The Prophecy of the White Buffalo Calf is Proof that American Indians Were the First ‘American’ Naturalists
The white buffalo calf holds special significance to American Indians- especially the Oceti Sakowin (The People of the Seven Council Fires, also known as the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota, or the ‘Sioux’). As it is a crucial part of the teachings and prophecy of White Buffalo Calf Woman, the white buffalo calf is considered a sacred omen of change.
According to legend, the White Buffalo Calf Woman was a holy entity that visited the Oceti Sakowin over a four day period. She taught them sacred ceremonies, songs, and dances. She gifted the people with a sacred bundle containing the White Buffalo Calf Pipe, which still exists to this day and is kept by Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Upon appearing and leaving, the White Buffalo Calf Woman changed into a white buffalo calf, then changed in color from white to black, to yellow, and finally, red. Prophetically, it is said that the White Buffalo Calf Woman will return at the end of an age, and she will appear as a white buffalo calf.
A buffalo is normally brown in color- so historically, the birth of a white buffalo calf is rare. The earliest recorded sighting of a white buffalo calf in the U.S. is in 1833. Since the 1990s, white buffalo calf births have been much more common. There’s been some 20 or so documented cases of white buffalo calves over the past few decades.
According to modern science, there are several different reasons as to why a buffalo could be born white. The most obvious reason given is that they may be an albino. Albinism is a genetic condition in which an organism doesn’t produce melanin, meaning there is a partial or complete lack of brown pigment. If the animal is an albino, it will have white fur, pink eyes, an increased sensitivity to the sun, and poor eye sight. Another reason could be that the animal is leucistic, meaning they were born with a genetic condition characterized by reduced pigmentation. Such a condition is marked by a reduction in all types of pigment, not just melanin. As a result, the animal will have white fur and blue eyes. Another recessive genetic condition causes buffalo to be born white, but to become brown within a year or two as it grows older. Also, the buffalo could be a fertile hybrid offspring of domestic cattle and buffalo. In this case, it is possible for an animal that looks like a buffalo to possess white or other coloration from their cattle ancestry.
Hold your horses, folks. I know what you’re thinking. You’re probably thinking that I’ve just taken something sacred and beautiful and explained it away with rational, western science. You’d be wrong in that assumption. I’ve come to the conclusion that the science behind the causes of the white calf phenomena and the prophecy of the White Buffalo Calf Woman may not be mutually exclusive.
Once plentiful in the northern plains, the buffalo nearly went extinct as a species in the late 1800s. The population crash was due to overhunting by non-Indians. Buffalo were slaughtered by the thousands. While buffalo have survived, the catastrophe of near extinction is not without its consequences.
When organisms like the buffalo suffer a huge die-off and must repopulate from a small pool of surviving individuals, a population bottleneck is created. Population bottlenecks reduce genetic variation because it changes the frequency of gene variants, called alleles. Here, we are discussing the dominant allele (gene variant) for fur color in buffalo, which is brown. Alleles in the offspring are a sample of those in the parents. In other words, the only genes available to a given organism are the ones found within its parents. If there are less available parents, there are less genes in the proverbial gene pool. The effect of genetic drift is larger in small populations, and smaller in large populations. As a result, recessive genetic conditions that are rare in large populations become more pronounced after a population bottleneck, which is created when organisms must repopulate based on a small population of reproducing individuals.
The Oceti Sakowin and a number of other American Indian Tribes are historically tied to the buffalo. As hunter-gatherers, indigenous peoples of the northern plains followed buffalo herds and hunted them. Every part of the buffalo was used. The survival of these Tribes was dependent upon the buffalo. In other words, according to the cultural beliefs of the Oceti Sakowin and other Tribes who hunted the buffalo for sustenance, the fates of the buffalo and the Native people who hunted them were intertwined. Extinction of the buffalo thousands or even hundreds of years ago would have meant that the people who hunted them would have to change and adapt to survive, or suffer extinction themselves.
American Indians were not only the first inhabitants of this country, but the first natural scientists in America. They used native plants medicinally, studied the night sky, and knew the natural laws of Earth through observation. Nature was their teacher. Is it possible that Native peoples were able to understand the occurrence of recessive genetic conditions among animals that were going extinct? If so, they would be able to make a direct correlation between the appearance of these conditions in buffalo, and the end of an age for their people. Thus, a warning of a change in fur coloration among the buffalo would directly translate to an omen of change among American Indians.