"To tell the truth, the first time I looked out there, I saw a million dollars," says Janesville farmer Dave Heider as he watches Miracle, the white buffalo calf held sacred by Native Americans, chew contentedly on a mouthful of silage, "But once I saw how much this little calf means to so many people, I couldn't see charging money for people to come and look at her. I mean, how can you put a price on something that's sacred and holy? You know, if God meant for me to be a millionaire, I would have won the lottery."
Heider and his wife, Val, had been raising buffalo on their 46-acre hobby farm for less than five years when Miracle was born snow white on Aug 20. Since then more than 20,000 people have come to see her, and the gate to the Heider's pasture and the trees next to it are now covered with offerings: feathers, necklaces and pieces of colorful cloth as well as personal notes and the occasional medal won in Vietnam. All this has piqued the interest of news and infotainment outlets around the world, including the BBC, CBS News and People magazine. Notes Dave Heider, "We made the front page of papers seven days in a row when O.J. didn't."
Naturally, an assortment of wealthy collectors and modern-day Barnums have also shown interest in the calf. Early on, rock star Ted Nugent, who penned a song about a white buffalo, offered to buy Miracle.
But the Heiders haven't tried to make money off the calf. Dave still drives a truck for the county (he'll go up to a 16-hour day when the snow begins to fall), and Val hasn't quit her janitor job. The couple have gotten into a little merchandising, but profits from postcards and T-shirts sold at the farm during weekend visiting hours go into a trust fund that will be used to maintain the calf and pay for such other expenses as the 9,000-volt electric fence that guards Miracle and the rest of the Heider's 13-buffalo herd. To prevent exploitation of the calf by carnival sharks and what the Heiders' attorney, Dan Varline, calls "UFO magazines," both Miracle's image and name have been copyrighted. (Isthmus had to sign an agreement prohibiting broader use in order to photograph the calf.)
The Heiders knew from contacts in the bison industry that their calf was unusual; in fact, the Wisconsin Farmer and The Beloit Daily News both did stories about its birth. But it was only after the story got wider distribution that they learned Miracle was held sacred by buffalo-hunting Plains Indians, including the Lakota and the Cheyenne.
"The story hit the news wire on Wednesday, and the first Native Americans were here on Thursday," recalls Heider. "I think they were Oneida. They came from Black River Falls. We were up by the calf with some people and these Native Americans had been waiting for an hour and a half. They asked our permission to see the calf and also pray to it and leave an offering."
News of the calf spread quickly through the Native American community because its birth fulfilled a 2,000-year-old prophecy of northern Plains Indians. Joseph Chasing Horse, traditional leader of the Lakota (Sioux) nation, explains that 2,000 years ago a young woman who first appeared in the shape of a white buffalo gave the Lakota's ancestors a sacred pipe and sacred ceremonies and made them guardians of the Black Hills. Before leaving, she also prophesized that one day she would return to purify the world, bringing back spiritual balance and harmony; the birth of a white buffalo calf would be a sign that her return was at hand.
Owen Mike, who's in line to succeed his 90-year-old father, Thomas, as head of the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) buffalo clan, says his people have a slightly different interpretation of the white calf's significance. He adds, however, that the Ho-Chunk version of the prophecy also stresses the return of harmony, both in nature and among all peoples.
"It's more of a blessing from the Great Spirit," Mike explains. "It's a sign. This white buffalo is showing us that everything is going to be okay."
Fulfilling the Prophecy
Despite her enormous spiritual and cultural significance, Miracle isn't scientifically important. UW-Madison geneticist Dr. Richard Spritz, an expert in albinism and other pigmentation disorders, disputes news reports that the odds of a white buffalo being born are less than one in 10 million.
In humans, the frequency of albinism in most populations is about one in 15,000, which turns out to be a pretty handy number for buffalo because the estimated number of them in the U.S. is something around 150,000. That means that at any given time, if the frequency of albinism in buffalo is similar to that in humans, there ought to be 10 white buffalo out there. And if there's some other way to have a white buffalo, there ought to be more."
So while the American Bison Association says the last documented white buffalo died in 1959, Spritz says the person who alerted him to Miracle's birth has tracked down six living white buffalo. He also notes that a stuffed white buffalo has stood in Harvard's Peabody Museum for years. (There's always some question whether a white buffalo is actually part cow, and therefore a beefalo. Dave Heider says he will allow Miracle's DNA to be examined in March, when it's time for her to be inoculated against various diseases.)
But even if other white buffalo have been born in modern times, Miracle holds special significance for Native Americans. She's female, and the bull that sired her died, just as in the prophecy. And, while recent visitors to the Heider farm are sometimes disappointed that the calf's head has turned brown and its body is now a silvery tan, versions of the prophecy state that the white buffalo calf would change colors four times, thus signifying the colors of the four peoples she would unify: black, red, yellow and white.
Josephy Chasing Horse, in a phone interview from his home in Rapid City, S.D., adds that winter counts - which date the telling of the White Buffalo Calf Woman story in sacred ceremonies - confirm that this is the buffalo calf of the prophecy.
