JANESVILLE, Wis. -- She looks like any other buffalo, big and brown and shaggy, slogging through her muddy pasture at David and Valerie Heider's farm.
But she's not like any of the other buffalo in the Heiders' herd of about 75 animals. Named Miracle, she was born not brown but white, and has since become an object of veneration to some, of curiosity to others.
Almost a half-million people have trekked to the Heider farm since Miracle's birth in August 1994, coming to see the animal that was said to be the fulfillment of a centuries-old Native American prophecy.
"Some people look at this place as a shrine," David Heider says. "We've had people say that they've never felt so much at peace with themselves."
"She affects people for the better," Valerie Heider says. "People get calmer. When they're here, they say they can't explain the peace they feel."
The couple's farm doesn't look like a shrine. The Heiders own 46 acres -- they rent another 200 -- and grow hay and corn, in addition to raising buffalo. In the past the family has raised longhorn cattle, emus and rheas, and these days there are miniature horses, Cochin chickens, bloodhounds, Boston terriers, ostriches, parrots and tortoises on the premises. Along with Miracle.
Floyd Hand, a Lakota spiritual interpreter from Pine Ridge, S.D., likens the white buffalo legend to other Native American teachings (the Seminoles' Corn Lady) and the folk traditions of various religions (Our Lady of Guadeloupe and other apparitions of the Virgin Mary).
"They're all kind of the same focus," he says. "She is an avatar, a star person. Jesus was one of them, and so is this mother who came home to us again."
According to the Plains Indians legend, a white buffalo calf appeared to two Lakota warriors who were hunting buffalo some 2,000 years ago. As it got closer, it was transformed into a beautiful young Indian woman. One of the warriors grabbed for the woman, and he was struck by lightning and burned to ashes. She told the other to return to his people and have them assemble for her visit. Four days later she reappeared to the Lakota and taught them seven sacred ceremonies and presented them with a sacred pipe. The White Buffalo Calf Woman promised she would someday return, and told the Lakota that the birth of a white buffalo calf would be a sign that her return was imminent, at which time she would purify the world.
Two thousand years later, Miracle appeared on the Heider farm, and life hasn't been the same.
`Religious state of mind'
"We've got a guest register, and I can show you 450,000 names from people all over the world," David Heider says.
He is standing in a small gift shop on his property. In addition to selling postcards of Miracle, a few buffalo-related or Native American trinkets, and buffalo meat, the shop has five showcases packed with items that people have left behind -- feathers, necklaces, buttons, St. Christopher medals, photos, coins, key chains. Just about everything imaginable.
"I got a title to a '56 Chevy pickup," Heider says. "Haven't found the truck yet, though."
One of the showcases is devoted solely to material left since Sept. 11.
"We've noticed that since Sept. 11, we've had a lot more of a religious state of mind [among visitors]," he says. "Sales at the gift shop have dropped dramatically, but more people -- not only Native Americans, but everyone -- are spending more time with Miracle."
"I see more spirituality," Valerie agrees. "More people seeking more to believe in, or connect more, I think. They sit there and pray. Sometimes they talk about it, but we don't ask a whole lot of questions."
Hand says that some visitors -- himself included -- believe in Miracle's healing powers.
"I have prayed for children there, and I have prayed for elders, and I have witnessed them healed," he says.
"But there's no answer; there's no use looking for answers."
Despite the introspective atmosphere at the farm, David isn't adverse to having some fun with his visitors.
"One day this guy walked up the driveway. Really nice suit, $600 shoes. And he asked what we did with the buffaloes. I told him, `Well, when they're 2 years old I turn them into hamburger. She's 4 now, and she hasn't had any calves yet, so . . . '
"You should have seen his face.
"And one day these four nice older ladies arrived and asked, `Where is the white buffalo?' I told them, `I'm sorry, but you're too late. We turned her into hamburger yesterday.' One of them swung her umbrella at me."
From white to black
Miracle's birth in itself was only part of the legend. According to Heider, the white buffalo would turn black, red and yellow in succession, signifying all the races of man. And Miracle followed the script, turning solid black six months after her birth, then a light red by June 1995, and yellow by that November. Today she looks like any other buffalo in the herd. Such changes are not unusual, however.
