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‘A blessing and a warning’: Hundreds gather to honor Yellowstone white bison calf

A man wears a white and black dress with red beads around his face and stands in front of a field of grass and wildflowers. There’s a blue lake and dark hills behind him.
Hanna Merzbach
Wyoming Public Media
Lead speaker at the event, Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe and Bundle, stands in front of Hebgen Lake in West Yellowstone, where hundreds of tribal members and others gathered to celebrate the recent white bison birth.

Near a dark-blue lake outside Yellowstone National Park, hundreds of people gathered under cloudy skies Wednesday for a ceremony celebrating the recent birth of a rare white bison in the park.

Many Native Americans believe such a birth is a blessing, but also a warning.

The crowd was silent as Lakota Spiritual Leader Arvol Looking Horse, the keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe and Bundle, took the stage.

“This is a very momentous time in our history,” Looking Horse said, standing behind an altar of bison skulls, where cedar and sage were also being burned as an offering.

Three Native American men stand on a stage outside, wearing feather headdresses. They're in front of an alter with buffalo skulls and other artifacts. On the right is a printed photo of the white buffalo calf.
Hanna Merzbach
Wyoming Pubic Media
Lakota leader Arvol Looking Horse (center) stands with his grandson, Ota Bluehorse (left), and his son, Stanley Bluehorse Junior (right) near Hebgen Lake in West Yellowstone.

The 70-year-old, wearing a white and black feathered headdress with red beads, told the crowd he didn’t think he’d live to see this day.

He said the birth of the white bison — which many Indigenous people call a buffalo — is comparable to the second coming of Jesus Christ.

“When I first heard it, my heart, so heavy, I just want to cry,” Looking Horse said. “I can’t believe that this is happening.”

White bison are sometimes born in captivity to parents with cow DNA, but this one was born in the wildest herd in the country.

Yellowstone staff have not confirmed the recent birth, and it has not been spotted since early June, when visitors took its picture.

Still, Looking Horse said the calf fulfills the White Buffalo Calf Woman prophecy.

He said the woman came to the Lakota people 2,000 years ago and taught them how to live peacefully together and pray. But her return as the white calf with a black nose, black eyes and black hooves is a warning.

“Mother Earth, Unci Maka, is going to be sick and has a fever,” Looking Horse said.

Patti Baldes from the Northern Arapaho and Northern Paiute tribes traveled about five hours from the Wind River Reservation for the ceremony. She said she feels a bit scared of the change the prophecy predicts, but sees it as an opportunity.

“Following the lead of something that, you know, we're not fully aware of and respecting the unknown is really important to me,” Baldes said.

Looking Horse said the prophecy speaks of an uptick in disasters like earthquakes and wildfires, more viruses and false leaders if we don’t better protect the Earth and the sacred buffalo.

His grandson, Ota Bluehorse, stood next to him on the stage. He said he was excited to learn of the white calf’s return.

“It's a good thing in its own way to tell the people to start praying as one,” said Blue Horse, 18.

About 40 people stand or sit in camp chairs, listening to the ceremony. A lake and dark blue hills are in the background.
Hanna Merzbach
Wyoming Public Media
A crowd stands or sits in camp chairs at the ceremony near Hebgen Lake, as tribal members take the stage one by one to talk about the significance of the new white bison calf.

This all comes as Yellowstone National Park rewrites its bison management plan. There’s fierce debate over how large the herd should be allowed to grow, and how freely they can roam.

In the bigger picture, Looking Horse said the white calf’s birth means humanity is at a crossroads.

“It’s up to each and everyone of you to make it happen. For the future of our children, we must come together and bring that good energy back,” he said.

At the end of the ceremony, Looking Horse unveiled the calf’s name, chosen by tribal leaders.

“Wakan Gli,” he said in Lakota. “Return sacred.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio (KNPR) in Las Vegas, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Hanna is the Mountain West News Bureau reporter based in Teton County.