Plains Indian legend of the white buffalo is reborn for believers Native American Miracle

September 19, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Correspondent

Janesville, Wis -- Some were drawn here by a compelling legend handed down through the ages in the Native American oral tradition. Others were called by messengers of the more electronic variety: CNN, National Public Radio, Paul Harvey.

Whatever the source of the beckoning, thousands of modern-day pilgrims have found their way to this small southern Wisconsin town to see an animal so rare and myth-bound that she merits the name her owner has given her: Miracle.

Born four weeks ago to parents that are densely and bushily brown, the ghostly white baby is a sight to see, especially for Native Americans who believe they are witnessing part of their lore come to life. According to the legend, a woman appeared to a tribe of Plains Indians long ago, bearing a sacred pipe that would allow them to speak to the spirits. As she left, she turned into a white buffalo.

Now the white buffalo has returned, and its appearance at this farm 100 miles from Chicago has been a powerful magnet for those who believe.

"It is important. It is very symbolic of our culture," Etta Little Thunder, 78, said quietly during her visit on Saturday. She is one of hundreds of Lakota Sioux from South Dakota and other Native Americans who have made pilgrimages here to see the buffalo and return to their earthly lives with a sense of having experienced a more spiritual one.

"For me, it's a sign, a good sign," said Red Horse, an Ojibwa Indian who drove from Chicago to see the white buffalo. 'Seeing it, I feel cleansed, purified. It gives me a new sense of purpose. Like when you are on a road and you come to a sign where it says, 'This way.' "

Miracle also attracted many who are not Native Americans but are attracted to its culture and teachings, which have been borrowed -- some would say appropriated -- by various New Age and men's movement groups, who use sweat lodges, talking sticks, drum-beating and other rituals.

"I'm not really sure why, but I was just drawn here. It was very powerful," said Joanne Pumper, a nurse from Cary, Ill., who drove about two hours with her husband Mark, a psychotherapist, for a mere several minutes of seeing the white buffalo. "The spiritual significance is pretty meaningful."

She was among those who left offerings: feathers and fetishes, hand-written prayers, medicine wheels, dream catchers and pouches of herbs and tobacco to decorate a fence on the farm of Dave and Valerie Heider, who own Miracle.

The baby buffalo is the newest member of the Heiders' 13-head herd of North American buffalo. They started breeding the animals in 1989 as part of their exotic animal collection, which includes peacocks, a llama and now, this subject of almost overwhelming attention.

The Heiders are taking the stream of pilgrims and unceasing media attention -- they were awaiting the arrival of BBC crew from London this weekend -- remarkably well, although they've restricted visitors to Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Heider seems to regard his fate with a mixture of awe at the spiritual reaction the animal draws and a situation-saving dose of humor.

"This calf has brought a lot of people together," Mr. Heider said this weekend, as he watched the mostly gentle crowd sharing fence space so that everyone got a glimpse. "But if I have another one, I'm not telling anybody."

(Meanwhile, the other Dave Heider who lives in Janesville, a town of about 55,000, had to put this message on his answering machine: 'This is Dave, but not the Dave Heider who owns the white buffalo.")

He was stunned

When the buffalo-owning Mr. Heider discovered the white calf on Aug. 20, he was stunned. "You can't print what I said in a newspaper," he said. He told a friend who writes stories for agricultural publications. Word got around, and now Mr. Heider has a veritable happening on his hands.

People have come from as far away as New Zealand and Ireland, he said, and given the crowds this past weekend, the interest appears nowhere near flagging.

Once he learned of the significance of the white buffalo in Native American legend, Mr. Heider decided to open up his farm and let people in to see it rather than sell the animal to the numerous people who wanted to buy it, including rock musician and bow-hunter Ted Nugent.

"I could have retired yesterday," he said of the offers, which he declined to quantify. They must have been tempting, though, because he works as a dump truck driver for the county and his wife works for a janitorial service in addition to caring for the animals on their farm.

"How are you going to put a price tag on something that's one in the world? How are you going to put a price tag on a sacred belief?" Mrs. Heider said.

Native Americans have lauded the couple for not selling the animal to those who may have exploited her. And they are offering interpretations from personal to global for the meaning of the birth of something that figures so importantly in their collective memory.

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