The White Buffalo:
by Melanie J. Martin
At the small Woodland Zoo in Farmington, PA, on November 12, 2006, a prophecy was born, a living piece of a legend central to many Native spiritualities. It took the form of a buffalo calf that emerged into the world completely white, a one-in-ten-million occurrence that becomes even more miraculous when considering the scarcity of buffalo today. The Woodland Zoo, like the several other places where white, non-albino buffalo have been born in recent years, became a site of pilgrimage for throngs of visitors. The white buffalo calf holds enormous sacredness to many Native American tribes, but many of us who are not from Native cultures have felt drawn into its aura as well. We go to look, to wonder, to pay respect, to find out if it just might have a message for us—and perhaps to marvel that the very animal our society has taken such great lengths to conquer has brought forth a message with the power to save our society from itself. In Lakota spirituality, our survival as a people depends on believing in and heeding the white buffalo’s sacred message, which urges us to live the understanding that all living beings are linked and interdependent.
“It has come to speak to you…and it’s telling you something here…you have to listen,” says Lakota Sundance chief and medicine man David Swallow, Jr. “It’s not an Indian thing; it’s for humanity.” On April 14, 2007, Swallow spoke to a crowd of people at the Woodland Zoo, a surprisingly large crowd considering the out-of-the-way location and the cold, persistent rain. Many of us seemed to sense the urgency of Swallow’s message. He spoke of how the white buffalo has long been sacred to the Lakota and other Plains tribes such as the Kiowa, Apache, Cheyenne, Hadatsa, Pawnee, and other Siouxan tribes, whose existence depended on the herds of buffalo that darkened the land before the days of the transcontinental railroad. A white buffalo carries a message to the people to whom it appears, warning them that hard times, such as an epidemic of disease, will be arriving unless the people examine the way they’ve been living and learn to live in a way that is better for all.
In a sense, Swallow lives a life parallel to that of the white buffalo. Like the buffalo, his people have been forced onto reservations by a culture attempting to subjugate them. Acknowledging the similarity of their positions, Swallow states, “They don’t want us to go hunting, or go around in our own land…same thing with the white buffalo….That’s called captive.” Like the white buffalo, which is believed to have come willingly to the particular place where it was born, Swallow also has dedicated himself to spreading the message that we must dramatically change our ways, and soon, throughout America.
When the white buffalo appears to the Lakota, says Swallow, a young man will kill it with a bow and arrow, and then he distributes the meat to everyone—“to the handicapped, the sick, or the old people,” he emphasizes. Within four days the hide is cured and tanned, and the holy man writes sacred symbols on it. Then, Swallow continues, the chief and holy man of the tribe would take the hide to the Black Hills as an offering to the Great Spirit so hard times would pass over the people. “But today, we cannot do it,” he says. “That’s why the Thunder People, the Thunder Nation, has took the other white buffalo; lightening striked and killed it,” he says of the white buffalo Miracle’s Second Chance in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Anticipating the Westerner’s perception of the white buffalo ceremony, Swallow explains, “I think the English word ‘sacrifice’ is wrong…it’s about giving. You give it.” Just as the white buffalo gives herself to the people, he says, a medicine man “must give it to the people, so the people will be receiving life.” When white buffalo appear, Swallow says, they come willingly, and “they know what to do.” The belief that the white buffalo has given its life willingly fosters an intense bond between the Lakota and the buffalo.
The tribes of the Great Plains have traditionally shared a profound bond with all of the buffalo they depended on for survival. Like their relationship with the rest of the Earth, this relationship merges what Westerners think of as separate “physical” and “spiritual” worlds into one. The English language affords us no adequate way to describe this holistic way of life; we can only strive to intuit such a way of being in the world. Buffalo were central to the lives of the Great Plains tribes, used for food, clothing, tools, and other purposes. Hunting, to these cultures, is never mere sport; it is done out of necessity and with the utmost respect and gratitude. “Hunting is a spiritual thing,” says Swallow. “You never go hunting and just mount the head on the wall…you use every part of it.” He adds that the Lakota have always held a ceremony the night before a hunt, “because nothing belongs to us; it all belongs to the Great Spirit…through ceremony, we must ask permission from this four-legged.”
The white buffalo calf, named Kenahkihinén (Kĕ-Nah‛-Ki-Nĕn), which means "Watch Over Us" in the Lenape language, is believed to have already accepted this role and to have chosen the place where its message was needed most. As Swallow points out, it was born in a public place, a place that many non-Native people frequent. It chose the people to whom it should appear, he says. Earlier, it had begun appearing to the Lakota as a sign that the indigenous peoples needed to unite and to stand up for their common values. “It doesn’t come to us no more,” Swallow notes. “It comes to the farmer, to the rancher,” and to public places such as the Woodland Zoo. As Lakota speaker Gary Christensen added after Swallow’s talk, “In a short time, so many of these sacred animals have come to visit and bring a message,” bringing the prophecy to parts of American society that may not have had exposure to such beliefs. Before 1993 no white buffalo had been born for sixty years, while more than ten white buffalo have been born since 1993, bringing their message to various regions of the country.
The story of the white buffalo’s message, Swallow says, is for all of us. Lakota beliefs have remained strong despite many years of oppression, and now the Lakota are sharing their ways with other tribes, such as some eastern woodlands tribes, that may have lost some of their own ways—and with others who are willing to listen. “All the tribes now are believing…we invited them to learn our ways,” says Swallow. The act of sharing sacred stories between cultures is a profound gesture of friendship that we too should accept, and learn from, with gratitude.
