Plains Indian legend of the white buffalo is reborn for believers Native American Miracle


Janesville, Wis -- Some were drawn here by a compelling legend handed down through the ages in the Native American oral tradition. Others were called by messengers of the more electronic variety: CNN, National Public Radio, Paul Harvey.

Whatever the source of the beckoning, thousands of modern-day pilgrims have found their way to this small southern Wisconsin town to see an animal so rare and myth-bound that she merits the name her owner has given her: Miracle.

Born four weeks ago to parents that are densely and bushily brown, the ghostly white baby is a sight to see, especially for Native Americans who believe they are witnessing part of their lore come to life. According to the legend, a woman appeared to a tribe of Plains Indians long ago, bearing a sacred pipe that would allow them to speak to the spirits. As she left, she turned into a white buffalo.

Now the white buffalo has returned, and its appearance at this farm 100 miles from Chicago has been a powerful magnet for those who believe.

"It is important. It is very symbolic of our culture," Etta Little Thunder, 78, said quietly during her visit on Saturday. She is one of hundreds of Lakota Sioux from South Dakota and other Native Americans who have made pilgrimages here to see the buffalo and return to their earthly lives with a sense of having experienced a more spiritual one.

"For me, it's a sign, a good sign," said Red Horse, an Ojibwa Indian who drove from Chicago to see the white buffalo. 'Seeing it, I feel cleansed, purified. It gives me a new sense of purpose. Like when you are on a road and you come to a sign where it says, 'This way.' "

Miracle also attracted many who are not Native Americans but are attracted to its culture and teachings, which have been borrowed -- some would say appropriated -- by various New Age and men's movement groups, who use sweat lodges, talking sticks, drum-beating and other rituals.

"I'm not really sure why, but I was just drawn here. It was very powerful," said Joanne Pumper, a nurse from Cary, Ill., who drove about two hours with her husband Mark, a psychotherapist, for a mere several minutes of seeing the white buffalo. "The spiritual significance is pretty meaningful."

She was among those who left offerings: feathers and fetishes, hand-written prayers, medicine wheels, dream catchers and pouches of herbs and tobacco to decorate a fence on the farm of Dave and Valerie Heider, who own Miracle.

The baby buffalo is the newest member of the Heiders' 13-head herd of North American buffalo. They started breeding the animals in 1989 as part of their exotic animal collection, which includes peacocks, a llama and now, this subject of almost overwhelming attention.

The Heiders are taking the stream of pilgrims and unceasing media attention -- they were awaiting the arrival of BBC crew from London this weekend -- remarkably well, although they've restricted visitors to Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Heider seems to regard his fate with a mixture of awe at the spiritual reaction the animal draws and a situation-saving dose of humor.

"This calf has brought a lot of people together," Mr. Heider said this weekend, as he watched the mostly gentle crowd sharing fence space so that everyone got a glimpse. "But if I have another one, I'm not telling anybody."

(Meanwhile, the other Dave Heider who lives in Janesville, a town of about 55,000, had to put this message on his answering machine: 'This is Dave, but not the Dave Heider who owns the white buffalo.")

He was stunned

When the buffalo-owning Mr. Heider discovered the white calf on Aug. 20, he was stunned. "You can't print what I said in a newspaper," he said. He told a friend who writes stories for agricultural publications. Word got around, and now Mr. Heider has a veritable happening on his hands.

People have come from as far away as New Zealand and Ireland, he said, and given the crowds this past weekend, the interest appears nowhere near flagging.

Once he learned of the significance of the white buffalo in Native American legend, Mr. Heider decided to open up his farm and let people in to see it rather than sell the animal to the numerous people who wanted to buy it, including rock musician and bow-hunter Ted Nugent.

"I could have retired yesterday," he said of the offers, which he declined to quantify. They must have been tempting, though, because he works as a dump truck driver for the county and his wife works for a janitorial service in addition to caring for the animals on their farm.

"How are you going to put a price tag on something that's one in the world? How are you going to put a price tag on a sacred belief?" Mrs. Heider said.

Native Americans have lauded the couple for not selling the animal to those who may have exploited her. And they are offering interpretations from personal to global for the meaning of the birth of something that figures so importantly in their collective memory.

