Rare White Bison Calf Born at Yellowstone National Park Is a Sacred Symbol


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American bison once flourished across the United States, from the western tip of New York state to the eastern edges of Oregon. These magnificent creatures, which can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, were important as a food source for Indigenous peoples. They also figured heavily in Indigenous history, culture, and beliefs. While millions of bison once roamed the plains, colonial efforts to stamp them out doubled as an attack on Native culture and resistance to U.S. expansion. Today, while more stable, the wild bison number is only about 30,000. One more extra special individual creature was recently added to this number. A nature photographer visiting Yellowstone National Park with her family spotted a rare white bison calf, only recently born, whose significance is extremely meaningful to Indigenous religions.

Montana-based photographer Erin Braaten was perusing the park with her family when they spotted something white among a distant herd of brown bison. Zooming in with her camera, Braaten discovered the speck of white was actually a newborn calf. Cream-colored with a dark nose and eyes, the calf looked quite different from the standard reddish-brown bison babies. Braaten hung around to take pictures for some time of the remarkable arrival with his mother as they stood by the Lamar River. Since this sighting, no one has seen the elusive rare calf. It's possible it did not survive a river crossing, which can happen. Or perhaps it is just being shy.

The arrival of the white calf, which is likely leucistic. This condition is similar to albinism, but instead of light eyes the calf has dark eyes and nose. White calves are sacred to the Sioux, Cherokee, Navajo, Lakota, and Dakota. A Lakota prophecy told of a white calf's arrival, which would be a sign to the world to pay closer attention to Earth and animals. “The birth of this calf is both a blessing and warning. We must do more,” says Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the spiritual leader of the Lakota, Dakota, and the Nakota Oyate and the 19th keeper of the sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman Pipe and Bundle. He remarked to the BBC, “It makes my hairs stand up just to even talk about it, because I can't believe this is happening—the spirit of the white buffalo calf woman sending a message to us.”

According to Lakota oral histories, 2,000 years ago the Lakota were living in a time of hunger with few bison. The white buffalo woman brought a pipe and bundle, promising better times ahead. She then rolled several times, transforming into a white buffalo calf. Bison were soon no longer scarce. Hence the incredible significance to many Indigenous nations, who have greeted the photographs with amazement and emotion. While further sightings of the sacred creature may be recorded, its birth has already brought surprise and joy to many around the world.

A nature photographer visiting Yellowstone National Park with her family spotted a rare white bison calf, only recently born, whose significance is extremely meaningful to indigenous religions.

h/t: [Smithsonian Magazine, AP News]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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