Miracle: White Buffalo of Prophecies Born in Wisconsin
Miracle: By Tom Laskin,
Isthmus Newspaper - Madison, Wisconsin
Nov. 25-Dec 1, 1994
"To tell the truth, the first time I looked out there, I saw a million dollars," says Janesville farmer Dave Heider as he watches Miracle, the white buffalo calf held sacred by Native Americans, chew contentedly on a mouthful of silage.
"But once I saw how much this little calf means to so many people, I couldn't see charging money for people to come and look at her. I mean, how can you put a price on something that's sacred and holy? You know, if God meant for me to be a millionaire, I would have won the lottery."
Heider and his wife, Val, had been raising buffalo on their 46-acre hobby farm for less than five years when Miracle was born snow white on Aug. 20. Since then more than 20,000 people have come to see her, and the gate to the Heider's pasture and the trees next to it are now covered with offerings: feathers, necklaces and pieces of colorful cloth as well as personal notes and the occasional medal won in Vietnam. All this has piqued the interest of news and infotainment outlets around the world, including the BBC, CBS News, and People magazine.
Notes Dave Heider, "We made the front page of papers seven days in a row when O.J. didn't"
Naturally, an assortment of wealthy collectors and modern-day Barnums have also shown an interest in the calf. Early on, rock star Ted Nugent, who penned a song about a white buffalo, offered to buy Miracle.
But the Heiders haven't tried to make money off the calf. Dave still drives a truck for the county (he'll go up to a 16-hour day when the snow begins to fall) and Val hasn't quit her janitor job. The couple has gotten into a little merchandising, but profits from postcards and T-shirts sold at the farm during weekend visiting hours go into a trust fund that will be used to maintain the calf and pay for such other expenses as the 9,000- volt electric fence that guards Miracle and the rest of the Heider's 13-buffalo herd.
To prevent exploitation of the calf by carnival sharks and what the Heiders' attorney, Dan Varline, calls "UFO magazines," both Miracle's image and name have been copyrighted. (Isthmus had to sign an agreement prohibiting broader use in order to photograph the calf.)
The Heiders knew from contacts in the bison industry that their calf was unusual; in fact, the Wisconsin Farmer and The Beloit Daily News both did stories about its birth. But it was only after the story got wider distribution that they learned Miracle was held sacred by buffalo-hunting Plains Indians; including the Lakota and the Cheyenne.
"The story hit the news wire on Wednesday and the first Native Americans were here on Thursday," recalls Heider. "I think they were Oneida. They came from Black River Falls. We were up by the calf with some people and these Native Americans had been waiting for an hour, an hour and half. They asked our permission to see the calf and also pray to it and leave an offering."
News of the calf spread quickly through the Native American community because its birth fulfilled a 2,000-year-old prophecy of northern Plains Indians. Joseph Chasing Horse, traditional leader of the Lakota nation, explains that 2,000 years ago a young woman who first appeared in the shape of a white buffalo gave the Lakota's ancestors a sacred pipe and sacred ceremonies and made them guardians of the Black Hills. Before leaving, she also prophesized that one day she would return to purify the world, bringing back spiritual balance and harmony; the birth of a white buffalo calf would be a sign that her return was at hand.
Owen Mike, who's in line to succeed his 90-year-old father, Thomas, as head of the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) buffalo clan, says his people have a slightly different interpretation of the white calf's significance. He adds, however, that the Ho-Chunk version of the prophecy also stresses the return of harmony, both in nature and among all peoples.
"It's more of a blessing from the Great Spirit," Mike explains. "It's a sign. This white buffalo is showing us that everything is going to be okay."
FULFILLING THE PROPHECY
Despite her enormous spiritual and cultural significance, Miracle isn't scientifically important. UW-Madison geneticist Dr. Richard Spritz, an expert in albinism and other pigmentation disorders, disputes news reports that the odds of a white buffalo being born are less than one in 10 million.
"In humans, the frequency of albinism in most populations is about one in 15,000, which turns out to be a pretty handy number for buffalo because the estimated number of them in the U.S. is something around 150,000. That means, that any given time, if the frequency of albinism in buffalo is similar to that in humans, there ought to be 10 white buffalo out there. And if there's some other way to have a white buffalo, there ought to be more."
