The rare birth of a white bison calf has sparked a new sense of optimism to the people of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation.
“We have a shared history with the bison. Our people were almost wiped out just as the bison were. So, we have a connection with them and they are part of our culture and are included in many of our ceremonies,” said Sioux Valley Dakota Nation Chief Vincent Tacan.
In early May, Sioux Valley First Nation reserve, which is located 50 kms west of Brandon near Griswold, welcomed a white male bison calf into its herd of 25.
The calf and its mother are believed to be two of three white bison in Manitoba. The third, Blizzard, resides at the Assiniboine Park Zoo.
“I don’t know what the odds are to have a white buffalo calf. But from what I understand it is pretty rare,” Tacan said. “This is certainly not a fluke of nature, this is not an albino calf. If you look at this calf, its eyes are not pink. It is a true white bison.”
According to the U.S. National Bison Association, one out of every 10 million bison are born white.
The calf’s mother was gifted to the reserve by the Assiniboine Park Zoo in 2009 because of the animal’s cultural significance.
When the white bison first arrived at the reserve, Tacan says that many thought that she would never have a calf. But, despite speculation she calved two brown calves prior to this white calf.
“I am not a veterinarian or bison expert but one of the guys I was talking to thought that this happened because we switched bulls after her first two calves and that the mother’s genes were stronger in this calf,” Tacan said.
The white bison is considered sacred or spiritually significant in several Native American religions, a belief that is followed by a number of residents in the Sioux Valley community.
Tacan explains the story of the white bison calf woman, where two Dakota Nation warriors were out hunting and the white bison woman appeared to them in the distance with a herd.
“The story goes that the first warrior had bad thoughts against her and was turned to dust. The other was afraid and the woman told him to go home and get ready and she would come to their camp and have something to share. He went home and got ready and the woman appeared and shared her purpose and taught them the ceremonies and traditions. It is a significant story that our people tell and today, people still follow some of those customs and beliefs.”
Many First Nations in North America believe that a white bison is the most sacred living thing on earth and will often visit the animal for prayer and religious rituals.
The community has seen a number of visitors who have come to view the calf and leave tobacco offerings wrapped in colourful flags that now line the fence of the animal’s enclosure.
“Some people go to a church and speak with a minister or whatever they choose. But in our culture, we take tobacco offerings and flags and hang them at the buffalo site. We have quite a few people who visit the bison, from both on and off of the reserve,” Tacan said.
In Aboriginal culture, the birth of a white bison is also a sign of hope, an indication of good times to come and in many cases it is considered to be a prophetic sign.
Tacan says he isn’t necessarily too spiritual himself but certainly believes the white bison that was gifted to the community in 2009 has brought positive changes.
“Six years ago when I became chief I basically inherited a mess. The finances were in bad shape and a lot of aspects of the reserve were struggling. I noticed that when the buffalo came in things began to improve and I really do believe that something is going on here,” he said.
“Our debt has been cleared up, we have a better relationship with our surrounding neighbours, we are starting to educate our people on and off the reserve, there are cross-cultural exchanges happening, and we have been able to start a significant economic development project. There have been a lot of positive things happen here and some that I can’t explain but it seems to be going along a parallel track with the bison.”