The White Buffalo has been the most sacred living thing to the Plains Indians for over 2,000 years. It symbolizes the promised return of White Buffalo Woman (see White Buffalo, Part 1: The Legend). The white buffalo calf brings the promise of great blessings to those who respect and adopt the ways taught by White Buffalo Woman. But, the calf can also bring a curse to those who ignore the signs and make the wrong choices.
When the West was first explored by the white man, it was estimated that there were 80 million buffalo roaming freely in North America. Since it is estimated that the chances of a white buffalo birth is one-in-ten-million, there could have been as many as eight white calves at any one time before 1830. By 1830 there were an estimated forty million bison left.
In 1865, that number was down to fifteen million when the great buffalo slaughters were sanctioned by the United States Government. Over the next 30 years, only about 1,100 survived. Most of the survivors took refuge in the remote Pelican Valley in Yellowstone National Park. In 1894, Congress passed the National Park Protection Act which also gave protection to buffalo and other wildlife inside the Nation Parks. At that point, only 23 genetically pure wild buffalo had survived.
Today, genetically pure buffalo are rare. Most buffalo herds on ranches are hybrids that were at some point cross-bred with cattle. They are often called “beefalo”. Pure American buffalo are categorized into two species, the Plains and the Woodland. Pure Plains Buffalo herds are the Yellowstone Park bison herd and the Henry Mountains bison herd which was started with bison taken from Yellowstone Park. The Wind Cave bison herd and the Wood Buffalo National Park bison herd and subsidiary herds started from it, in Canada, are of the Woodland Buffalo species. The Woodland Buffalo species is generally larger than the Plains species. Today, about 500,000 buffalo exist in North American but a small fraction are pure.
Of course, the American Buffalo is technically a bison. They are probably descendants of the European “Wisent” bison that crossbred with the “Yak” and then migrated to North America across the ice-age land bridge from Asia. DNA testing show that there may have been multiple migrations and crossbreedings that are too complicated for me to sort out. But is no coincidence that the American Bison and European Wisent Bison are so similar looking. Maybe not so much the Yak.
Although, the chances of a pure-bred natural white buffalo calf [refer to White Buffalo, Part 1] was possibly eliminated by the slaughters of the 19th century, there were notable reports of white buffalo since. But, I believe that most of them were probably from hybrids. For instance, the killing of a white buffalo by the Cheyenne in 1833 during the Leonid Meteor Shower, “The Night the Stars Fell”. They used the hide to inscribe a peace treaty. Today the hide resides at Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site near La Junta, Colorado. [Note: this information from AAANativeArts.com is incorrect. There is no White Buffalo hide like this at Bent’s Fort–Courtney Miller]
On October 7, 1876, a buffalo hunter named J. Wright Mooar killed a white buffalo in the Deep Creek drainage near Snyder, Texas. He retained the hide his entire life, despite reports that Teddy Roosevelt offered him $5000 for the hide. White Buffalo Park is presently located near the site of the shooting, and an adjacent ranch is the current resting place of the hide.
There have been around 19 white buffalo recorded since 1933. The first was born in May of 1933, on the National Bison Range in western Montana on the Flathead Reservation. The white bull calf with ice-blue eyes, brown horns, and a curious brown top-notch was named “Big Medicine” and become quite a tourist attraction. Since it was not a full albino, it avoided traditional vision problems and early death associated with albinos. He eventually became one of the major herd bulls and at age four was bred to his own mother in a successful attempt to produce another white calf. “Little Medicine” was born in May, 1937, but was a full albino with pink eyes and creamy white hooves, and he was completely blind. When he was six months old, he was shipped to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he remained until his death in 1949. Big Medicine died in August, 1959 at age 26. This is a ripe old age for a buffalo, white or otherwise. Typically a buffalo lives to age 15 in the wild and sometimes 25 in captivity. A taxidermist named Bob Scriver spent two years mounting the bull’s remains which are now on display at the Montana State Historical Museum in Helena, Montana.
I found this account from the “AAA Native Arts” website: “From 1939-58, during Big Medicine’s lifetime, no less than six white calves were born to the Big Delta herd in Alaska. None of these calves lived more than a few weeks. The Big Delta herd apparently was a stronghold for the recessive gene during this time and for the next fifteen years. In 1961, three more white calves were born in the Big Delta herd, but all of them disappeared within three months. In 1963 two more were born…one only lasted three months, and the other didn’t make it through the winter. The twelfth white buffalo from this herd was seen in 1973. Government officials tried to capture it to send it to a zoo in Anchorage, but were unsuccessful. It too, didn’t make it through the year. This was the last white bison seen in the Alaska herd.”
Over the next couple of weeks, I will be looking into the personal stories of some of the white buffalo of the 20th and 21st century. Mystery, tragedy, blessings have surrounded these special buffalo and their stories are remarkable.