a white buckskin dress. One of scouts boasted that he would approach her with the idea of making her his wife, but the other warned him not to do so that she appeared to be a sacred spirit. But, the young scout did not heed his friend and when he approached the woman and tried to embrace her, she turned his body turned into a pile of bones. The friend with a good heart was very afraid, but the woman spoke kindly to him and told him she had come to help his people. She sent him back to prepare for her coming.
When she came, she brought to the people the sacred pipe and taught them sacred rituals. Then, she rolled on the ground and after each roll transitioned into a different colored buffalo calf until after the fourth roll she was white. She told the people that she would return. She told them that when she returned, she would bring them blessings. After she disappeared over the hill, a great herd of buffalo came to the people and they did not starve.
So, now the birth of a white buffalo symbolizes the return of White Buffalo Calf Woman and, for these tribes, the most sacred of all living things.
In this series, I will tell the stories of some of those white buffalo calves and the blessing and sometimes curse they brought to the ranchers and people associated with them.