So while the American Bison Association says the last documented white buffalo died in 1959, Spritz says the person who alerted him to Miracle's birth has tracked down six living white buffalo. He also notes that a stuffed white buffalo has stood in Harvard's Peabody Museum for years. (There's always some question whether a white buffalo is actually part cow, and therefore a beefalo. Dave Heider says he will allow Miracle's DNA to be examined in March, when it's time for her to be inoculated against various diseases.)
But even if other white buffalo have been born in modern times, Miracle holds special significance for Native Americans. She's female, and the bull that sired her died, just as in the prophesy. And, while recent visitors to the Heider farm are sometimes disappointed that the calf's head has turned brown and its body is now a silvery tan, versions of the prophesy state that the white buffalo calf would change colors four times, thus signifying the colors of the four peoples she would unify: black, red, yellow, and white.
Joseph Chasing Horse, in a phone interview from his home in Rapid City, S.D., adds that winter counts -- which date the telling of the White Buffalo Calf Woman story in sacred ceremonies -- confirm that this is the buffalo calf of the prophesy.
Moreover, the birth of Miracle on the Heider farm coincides with increased economic stability (thanks in large part to profits from Indian gaming) and cultural rejuvenation among Native Americans. For example, the Ho-Chunk (who this month received federal permission to restore their original name) have used gaming profits to establish Ho-Chunk language programs in their summer camp for teenage children and in four new Head Start centers. The tribe has also reacquired a tract of land that includes sacred sites on the lower Wisconsin River.
Larry Johns, a member of the Oneida tribe who works to preserve Indian mounds and other sacred sites, stresses the cultural importance of such recent discoveries as the Gottschall Rock Shelter in Iowa County, which includes a rock painting from A.D. 900 that tells a story still told by Ho-Chunk elders.
"My father and grandfather went to Indian schools, and they were beaten for speaking their language," says Johns, who along with fellow Oneida and representatives of other tribes has helped put together the new Native American Council of Madison, a group dedicated to promoting cultural awareness. "They tried to beat the Indian out of us. It's imperative that we go back to these stories and find out what they mean to us...and who we are."
And how does Miracle fit into all of this? Says Johns, "There's so little understanding of Native American issues and ideas that any opportunity to get people interested--even if it's just coming to see a white buffalo calf--is a good thing."
Johns admits that seeing a key Indian prophesy fulfilled at a white couple's farmette on the banks of the Rock River at first seemed a bit bizarre. But the Heiders' eagerness to accommodate the people who came to pray to the calf and leave offerings eased his mind.
"Initially I was wondering: Why in Janesville?" says Johns, who rotates with other Indians in providing security for the calf during visiting hours. "The place still has problems with the KKK. And, you know, it's just not the friendliest of places. But now that I've gotten to know the family, I understand why. Just about anybody else would be charging five, 10 bucks."
Buffalo and Environment
Dave Heider was impressed by the beauty of buffalo when he and Val got their first good look at a bull a few years ago at an exotic animal sale in Michigan. But the couple didn't get into buffalo farming because of romantic visions of the Great Plains turned black by enormous bison herds.
"We got into it more or less for retirement," Dave explains. "Something to fall back on, a little extra income."
"And the meat's very low in cholesterol," adds Val, a buffalo booster who echoes her husband's pragmatic take on buffalo farming. "You know, it's the only animal that doesn't get cancer."
But the buffalo isn't just a food source for Native Americans. Especially for the Plains Indians, it has always been a living, breathing sacrament. Unlike the soldiers and Wild Westerners who hunted North America's 60 million head herd to the brink of extinction in the 1890s, the Lakota and other Plains Indians never wasted any portion of the buffalo they killed. The buffalo provided them with food, shelter, clothing--all the essentials of life. It was also a central part of their spiritual lives, and the hunt itself was a ceremony.
These days, the Lakota and other nations have established their own herds in South Dakota and elsewhere through the InterTribal Bison Association.
The Ho-Chunk hope to raise a herd on part of the 600-acre parcel they've purchased, with profits from their three casinos, on the lower Wisconsin River. And, along with renewed interest on the part of young people in their native languages and sacred ways, the rebirth of the buffalo herds is strengthening cultural awareness.
But building herds is an ongoing process, and Joseph Chasing Horse says much more must be done to protect the buffalo and their North American habitat:
"I would like to see something put into place where [the buffalo] would be able to regenerate their herds and be given more of their aboriginal migrating territory," he says. "Since the disappearance of the buffalo migration, we have felt the ecological impact that it is having upon the land. With the disappearance of the buffalo, there are certain medicines that no longer grow, and the Great Plains are being turned back into a desert."
