Old albino buffalo dies in its sleep of old age, but her legacy signifies the world is at a crossroads

 By C.S. Hagen 
JAMESTOWN – The day White Cloud was born on July 10, 1996, ranchers thought she was a trash bag.

“They thought it was a grocery bag lying out there,” Ken Shirek said. Shirek is the owner of Shirek Buffalo Farm in Michigan, North Dakota, and also a director of the North Dakota Buffalo Association. “And they were going to go pick it up and then it took off. It looked way weird.”

White Cloud lived 20 years, passing away quietly in her sleep Monday, November 14, 2016, the morning of the supermoon, or in native terminology, the full beaver moon. This year’s supermoon was rare, and the largest since 1948, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. She was a rare albino bison drawing many visitors to Jamestown, where she spent most of her grazing days. Her birth was also a herald of troubled times for the Great Sioux Nation.

Albino buffalo have poor eyesight. Their pale coats offer little protection from extreme heat and cold. When she was returned to her birthplace at Shirek Buffalo Farm last spring, her health was failing, Shirek said. He fed her corn, allowed her to stay indoors with fly protection, but her age had caught up with her. Bison typically live 20 to 25 years.

Growing up, White Cloud was standoffish, basically an outcast, Shirek said. “All the white ones stay away from the herd, especially the females. The bulls fare a bit better, but they do get picked on. They’re different.”

In the wild, White Cloud would have been a tasty meal for a wolf pack or bears, because her fur coat “sticks out like a sore thumb,” Shirek said, and the herd instinctively knew the risks of keeping close to such a target.

Although White Cloud no longer roams the Dakota prairies, her body is being sent to a taxidermist and she will soon become a permanent full body mount display at the National Buffalo Museum, Shirek said.

“White Cloud and her calves had been a big attraction for the museum not only because of the rarity of an albino buffalo but also because of the sacredness that some Native Americans place on a white buffalo,” the National Buffalo Museum stated in a press release.

White Cloud sired 11 calves, one white buffalo which later died, and currently has one son at the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown named Dakota Miracle, who is a white buffalo, technically different from an albino. Dakota Miracle does not have the same poor eyesight or sensitivity to extreme weather as his mother.

Ilana Xinos, executive director at the National Buffalo Museum said White Cloud will be missed. She recalled days when she accompanied White Cloud’s longtime caretaker, Arnie Becker, into the field with a bucket of treats, such as corn on the cob.

“He would call her name and she would just come straight over,” Xinos said. “She was special. Most people who have seen her and many in our community would say yes, she was special. Buffalo are majestic creatures, and even more with White Cloud. Maybe she was not the most beautiful of the buffalo. She had crooked horns and was always off by herself, but I thought of her as having some kind of sensitivity to things.”

“To me, White Cloud was more than a tourist attraction,” President of the National Buffalo Museum’s Board Don Williams said. “She drew many, many people to the community, but more than that, she brought the community together with White Cloud days, parades, and special Native American events. She will be missed by the museum, our city, and by all the travelers that could visit the north and view her as they drove along the I-94 interstate pasture.”

Arvol Looking Horse, chief of the Great Sioux Nation, 19th generation holder of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe, April 9, 2017 – wet plate taken by Shane Balkowitsch

The white buffalo’s significance to Native Americans, especially to the Great Sioux Nation, cannot be overstated, Chief Orval Looking Horse said in a 2014 interview archived in the World Peace Library. Looking Horse, 62 years old, is the 19th generation holder of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe, and is considered a chief and king by the Sioux tribes.

He predicted White Cloud’s birth four years before she was born. People frequently came to Looking Horse telling him of visions of the white buffalo. Soon after, White Cloud was born, and he knew the prophecies were coming true.

“I knew a beginning had come when the white buffalo was born,” Looking Horse said. “Then it [Earth] will be at the crossroads, and this started with the prophecy from the White Buffalo Calf Woman.”

The belief in the White Buffalo Calf Woman started in South Dakota at what is now known as the Devil’s Tower in the 15th century. A beautiful young woman wearing a fine white buckskin dress approached two Lakota men out on a hunt. She came at a time of great turmoil, when the sun shone constantly, but no game could be found. One of the men, a man with an evil mind, desired her, and he said so. The other man said they should not say such things. She was wakan, or holy.

