Sacred buffalo calf gives hope to species revival efforts

by Max Matza, BBC News, Seattle

Native Americans celebrate birth of rare white buffalo

With cream-colored fur and pitch-black eyes, one of the tiniest specimens of America’s largest native animals stumbled on shaky legs into the spotlight.

The supporters are White buffalo calf born in June – An extremely rare occurrence – This could bring new momentum to a decades-old effort to restore species to the American Great Plains.

Many tribes view the birth of a white bison as a sacred omen of change, and the herd from which this calf was born is also an important cultural symbol: it is the last wild herd of buffalo in North America.

The bison herd is beginning a new chapter as Native American communities regain control of the species and advocates push for increased bison populations.

American buffalo (also known as bison) once numbered in the tens of millions before being driven to the brink of extinction in the 1800s. Today, the wild herd in the United States is limited to just 5,000.

But as Yellowstone National Park, America’s first national park and home to the white calf, considers a proposal to expand the size of its wild bison herd for the first time in decades, tribes and bison advocates see an opportunity.

The white calf added spiritual meaning to the buffalo advocacy group’s efforts as government policy tests a long-standing status quo in which beef ranching takes precedence over Indigenous beliefs.

The prophecy revealed

Just after noon on June 4, Yellowstone National Park photography guide Jordan Creech was sightseeing with a client when he spotted a newborn white buffalo calf taking its first steps in the park’s Lamar Valley.

Bison calves are able to walk within two minutes of being born and run with the herd within seven minutes of being born.

“It was the most unique experience I’ve ever had,” Creech said.

Erin Braaten, a photographer of Native American descent from Kalispell, Montana, also witnessed the birth before the calf disappeared into the herd.

“I thought I had a better chance of catching a Bigfoot than a white bison calf,” she told BBC News.

For the past 2,000 years, the Lakota, Dakota and Nakoda peoples have been telling stories of women who came through in difficult times.

One version tells of two scouts searching for food and buffalo in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

A mysterious woman appeared and bestowed upon the tribe a bundle of sacred gifts, including a pipe carved from red rock, and taught the people how to live and pray.

After several transformations, she turned into a white buffalo calf with a black nose, black eyes and black hooves. When she left, many buffaloes returned to feed the people.

Dozens of other tribes have legends about the white buffalo, whose arrival is interpreted as both a blessing and a warning.

Buffalo Field Campaign chief Looking Horse holds a photo of a white bisonBuffalo Field Campaign

Chief Arbol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Lakota people, is the 19th steward of the sacred pipe and bundle given to him by White Buffalo Woman.

Chief Arbol Looking Horse, a spiritual leader of the Lakota people, known as the “keeper of the sacred envelope” – the envelope and pipe left by the spirits – likens the return of the white calf to the second coming of Christ.

Looking Horse, 70, said the woman had told people before she left that she would return as a white buffalo calf “when all is sick and not good, and when people’s hearts are bad.”

“It’s the spirit. It’s the spirit that’s going on,” he added.

On June 26, more than 500 supporters officially celebrated the birth of the white calf at an event in West Yellowstone, just outside the park. Nearly a dozen tribes participated.

Together they heard the name given to the calf: “Wakan-Guri,” which means “divine return” or “divine coming” in Lakota. To mark the occasion, three buffalo skulls and three buffalo pelts were placed on the altar.

Waemaetekoseu Waupekenei, 38, who represented the Menominee tribe from Wisconsin, said the birth of the sacred calf was a spiritual awakening.

Its arrival, he says with amazement, shows “a lot of healing and a lot of love going around, people coming together.”

Buffalo Field Campaign An altar was built to honor the white calf.Buffalo Field Campaign

An altar was built in honor of the white calf for the event.

Yellowstone National Park rangers confirmed the birth of a white bison, but rangers themselves have not reported any sightings.

“The birth of a wild white bison calf marks a milestone in the National Park Service’s eco-cultural restoration of bison,” the park said in a June 28 statement, confirming that it is the first white bison to be spotted within Yellowstone National Park.

They added that this “may reflect the presence of a natural genetic legacy preserved in Yellowstone bison, as evidenced by the successful recovery of wild bison populations.”

“The National Park Service recognizes the significance of the white bison calf to American Indians,” he added.

Reborn Seed

Yellowstone bison make up the only wild herd in the United States and are among the last genetically pure bison remaining.

But Yellowstone National Park regularly reaches its legally permitted capacity of 5,000 people.

Tribes who support the species’ increase believe the species’ health is tied to their history and have stepped in. Since 2019, the U.S. National Park Service has relocated 414 healthy bison from Yellowstone to 26 tribes in 12 states through the Bison Conservation Relocation Program.

Native American tribes also have their own distribution system for buffalo, separate from the park’s efforts. Since 1992, the Intertribal Buffalo Council, a group of 83 tribes working to “restore cultural, spiritual and historical connections” to the animals, has sent 25,000 bison to 65 herds on tribal lands in 22 states.

“People don’t understand or recognize that what happened to the buffalo happened to Native people as well, and that the histories are intertwined,” said Jason Valdez, vice president of the council and a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe.

The return of the buffalo to the tribes marked a major change in federal policy, as soldiers had previously been ordered to kill all the buffalo in order to seize food and supplies from the tribes.

Not only are officials considering returning the animals, they’re also considering taking in more themselves: The National Park Service just completed an environmental impact study for Yellowstone National Park and determined that the herd size should increase to 5,000 to 6,000, with the option to take in as many as 10,000. This is the first time in 24 years that the park has proposed an increase.

This increase in the herds is made even more astonishing by the fact that up to 60 million American buffalo were killed in the rush to claim the American frontier.

Unlike Native Americans, who were known to use nearly every part of an animal for food, shelter, etc., colonists recklessly killed animals, took their furs, and left the carcasses to rot.

By the 20th century, fewer than 1,000 bison remained in the wild.

Large-scale livestock operations have taken over vacant land, and commercial interests continue to be a source of conflict between the livestock industry and people who want wild buffalo to roam free as they once did.

Doug Spriggs/Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council Bison released onto tribal landsDoug Spriggs/Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council

Bison released by the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council

Ranchers and the state’s Republican governor oppose the National Park Service’s plan to expand the herd, arguing that a disease called brucellosis, which infects about 60 percent of Yellowstone’s bison, could spread to beef herds and reduce profit margins.

The Montana Cattle Growers Association, which opposes the plan, warned that the new policy could lead to a “bison population explosion.”

Elk are also known to transmit brucellosis to livestock, but are not subject to the same restrictions as bison.

The dispute is “part of the old West’s war for rangeland, the fight over which animals get to eat grass,” said Mike Meese of the Buffalo Field Campaign, a Montana-based nonprofit that works to boost wild bison populations.

Yellowstone National Park officials have previously acknowledged that the dispute over bison management is a complex issue with multiple competing interests.

“This is probably the toughest wildlife problem in Yellowstone,” park manager Cam Sholly told The New York Times last year. “Bison are the only species that we restrict within our boundaries.”

But to the tribe, the birth of the white calf is proof that more needs to be done to protect the bison, and the fact that the calf came from Yellowstone gives it special spiritual meaning.

“Yellowstone [herd] “It’s the purest, wildest buffalo and the only one left in the country,” Chief Looking Horse said.

“This is a message that Mother Earth is sending through the animal kingdom.”

Buffalo Field Campaign Buffalo hides with the name of the bison engraved on themBuffalo Field Campaign

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