"People look at it as a bison; we look at it as a vision. All over the world, there will be peace, loving and harmony," said Floyd Hand, a Lakota Sioux spiritual healer who a week ago led several hundred Native Americans in a ceremony to commemorate the reappearance of the woman-turned-white-buffalo's spirit.

White buffalo are so rare that there's no real consensus on just how rare they are. One group representing buffalo breeders believes the birth of a white buffalo may be a one in 10 million occurrence, while an expert in pigmentation at the nearby University of Wisconsin thinks it may be more like one in 20,000, which is the frequency of albinism in man and other species.

Equally disputed is what exactly constitutes this Miracle: Some speculate the white coat indicates the presence of crossbreeding with beef cattle, some of which are white, somewhere in its lineage. Others believe it is an albino, although its eyes and nose are brown rather than the more typical pink or pale shade of other cases of the genetic disorder in humans and animals.

"You can be darkly pigmented or have no pigment in the eyes and be an albino," said Dr. Richard A. Spritz, the medical geneticist who discovered the albino gene in humans. "It may be a form of albinism, although the brown nose raises questions. My working hypothesis is that it's probably an albino until proven otherwise."

DNA testing

And what would a media event be like today without . . . DNA testing. Dr. Spritz will be testing the buffalo's blood in several months to determine if it has the albino gene.

There have been documented and anecdotal cases of white buffaloes reported over the years. Perhaps the most famous is a male named "Big Medicine" born in 1933 on the National Bison Range in Montana, where it died in 1959.

What makes Miracle particularly alluring, Native Americans say, is that as a female, she more directly recalls the legend of the woman-turned-white-buffalo.

At this point, Miracle seems less mythical beast than cuddly stuffed toy. She looks rather like a lamb, having not yet grown the trademark horns, bushy head of hair and mastodon-evoking looks of all North American buffalo. And she sticks closely to her mother as if connected by an invisible string, drawing that universal response to utter cuteness: "Awwwwwwwww."

Three times a day, that group sigh ripples through the crowd gathered along the fence as the onlookers catch their first glimpse of the baby buffalo galloping with her herd from the back acres of the farm to the feeding area. At 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., Mr. Heider or one of his friends will bang on a metal trough, signaling feeding time for the herd and viewing time for the crowd on the other side of the fence.

Most were deeply moved by the sight of the buffalo and eager to believe in the legend.

"I am thinking things have to change, how people interact, all the racial problems now," said Mark Pumper, the psychotherapist from Illinois. "I'm hoping what they say about peace is true."

(This is not, however, all crunchy granola, tree-hugging, animal-rights territory. On a table selling cute $1 photos of Miracle are also brochures titled, "Why Eat Bison?" The answer: It tastes great!)

Each time the buffalo wandered into eyeshot, a slew of kids peered between the wires of the fence or perched atop their parents' shoulders, frequently asking "Where's the white one?" as they searched for the baby hidden amid the behemoth adults. Others wanted to know where the Indians were, no doubt expecting feathers and war paint rather than what most of the Native Americans wore to the farm: jeans, shorts and T-shirts.

City children

And then there was the traditional reaction of the city children to this brush with the wild yet fragrant kingdom: "P-U!"

As many as 1,500 people have shown up on a single day to pay homage to the animal and what it represents. Media interest shows no sign of slowing down.

"There have been other white buffalo born before, but I don't think it's ever before been a media event," said Raymond J. DeMallie, director of the American Indian Studies Research Institute at the University of Indiana. "Traditionally, when the Sioux found a white buffalo, they killed it. They left the meat for wild animals to eat, carefully skinned and decorated the hide and burned it to give it back to the spirits. If you pray for something, you're going to sacrifice the most valuable thing you have, and the most precious thing you can sacrifice is this because it's so rare."

But fear not, Miracle is not headed anywhere near a slaughterhouse. "I don't want a war on my hands," Mr. Heider said.

Instead, he plans to continue letting people visit, adding security to his farm and, perhaps, breed Miracle for future little miracles.

"Or maybe she'll shed this coat in November," Mr. Heider said of how buffalo lose their "baby" coat after several months, "turn brown, and everyone will go away."

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