Moreover, the birth of Miracle on the Heider farm coincides with increased economic stability (thanks in large part to profits from Indian gaming) and cultural rejuvenation among Native Americans. For example, the Ho-Chunk (who this month received federal permission to restore their original name) have used gaming profits to establish Ho-Chunk language programs in their summer camp for teenage children and in four new Head Start centers. The tribe also reacquired a tract of land that includes sacred sites on the lower Wisconsin River.
Larry Johns, a member of the Oneida tribe who works to preserve Indian mounds and other sacred sites, stresses the cultural importance of such recent discoveries as the Gottschall Rock Shelter in Iowa County, which includes a rock painting from A.D. 900 that tells a story still told by Ho-Chunk elders.
"My father and grandfather went to Indian schools, and they were beaten for speaking their language," says Johns, who along with fellow Oneida and representatives of other tribes has helped put together the new Native American Council of Madison, a group dedicated to promoting cultural awareness. "They tried to beat the Indian out of us. It's imperative that we go back to these stories and find out what they mean to us…and we are."
And how does Miracle fit into all this? Says Johns, "There's so little understanding of Native American issues and ideas that any opportunity to get people interested - even if it's just coming to see a white buffalo calf - is a good thing."
Johns admits that seeing a key Indian prophecy fulfilled at a white couple's farmette on the banks of the Rock River at first seemed a bit bizarre. But the Heiders' eagerness to accommodate the people who came to pray to the calf and leave offerings eased his mind.
"Initially I was wondering: Why in Janesville?" says Johns, who rotates with other Indians in providing security for the calf during visiting hours. "The place still has problems with the KKK. And, you know, it's just not the friendliest of places. But now that I've gotten to know the family, I understand why. Just about anybody else would be charging five, 10 bucks.
Dave Heider was impressed by the beauty of buffalo when he and Val got their first good look at a bull a few years ago at an exotic animal sale in Michigan. But the couple didn't get into buffalo farming because of romantic visions of the Great Plains turned black by enormous bison herds.
"We got into it more or less for retirement," Dave explains, "Something to fall back on, a little extra income."
"And the meat's very low in cholesterol," adds Val, a buffalo booster who echoes her husband's pragmatic take on buffalo farming. "You know, it's the only animal that doesn't get cancer."
But the buffalo isn't just a food source for Native Americans. Especially for the Plains Indians, it has always been a living, breathing sacrament. Unlike the soldiers and Wild Westerners who hunted North America's 60 million-head herd to the brink of extinction in the 1980s, the Lakota and other Plains Indians never wasted any portion of the buffalo they killed. The buffalo provided them with food shelter, clothing - all the essentials of life. It was also a central part of their spiritual lives, and the hunt itself was a ceremony.
These days, the Lakota and other nations have established their own herds in South Dakota and elsewhere through the InterTribal Bison Association. (The Ho-Chunk hope to raise a herd on part of the 600-acre parcel they've purchased, with profits from their three casinos, on the lower Wisconsin River.) And, along with renewed interest on the part of young people in their native languages and sacred ways, the rebirth of the buffalo herds is strengthening cultural awareness.
But building herds is an ongoing process, and Joseph Chasing Horse says much more must be done to protect the buffalo and their North American habitat: "I would like to see something put into place where [the buffalo] would be able to regenerate their herds and be given more of their aboriginal migrating territory," he says. "Since the disappearance of the buffalo migration, we have felt the ecological impact that it is having upon the land. With the disappearance of the buffalo, there are certain medicines that no longer grow, and the Great Plains are being turned into a desert."
In recent years, non-Indians have also come to realize the profound influence of buffalo on the health of the land. A South Dakota ranch manager quoted in the National Geographic's recent cover story on the American buffalo says wider migrations could help solve water-management problems, because the buffalo's sharp hooves break up the soil and improve its ability to hold moisture.
Praying for the World
Buffalo can live for nearly 40 years, which means the Heiders are likely to form much stronger bonds with the Native Americans they've come to know since August. And while the number of visitors who still trek to their farm to see Miracle has decreased since the weather got cold and her winter coat began to darken, Dr. Spritz and others says warmer weather may renew her whiteness. That second miracle of coloration would undoubtedly bring a second wave of attention to the calf and occasion more pilgrimages.
But no matter what happens to Miracle in the coming months and years, Joseph Chasing Horse says this sign from the Great Spirit and the ensuing age of harmony and balance it represents cannot be revoked. That doesn't mean, of course, that the severe trials Native Americans have endured since the arrival of Europeans on these shores are over. Indeed, the Lakota nation mounted the longest court case in U.S. history in an unsuccessful effort to regain control of the Black Hills, the sacred land on which the White Buffalo Calf Woman appeared 2,000 years ago.
Still, despite their ongoing struggles, Native Americans are heartened by the appearance of a white buffalo in Janesville, and have hope for a harmonious and prosperous future.
"Mention that we are praying, many of the medicine people, the spiritual leaders, the elders, are praying for the world," says Joseph Chasing Horse. "We are praying that mankind does wake up and think about the future, for we haven't just inherited this earth from our ancestors, but we are borrowing it from our unborn children."