In his talk, Swallow also shared the story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, which has immense importance to the Lakota and many other tribes. In this story, a woman comes to the Lakota from the spirit world, bringing them their sacred pipe and the ceremony in which they use it as well as knowledge about how to live. She promised she would return in time of need, and upon leaving, she transformed into a buffalo, changing color several times (like some white buffalo do as they age), and finally becoming white. As Lakota medicine man John Lame Deer says in a version of this story, “A white buffalo is the most sacred living thing you could ever encounter.” The changing colors have significance too, says Swallow, which must be interpreted by a holy man.
The telling of a story from one culture to another is complex; without living in the culture, we miss much of the story’s significance. However, it can still have meaning for us if we take the time to learn about the philosophy of the culture from which it came, perhaps meditating or reflecting on its place in our own lives. By taking a deeper look at a story shared from another culture, we can allow it to develop our personal philosophy, and even those of us who already strive to live in a holistic way may find still greater ways for personal growth.
To change our world, we must change our cultural philosophies on living, and it is crucial that we continue to examine the way we interact with our world so we can more closely follow the buffalo’s message. Swallow offers further advice on the ways we should enact change: “Clean the air, the rivers. Make less laws. That’s the beginning. Everything that’s natural, all over the world, has a spirit, and they want to live. And they’re happy when they’re used in the right way.” We should never kill other creatures needlessly, he continues. “In your language they call it murder, even though it’s a monkey, even though it’s a snake. Have respect for nature. Learn from indigenous cultures…they have valuable information. Very soon, we’re [all] going to need it.” And of course, we in this region should spread this message to others and live as examples of it, living as equals with the other forms of life that share our world. After all, the white buffalo chose us to share its message with our society.
Being aware of the white buffalo’s message is not enough—we must live it everyday. We should live under the philosophy, says Swallow, that our fellow animals do not belong to us, and that we should therefore use" other animals only as necessary, and with the greatest respect and appreciation. We use other animals in our daily lives, so this message certainly gives us much to consider. By educating ourselves about whether we might be using products from companies that test on animals, and by knowing how all of the products we buy affect humans and other animals as well as the environment, we can live in a more spiritual way. Native cultures have always integrated spirituality into every aspect of life; they live the philosophies they believe in, and so can the rest of us. Often our circumstances make this difficult; we may have to remind ourselves to feel respect and gratitude toward the animals we consume, for instance, because we usually do not see them while they are alive. By seeing them as more than slabs of meat, and by allowing them a more respectful death, we might improve our own spiritual wellness. “When the white man begins to play the role of God,” as Swallow says, “he destroys the spirit of those he’s raised.” Chief Arvol Looking Horse raises this point in White Buffalo Teachings, saying, “I remember the Elders spoke of the danger in the construction of dams stopping the natural flow of rivers, which we understand as Mother Earth’s arteries.” Looking Horse is the 19th Generation Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Woman Pipe, and he has been outspoken about the message of the several recent white buffalo.
Swallow asserts that we should question our leaders when they are not following such a philosophy, and we should demand that our government make wiser choices. A leader shouldn’t own everything, he says. A leader should care for the people, and honor what belongs to them. “This whole Turtle Island America needs to wake up,” he states. “They really need to wake up and put their feet down, because America’s voice is the authority, and their needs [are] the power….”
John Tarnesse, a Sundance Chief of the Eastern Shoshone tribe, says of the buffalo, “They were holistic in their migrations. They made everything become greener where they passed. When they walked the earth, it was like they plowed the earth and then fertilized it.” How beautiful our world would be if we learned to walk as the buffalo do—and perhaps we will know we’ve succeeded if we once again see them roaming free, because in more ways than one, the buffalo have always been the measure of our society’s spiritual health.
As Chief Arvol Looking Horse says, “Our Prophecies tell us that we are at the Crossroads. We face chaos, disaster, and endless tears from our relatives’ eyes—or we can unite spiritually in peace and harmony. It’s time to bring the Message of the urgent need for Peace, of creating an energy shift throughout the world.” The white buffalo is a warning, agrees David Swallow, but also a chance. Together, we should focus our energy on the peaceful, healthy, harmonious world that the buffalo is urging us to create. Looking Horse suggests we might congregate at our Sacred Sites, wherever they may be, to help in this energy shift. He emphasizes, “On your decision—yes, on your own personal decision—depends the fate of the World.”
Sidebar: White Animals in Western Culture
In Western culture, we have often attributed a special significance to white animals also, but we do not usually talk about why. White animals, perhaps at least in part because of their rarity, have historically been something to kill or capture in Western culture, but in stories, poems, ballads, and legends from medieval times onward, they are often portrayed as phantoms, or as having a linkage to the spiritual realm (often in the form of deer). In a North Carolina legend, the ghost of Virginia Dare haunts the forests of Roanoke Island in the form of a white doe, and in later stories such as The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit, white deer also appear. In the Western mind, white animals often seem to unite what we typically think of as separate physical and spiritual realms, embodying oneness of the physical and spiritual. Our perceptions of white animals seem to have historically inspired fear and uncertainty, as this “oneness” tends to make us uncomfortable. Perhaps we just revel in frightening ourselves, or perhaps something in us gravitates toward white animals for their sacredness even though our conscious minds are not prepared to accept it. In either case, they remain a notable part of our literature and folklore.
Learn more about Kenahkihinén: