A 2nd chance for a miracle
New birth of a white buffalo on a Wisconsin farm renews hope among Native Americans
By Susan Kuczka
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
Published October 1, 2006
JANESVILLE, Wis. -- For more than a decade, hundreds of thousands of Native Americans trekked to Dave Heider's farm to visit Miracle, a rare white buffalo they viewed as a prophecy of peace on Earth.
When Miracle died two years ago and the visitors stopped coming, Heider, 57, and his wife began planning to retire and move away. Then, in August, Heider discovered a newborn white calf nuzzling its mother in a pasture.
"When I told my wife, Valerie, she said, `Here we go again,'" said Heider, whose phone hasn't stopped ringing since a neighbor reported the birth to a local newspaper.
But while Native Americans hail the new calf, Second Chance, genetic experts question whether it is truly as much of a rarity as Miracle, whose chances of bearing a white coat were put at 1 in 6 million shortly after her birth.
When Miracle was born in 1994, members of the Lakota Sioux Tribe in South Dakota deemed her the first white buffalo born on U.S. soil since 1933. In the last decade, two dozen white calves--not albinos--have been born, and three were Heider's, including one that died shortly after birth.
While still very rare, the birth of white buffaloes seems to be increasing. The explanations range from the practical to the scientific to the divine.
White buffalo were considered an oddity when an estimated 80 million bison roamed the Great Plains in the early 1800s. Scientists say there would have been only a handful of white calves with survival tough since they made easy prey.
Today, with only an estimated 500,000 bison farmed across the U.S. and Canada, experts believe it's astonishing that the recessive gene for a white coat popped up again.
"When we get a white one, it's special," said Vern Anderson, an animal scientist at North Dakota State University.
Scientists say three things in nature can cause this kind of spontaneous genetic mutation: radiation, chemical exposure and a natural accident in the process of the cell duplicating DNA.
Breeding also can play a role. Some scientists contend the rash of white calf births in recent years could be Mother Nature's fallout from the practice of breeding brown buffalo with white-colored French Charolais cattle that caught on in the 1960s and continues today. Many of the cream-colored offspring are processed into food called "Beefalo."
Brian Kirkpatrick, professor of animal sciences at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, also said inbreeding could have inadvertently occurred among Heider's relatively small herd of 70 buffaloes.
"If they had a calf before that was white, the two (calves) could be related even if they had different parents," Kirkpatrick said. "It even makes you wonder if there isn't some relationship between the animals that were used as parents."
Heider hasn't had DNA testing done on his herd. But he says they are pure buffalo, and says Second Chance, a male, and Miracle, a female, were each bred from different blood lines--making their white coats impossible for him to explain.
"I'm starting to think the Indians must be right--this is sacred land," he said.
Native Americans say the births could signify today's critical need for mankind to seek unity. Still, they have rejected some of the calves as sacred symbols because their owners have tried to profit from their births, something they say Heider has never tried to do.
Heider declined several offers to buy Miracle and never charged admission to see the buffalo.
Floyd Hand, a spiritual interpreter who regularly traveled to Heider's farm with fellow members of the Lakota Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, said the birth of the new calf restored his faith that the prophecy of peace could come true.
"Positive things were supposed to come from Miracle, but mankind did not pay attention," Hand said. "So now we have another chance."
Whatever the explanation for the births, Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association in Colorado, said the chance of a pure white buffalo birth remains as high as 1 in a million.
"That's astronomical odds, so a true white is extremely rare," he said.
Heider initially tried to keep the calf's Aug. 25 birth a secret, recalling how the visitors had turned his life upside down for so many years. He said Miracle's birth drew an estimated 500,000 visitors.
Heider, a lifelong Janesville resident and full-time truck driver, has been raising buffalo part-time for 20 years on his 45-acre farm about 100 miles northwest of Chicago.
Already Second Chance has attracted dozens of uninvited visitors to Heider's farm, where Miracle's remains were buried.
To many Sioux who traveled to Heider's farm, Miracle represented the return of the sacred spirit of the White Buffalo Calf Woman who first appeared to the Indians some 2,000 years ago when tribe members were dying of starvation.
As told by Hand, whose Indian name is Looks for Buffalo, the beautiful woman offered a sacred pipe to the Lakota, showed them how to use it to pray and taught the Sioux about the value of the buffalo. Before leaving, the woman told the Indians she would reappear one day, signifying the return of peace to Earth. As she walked away, the woman turned into a young buffalo, turning four colors--black, red, yellow and white.
Miracle's coat changed color three times--from white to black to yellow and then to red. Pictures of Miracle's different coats supplied by the Heiders are posted on the Web site www.nativevillage.org, maintained by retired teacher Gina Boltz of Toledo, Ohio.
Bison experts said some buffalo experience color change due to a variety of factors, including genetics, nutrition, the environment and age. But that many color changes is considered unusual.
Arvol Looking Horse, a Lakota tribal chief who is the 19th-generation keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf pipe, said Miracle would have had to change color a fourth time--back to white--for the Indian prophecy to be fulfilled.
"To us, this new calf brings another rebirth, and tells us have the faith and belief that if we unite and respect each other, we will see change," he said.
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