In recent years, non-Indians have also come to realize the profound influence of buffalo on the health of the land. A South Dakota ranch manager quoted in the National Geographic's recent cover story on the American buffalo says wider migrations could help solve water-management problems because the buffalo's sharp hooves break up the soil and improve its ability to hold moisture.
Buffalo can live for nearly 40 years, which means the Heiders are likely to form much stronger bonds with the Native Americans they've come to know since August. And while the number of visitors who still trek to the farm to see Miracle has decreased since the weather got cold and her winter coat began to darken, Dr. Spritz and others say warmer weather may renew her whiteness. That second miracle of coloration would undoubtedly bring a second wave of attention to the calf and occasion more pilgrimages.
Sign from Spirits
Joseph Chasing Horse, traditional Lakota elder, visited the site of Miracle's birth and conducted a Pipe ceremony there. He tells the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman's bringing the first Pipe to the Lakota people and of some prophecies she left with the people at that time.
No matter what happens to Miracle in the coming months and years, Joseph Chasing Horse says the birth is a sign from the Great Spirit and the ensuing age of harmony and balance it represents cannot be revoked. That doesn't mean, of course, that the severe trials Native Americans have endured since the arrival of Europeans on these shores are over. Indeed, the Lakota nation mounted the longest court case in U.S. history in an unsuccessful effort to regain control of the Black Hills, the sacred land on which the White Buffalo Calf Woman appeared 2,000 years ago.
Still, despite their ongoing struggles, Native Americans are heartened by the appearance of a white buffalo in Janesville, and have hope for a harmonious and prosperous future.
"Mention that we are praying, many of the medicine people, the spiritual leaders, the elders, are praying for the world," says Joseph Chasing Horse. "We are praying that mankind does wake up and think about the future, for we haven't just inherited this earth from our ancestors, but we are borrowing it from our unborn children."
Date: 94-11-20 00:16:35 EST
The Chicago Tribune
White Buffalo Calf Named Miracle
News of the birth of a rare white buffalo is spreading among American Indians, inspiring pilgrimages to what many tribes believe is a sacred, apocalyptic animal. "This is like the second coming of Christ on this island of North America," said Floyd Hand, a Sioux medicine man from Pine Ridge, SD, "The legend is she would return and unify the nations of the four colors -- the black, red, yellow and white." The white calf named "Miracle" was born August 20 at the Wisconsin farm where Dave Heider raises a herd of 14 buffalo and other animals. He plans to have it tested to see if it will retain its white coat, the cow is definitely not albino.
The white buffalo is sacred to the Cheyenne, Sioux, and other tribes of the Plains that once relied on the buffalo for sustenance according to Mattheu Snipp, a University of Wisconsin sociology and Indian studies professor. The white buffalo's spiritual significance stems from its rarity. In the 1800s, when up to 80 million of the buffalo roamed the plains, the odds against having an albino calf were estimated at one in 10 million, according to the National Buffal o Association. Relentless hunting reduced the buffalo population to about 500 in the late 1800s; there are about 130,000 today.
"The impact and enormity of this to the Red Nation is immense," said Harry Brown Bear of the Oneida tribe in Wisconsin, "the teachings of our people and elders say there would be a time the Anglo nation and the American Indian would come together in goodness."
As of September 10, about 100 people from the Oneida, Cherokee, Sioux, and a half dozen other tribes had visited the calf. Heider said, "One woman flew in from Arizona, paid her respects, and then she was gone." On Monday, September 12, Arvol Looking Horse, who holds the pipe given to the Sioux by the legendary White Buffalo Calf Woman, and Floyd Hand came to the Heider farm. They came to perform a sacred pipe ceremony and spread a message of cultural revitalization and peace.
The birth of the first white buffalo in more than 50 years is an omen of renewed interest in American Indian heritage, Looking Horse said. As the 19th Keeper of the Sacred Calf Pipe, Looking Horse said the buffalo's return signifies that "a healing would begin and dreams and visions would return."
Hand, who led a group of Lakota Sioux from Pine Ridge, SD, said the calf's coming also affects non Indians, "It's an omen that's bringing a change and a new world. The 21st century that is coming is going to unify all of us. We are here to encourage people to pray for peace. We're gonna heal together now."