"Buffalo will change as they mature," says Dave Carter, executive director of the Denver-based National Bison Association. "A lot of times when buffalo are born they're a light tan color, and they will darken as they mature. They will get gold coats and, particularly as they go through the seasons, they'll get darker. You end up with everything from some animals who are lighter brown all the way to a chocolate brown."
Carter says that records aren't kept on the number of white buffalo, but "it's extremely rare.
"It's one of those things that really happens when the genetics are just right. I don't want to say it's an accident, but it's not something someone can breed for."
Since Miracle arrived, there have been several other reported births, not all of which have been publicized.
"We got a call from a guy in Virginia a month after Miracle was born," David Heider says. "He had one. He asked me about what was going on here. He didn't want the crowds, so he kept it quiet.
"A guy in Minnesota, he had one born before Christmas, but it turned brown in less than a month.
"Native Americans say the reason for the influx of white buffalo is because of the publicity about Miracle. We're about the only ones who have come out."
Dalai Lama and Elvis
At the time of Miracle's birth, the Heiders had 13 buffalo and were four years along in their effort to build a herd, with the hope of starting a buffalo-meat business. Miracle was reportedly the first white buffalo born since the early 1930s, and it didn't take long for word to spread once the press found out. Stranger, Valerie says, was the fact that some people were aware of Miracle before anyone was told about her birth.
"There were a few [Native Americans] here before the newspaper articles even came out," she says. "They said they knew that she would be born. They had visions or premonitions. It was weird. Not interesting. Weird."
Hand says that the White Buffalo Calf Woman appeared to him in a vision and predicted her return shortly before Miracle's birth. (She also prophesied several events -- turbulent times in the United States starting in 2003, water becoming "as rare as gold," war and natural disasters -- that will be meant to get America back on a more spiritual path, he says.)
Once local newspapers ran stories on Miracle, the crowds began arriving. They've never stopped.
"One winter solstice, a girl came and asked if she could have about 20 or 30 people here," Heider says. "They were going to build a fire for a ceremony, and they wanted to greet the sun. We said OK. It turned into 175 people. . . . They had a Catholic priest, a minister. All kinds of people participated."
Other less orthodox visitors are welcome too.
"We've had Jesus Christ here. Twice. And a guy came down from Minneapolis in October. Said he'd just had breakfast with Elvis, and Elvis was on his way down. We get 'em all."
They even had the Dalai Lama. "We didn't know it was him until two days after he was gone. He was here with two other guys -- this was June of 1995 -- and he presented us with a silk scarf. We didn't think much about them; we get Buddhist monks all the time. But then we found out who he was."
No cash cow
Miracle hasn't meant a financial windfall for the Heiders. There's the gift shop, and people can donate anything they wish -- the money goes into a fund for Miracle's upkeep -- but there's no charge to see her.
"I had a reporter say, `Why don't you charge?'" says Heider, who has kept his day job of driving a truck for the county. "`Figure, 50,000 people at $5 each, that's a good deal of change.' I said to him, `Would you pay $5 to get into church? Maybe you'd throw $5 in the collection plate, but not to just get in.'
"This is like church for a lot of people," David says. "It makes a lot of people happy, and that's the way it's going to be."
The Heiders have also rejected offers to buy Miracle.
Rocker Ted Nugent wanted to buy her, and when the Heiders said no he asked to borrow some video footage of her to use in his show (the Heiders were rewarded with four airline tickets to Detroit, where they celebrated New Year's Eve with Nugent).
Then there was the call from representatives of Ted Turner, who owns the largest private herd of buffalo in the U.S. and who offered 750 of his 30,000 buffalo in trade for Miracle.
"At the time, that was probably $2.6 million worth of buffalo," Heider says. "And that's not the largest offer I've turned down."
But reject it he did,. Heider says Miracle's future is in Janesville. She had calves in 1998 and 2000 -- neither of them white -- and could live and produce calves for another couple of decades.
Besides, there's still another part of the legend to be fulfilled, Heider says.
"The prophecy said she'd turn white again when there was peace in the world," he says with a laugh. "I don't think we have to worry about that right now."
Copyright © 2002