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Tribes Honor the Birth of a Rare White Buffalo Calf in Yellowstone and Reveal Its Name: Wakan Gli
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By Associated Press
Published 2 weeks ago on
June 27, 2024

In a sacred ceremony near Yellowstone, tribes celebrate the birth of a rare white buffalo calf, named Wakan Gli, as a symbol of hope and environmental stewardship. (AP/Jordan Creech)

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WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. — In a gathering near a picturesque lake outside Yellowstone National Park, hundreds of people cheered Wednesday as a Native American leader spoke the name revealed on a painted hide for a rare white buffalo that was born in the park earlier this month: Wakan Gli, which means “Return Sacred” in Lakota.

The moment marked the highlight of a Native American religious ceremony to commemorate the calf’s birth that also featured dancing, drumming, singing and the retelling of how a mysterious woman brought a message of reassurance during hard times.

Birth of a White Buffalo Calf in Yellowstone

Earlier this month, the white buffalo calf was born in Yellowstone National Park’s vast and lush Lamar Valley, where huge, lumbering bison graze by the hundreds in scenes reminiscent of the old American West.

To the several tribes who revere American bison — they call them “buffalo” — the calf’s appearance was both the fulfilment of sacred prophesy and a message to take better care of the Earth.

“It’s up to each and every one of you to make it happen for the future of our children. We must come together and bring that good energy back,” Chief Arvol Looking Horse said at the ceremonies a few miles west of Yellowstone, in far southern Montana.

The Significance of the White Buffalo Calf

Looking Horse is spiritual leader of the Lakota, Dakota and the Nakota Oyate in South Dakota and the 19th keeper of the sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman Pipe and Bundle. He describes the white buffalo calf’s appearance as both a blessing and a warning about the natural environment.

About 500 people — including representatives of the Colville Tribes in Washington, Lakota and Sioux in the Dakotas, Northern Arapaho in Wyoming, and Shoshone-Bannock in Idaho — attended the ceremonies at the headquarters of Buffalo Field Campaign between Hebgen Lake and the southern reach of the Madison Range. The conservation group works with tribes to protect and honor wild buffalo.

At most, only a handful of people got a look at the calf soon after its birth June 4. Fewer still got photos to prove its existence. The calf has not been seen since.

The Legend of the White Buffalo Calf

Each passing week without a sighting adds to suspicions the calf has fallen victim to predators, river currents, illness or any number of hazards for young buffalo. Regardless, it was an auspicious sign with deep roots in Lakota legend and spiritual belief.

Some 2,000 years ago — when nothing was good, food was running out and bison were disappearing — White Buffalo Calf Woman appeared and presented a bowl pipe and a bundle to a tribal member and said the pipe could be used to bring buffalo to the area for food.

As she left, she turned into a white buffalo calf. She promised to return one day, when times are hard again, as a white buffalo calf with black nose, black eyes and black hooves.

“This is a very momentous time in our history when this white buffalo calf with black nose, black eyes, black hooves is born,” Looking Horse said.

White calves are unusual but not unheard of on buffalo ranches, a result of interbreeding between buffalo and cattle. White bison in nature are another level of rare, with none known in Yellowstone — the continent’s largest wild reserve of the animals — in recent memory, if ever.

This calf came after a severe winter in 2023 drove thousands of Yellowstone buffalo to lower elevations. More than 1,500 were killed, sent to slaughter or transferred to tribes seeking to reclaim stewardship over an animal their ancestors lived alongside for millennia.

Jordan Creech, who guides in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, was one of a few people who captured images of the white buffalo calf.

Creech was guiding a photography tour when he spotted a cow buffalo about to give birth near the Lamar River. The buffalo disappeared over a hill and the group continued to a place where grizzly bears had been spotted, Creech said.

They returned later and saw the cow with its calf, Creech said. It was clear the calf had just been born, he said, calling it amazing timing.

“And I noted to my guests that it was oddly white, but I didn’t announce that it was a white bison, because, you know, why would I just assume that I just witnessed the very first white bison birth in recorded history in Yellowstone?” he said.

Yellowstone park officials have no record of a white bison being born in the park previously. Park officials have been unable to confirm this month’s birth.

Erin Braaten, who also captured images of the white calf, looked for it in the days after its birth but couldn’t find it.

“The thing is, we all know that it was born and it’s like a miracle to us,” Looking Horse said.

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