Heider said the family felt honored by the ceremony and gifts, "It's not something you feel in your head; it's something you feel in your heart," he said. More than 1500 people from around the country have visited the animal.
The Houston Chronicle
September 24, 1994
"American Legend is made flesh"
No longer mythical White Buffalo a beacon to Plains tribes......
Miracle stands in her mother's shadow, her champagne coat, ghostlike against the chocolate-colored herd. She is a mat of fuzz on a newborn frame. Yet Miracle is rarely among land-roving beasts. She is the mythical White Buffalo - symbol of hope, rebirth and unity for the Great Plains tribes.
Searching for Miracle will take you down long gravel path on the Heider family farm in south central Wisconsin. Three thousand pilgrims made the walk down the coarse stones earlier this month hoping to catch a glimpse of Miracle. Every day more come from all corners of the country. One man came from Ireland.
If all of this sounds a little crazy to you, consider this: The chance of a white buffalo being born makes your odds of winning the lottery look good, Miracles likelihood, according to the numbers from the National Buffalo Association, is somewhere in the range of 6 billion. Consider also that the only other documented white buffalo this century died in 1959. His name was Big Medicine. He lived for 36 years.
Now, there is Miracle, the infant calf born to a 1,100 -pound mother and now deceased father on Dave and Valerie Heider's farm on the banks of the Rock River. She is a beacon for believers.
"The arrival of the white buffalo is like the second coming of Christ, says Floyd Hand, a Sioux medicine man from Pine Ridge, S.D., who was one of the first to make the pilgrimage. It "will bring about purity of mind, body and spirit, and unify all nations, black, red, yellow, and white."
There are countless stories about the White Buffalo, a different tale for every tribe.
"Many years ago, says Tony Ironshell of the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota, three hunters encountered a white buffalo calf. The white buffalo turned into a woman and instructed the hunters to return to their village and prepare for her arrival. When she came four days later, she carried the sacred pipe. With that pipe she brought Sioux laws, and many things changed. The pipe from the White Buffalo Calfwoman is still kept in South Dakota.
In their ancient White Buffalo Dance, the Fox Indians of Wisconsin shadow the vision of a legendary hunter, who could turn himself into a white buffalo at will after the beast appeared to him in a dream. A white buffalo with red eyes and horns, says the Fox, gave the hunter the power to single-handedly turn back an army of attacking Sioux.
Before the white buffalo's birth, the Heiders had never known an Indian and knew little about Indian culture.
Now they are careful to say, "Native American," quickly correcting their tongues when they slip. And they readily recount the white buffalo stories they have heard.
"I am told, " says Valerie, "that Miracle's birth means the rebirth of the Native American culture and a new peace with the whites.... I know that you have never been bear-hugged until you've been bear-hugged by a Native American."
Susan Shown Harjo cried at her Washington D.C. office when she heard about the birth of the white buffalo calf. "It filled me with joy that had to spill over," says Harjo, who is Cheyenne and Muskogee. "The white buffalo is an important symbol for a lot of Plains Indians because they are messengers of creation. It is an important sign of well being on the verge of an awakening."
Harjo, president of the Washington based Morning Star Institute, which works to preserve native culture, says the birth of Miracle should make "all people pause the world over."
Heider had never even heard of a white buffalo when he went out at 6:00 am on Aug. 20 (1994) to check the buffalo cow who seemed ready to give birth. Instead of the reddish-brown calf he expected to find, he had a shock.
"She was white. I couldn't believe it," he says, still shaking his head. "That kind of thing only happens in fairy tales - and, now I know, in Indian tales too."
Heider called a journalist friend to tell her he had a cute little story about a white buffalo being born. He had no idea of the importance of the White Buffalo in the Indian mythology. The next thing he knew, The Associated Press picked up the story, and what started as a trickle of curious visitors became a torrent.
The Heiders, who are about 12 years shy of retirement age, have taken refuge in their home. The attention has become too much. Still, they have turned down countless offer to take Miracle off their hands.
"Miracle is going to stay and be with the herd," says Valerie.
They see no end to the crowds, but have no plans to profit from Miracle's birth. They've put out a bucket for donations from well-wishers to provide for security and are awaiting a $4,600 electric gate they hope will give them week-day peace.
"As far as we know, Miracle will be something people will want to see as long as she lives," says Dave. "But my life ain't gonna stop."
Even as he speaks, two more pilgrims pull up and start to make the long walk to Miracle.