When the first man attempted to embrace the White Buffalo Calf Woman, they both were enveloped in a cloud. When it lifted, she stood alone. A pile of ash and bones slithering with snakes lay at her feet. She then told the man with the good mind to return to his people, and tell them she was coming.

When she arrived, she carried a bundle wrapped in sage. She taught the Sioux the Seven Sacred Rites, and brought them the sacred buffalo pipe.

From her, the Sioux learned to respect the Earth, for she taught them the Earth was their grandmother and mother. Every step they took upon the Earth should be prayerful, and with a good heart.

On the day she left the Sioux, she first reminded them to cherish the sacred pipe, and then issued a warning. In the end, she would return at a time of great peril. Her arrival would be preceded by the birth of a white buffalo. As she rose to leave, she transformed into a white buffalo, walked a few steps, rolled over, and her fur turned black. She then walked a few more steps, rolled once again and became a red buffalo, then disappeared over a hill.

“We are at the crossroads, at a time of great chaos,” Looking Horse said. “All nations, all faiths, one prayer, that must happen to create an energy shift. When the white animals are being born, people will be spiritually disconnected, man has gone too far… so we talk about the prophecy.”

White Cloud’s birth was the White Buffalo Calf Woman’s signal to the Sioux that great change was coming.

“Someday when nothing is good, she will return.” Every year since White Cloud’s birth, a white buffalo or white animal has been born, Looking Horse said. “It’s coming soon, these changes are coming quick. Today we are faced with a lot of global challenges. The spirit of the buffalo is really showing itself in a lot of different ways.”

Arvol Looking Horse – wet plate taken by Shane Balkowitsch

Looking Horse received the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe when he was 12 years old, and is known as the youngest Sioux ever to receive the honor. He is considered a spiritual leader among all the Sioux, has received numerous international awards for his work with the Society of Peace of Prayer.

The only way to heal the earth is to pray for peace and harmony, Looking Horse said, and to return to native roots. “And we speak about that at the United Nations in the early 90s, that the Grandmother Earth is sick, she has a fever. As soon as we made that statement in the early 90s, the scientists then came up with a statement called global warming.”

Another crucial aspect of healing comes from tribal leaders, he said.

“You take care of your grandmother… never have bad feelings toward your mother or your father. In this world today, they bottle feed their children, and that’s where they start in the wrong way. Today the man and woman, they work, there’s no love. People without spirit are very dangerous, and someday they could be leaders in the wrong way.

“Among our buffalo teachings, only the strongest will lead our people. The leaders cannot use drugs, alcohol; they have to be raised in honor and respect, and to live in that tradition. The leader represents the health and well being, and has to think about life, good life. Today, we are trying to bring back those sacred teachings of the buffalo.”

Today, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their supporters are striving for prayerful change against the Dakota Access Pipeline. White Cloud, the white buffalo, can at times be a rallying cry for elders to call upon the youth to return to the White Buffalo Calf Woman’s teaching. Looking Horse predicted the pipeline’s arrival in 2014.

“Seems like today, those are things that we are lacking because… it’s all about money. We’re faced with this pipeline coming down, and the elders spoke about that. There’s a prophecy about the black snake, when that black snake is really going to affect the people in the worst way, and sickness would come to this land we hold sacred. It’s going to cross sacred sites that have been there for generations, and then it’s not going to respect our sacred sites.

Looking Horse is also involved in negotiations with Morton County officials during the DAPL controversy. When he speaks, everyone is silent.

“They’re not going to back down, and we’re not going to back down either,” he said to a large crowd on Highway 1806 in late October.  “We know that the spirit is here with us, that the buffalo tatanka oyate is here with us. We have lots of people, not only here, but all over the world praying with us right now, because water is life.”

“Pray for peace and harmony and take care of Grandmother Earth. Then the buffalo come back, the horses come back, the animals come back, there will be peace and harmony, for they are the ones that bring the Sacred Beings back to Turtle Island [the U.S.].”

Among other awards, Looking Horse was honored by the city of New Orleans in 1996 when the city proclaimed August 27 as “White Buffalo Day.” On May 9, 2016, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act into law, making the bison the national mammal of the United States. National Bison Day is celebrated the first Saturday of every November.