By DAVID BARDWELL
Neal White found his voice as a writer and journalist when a white buffalo was born just outside the small town of Beloit, Wisconsin.
The call came in on a summer afternoon in 1994.
“I was with the [Beloit Daily News] in Wisconsin,” White recalls. “I’d just been promoted to city editor from the region desk and everyone was getting ready to leave for the day.
“We got a call from a farmer outside of town who said they just had the strangest thing happen.
“They had a buffalo that was born with white fur,”
White recently retired after more than three decades in the news business and is now living in New Brunswick with his high-school love interest, whom he reconnected with toward the end of his career.
His speech is a unique blend of southern inflections, favouring terms like “needs fixed” when something is broken or using ya’ll to address a crowd.
White is clearly still in love with journalism and often recounts his favourite pieces, ranging from the interviews with First and Second World War veterans to his weekly car column.
But there was never another story quite like the white buffalo. White recalls that from the beginning the story sounded like it had potential, but wasn’t a priority until the farmer mentioned the competing newspaper in town had told him they weren’t interested in tales about livestock.
“I told the region editor I’d call the farmer and see about getting out there before the end of the day,”
When he got to the farm, sure enough, there was a buffalo calf with shocking white fur. Little did he or the farmer know what significance this animal had to the indigenous people of the region.
“All I knew was that it was rare. I got my hands on a buffalo book that said the last one seen was in like 1919,” said White.
The white buffalo was hard to explain by science. Geneticists had thought that the mutation which caused white hair was killed off with the majority of the herds during the previous century.
“One in nineteen million,” White said. “Those were the odds of one being born then. That was all I knew. That was it.”
Miracle is what the farmer ended up naming the calf.
White said after the first article was published he was contacted by a man from the Sioux Nation nearby who said that the buffalo was part of a prophecy in indigenous tribes.
“Very early on I got to know Harry Brownbear from the Oneida tribe. He was a spiritual leader.”
The legend, as Floyd Buffalo Hand of the Oglala Sioux told him, said the birth of a white buffalo calf woman (it had to be female for the prophecy to be fulfilled) would bring the indigenous people back to their previous status.
This revelation led to meetings being arranged with some delegates from various tribes, the farmer and White.
White said the prophecy was confirmed and recognized by indigenous peoples such as Floyd Buffalo Hand, from the Oglala Sioux; Joseph Chasing Horse, who was chief of the Lakota Sioux at the time; and Arvol Looking Horse, the nineteenth-generation keeper of the sacred white buffalo pipe, an original piece of Sioux heritage.
The prophecy comes from a time when the tribal people hunted the buffalo, but couldn’t find any for some time.
The story says that two hunters were sent to find prey, turning up nothing after days of searching before seeing a large hill, which they climbed to get a better view.
At the top, the hunters saw a figure in the distance, almost human, but it appeared to float instead of walk toward them. As the figure drew nearer, it became clear it was a woman.
As she drew nearer, the men addressed her, one reaching out to touch her only to be struck down by lightning, leaving nothing but a pile of dust. The second hunter knew who she was, she was Lila Wakan, the White Buffalo Calf Woman.
She instructed the hunter to return to his people and tell them to prepare for her arrival by constructing a medicine hut. He obeyed.
After four days, she arrived and was greeted by the tribe with reverence, eventually the chief of the tribe offered her water, noting they had no meat for sustenance or else they would have offered.
She proceeded to show the people how to use a holy pipe before giving it to the chief, informing them that this pipe would act almost like a prayer.
With that, she left, but first told the chief to keep the pipe, and that as long as the pipe remains with the Sioux, she will return to revitalize them.
The legend says that as she walked into the distance, she lay down and rolled over, turning into a black buffalo, rolling again into a brown, again into a red and on the fourth roll she turned into a white buffalo.
The White Buffalo Calf Woman walked out of sight then, only to be replaced by dozens of buffalo who arrived, allowing the tribe’s hunters to kill them with ease as a way to ensure the tribe could live on.
White said after learning the story of the pipe, he met Looking Horse, the keeper of the very pipe in the legend.
“The pipe had been handed down from generation to generation since the day the White Buffalo Calf Woman first appeared,” said White.
Once he realized what this buffalo, and by extension the pipe, meant to these people, White took the time to follow up the story with information on the white buffalo prophecy, conducting interviews with elders and various people connected with the story.
Over the years, Miracle changed colours four times before dying at the age of ten, as was described in the legend.
“That’s when I really found my writing style…since then I’ve seen dozens of journalists have their moment and it’s always great to watch.” said White.
“I still get chills just thinking about that story.”