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The Story of Blizzard - The White Buffalo

By Dr. Robert E. Wrigley, Curator, Assiniboine Park Zoo (Please see Update)

As the Curator at the Assiniboine Park Zoo, it is my responsibility to acquire new animals for our conservation and interpretive programs. In 2006, I was in the process of arranging an exchange of European Bison with a rancher in the United States, when he informed me that a white calf had been born in June 2005 in his large herd of Plains Bison. His animals originated from the herd in Custer State Park, South Dakota. I immediately expressed interest in acquiring this white calf, since it would draw many people to the Zoo. The Buffalo is Manitoba’s Provincial emblem, and historically played a prominent role in the livelihood and culture of First Nations, Métis, and European traders and settlers. I thought that Manitobans and visitors would appreciate being able to see and learn about this rare White Buffalo. While I had heard about Miracle and Big Medicine – two other famous White Buffalo born on ranches in Wisconsin and Montana – I must admit I had no idea of the great spiritual significance of such an animal. I gave the calf his English name Blizzard not only due to his color, but because he arrived in Winnipeg during a fierce snow storm on March 6, 2006.

When word of Blizzard’s arrival was made public, a number of First Nations Elders arrived to inform us of the great importance of this event, and to ensure that the proper protocol would be followed in showing respect to such a spiritual animal. Foremost among these advisors was Elder Roger Armitte, and in the following years he has become a close friend and has helped me with numerous media interviews and documentaries on Blizzard. Another individual who showed great interest in our White Buffalo was Winnipeg Police Service Patrol Sergeant, Cecil Sveinson. He is a spiritual caregiver and keeper of the two Sweat Lodges near Blizzard’s enclosure at the Zoo, and is committed to keeping alive First Nations’ ceremonial traditions.

(Click thumbnail photos below for larger images.)

While Blizzard was still in quarantine at the Zoo Hospital, special permission was granted to Elder Armitte and several other Elders to perform a welcoming ceremony. This blessing involved a smudge with sweet grass, and singing a prayer to the beat of a drum. Now most animals are frightened of smoke and unusual sounds, but Blizzard walked right over to the barn window and stood reverently for the entire performance, as if he knew that he was being honored. A second welcoming ceremony and feast, with many more First Nations attendees, was held after Blizzard was moved to a display enclosure, and the event was enjoyed as a time of celebration and hope; Blizzard again remained close by to watch over the activities.

Blizzard has sometimes looked a little strange with mats of shedding hair hanging from his sides. And like all Bison, he enjoys rolling in the dust and mud wallows, so we can never guarantee visitors and photographers that our White Buffalo will always be white. He looks best in his fresh and clean winter coat, especially after he rolls in the snow. Seeing Blizzard and a brown female together in a field of snow makes for a fascinating photograph, and he all but disappears from view on a snowy day.

When Blizzard was finally introduced to our Bison herd, the meeting caused great excitement. I have never heard so much grunting and snorting, and witnessed such astonishing speed from these huge animals, as the herd charged back and forth across the field. When placed together a few days later, there was plenty of head butting and pushing, and I was quite concerned at times that the jousting was getting out of hand. Heads colliding and horns pounding into rib cages is not a reassuring sight or sound. Finally things settled down, and the dominant females eventually accepted his presence. Perhaps because he looks so different in his white coat, the females still keep him on the outside of the group. As he matures and reaches full size, this relationship will change as he takes charge of the herd. Blizzard still appears to enjoy visiting with people, and of course the appearance of a pail of alfalfa pellets will bring him at a gallop over to the fence. I have introduced a number of First Nations people to Blizzard, and it is touching to see their emotional reactions at being so close to their spiritual animal. Blizzard always responds with interest and gentleness, taking bunches of grass from their hands with his long and soft tongue.

I was privileged, through the kind invitation of my friend Cecil Sveinson, to witness and participate in a Sweat Lodge Ceremony at the Zoo, and a Sun Dance Ceremony in the Sacred Sandhills near Carberry, Manitoba. For a White person, these were experiences I will never forget, and I felt like I was stepping back into an ancient time to observe the most-sacred and private of ceremonies of a people little known to my culture. In this regard, I would like to recount a special story entitled: “The Legend of the White Buffalo Calf Woman,” which epitomizes beautifully what this rare animal has meant to the people of the Plains for over a thousand years. This legend tells how White Buffalo Calf Woman brought the gifts of knowledge, food, prayer (including Sweat Lodge and Sun Dance ceremonies), and a sacred pipe to the Lakota Nation, while camped in the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota, which ironically was Blizzard’s ancestral home. To this day, a respected woman is given the honor of representing Buffalo Woman during Sun Dance rituals. Two ancient pipes have survived to this day, and are kept by the Looking Horse family on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation of South Dakota.

Originally numbering about 60 million head, the Buffalo was the foundation of the Plains First Nations’ way of life – providing food, clothing, tools, fuel, and materials for their homes and ceremonies. Before the coming of White Buffalo Calf Woman, the People of the Plains suffered from starvation and disease – the consequences of not following traditional ways. The Lakota bands came together at the Seven Sacred Council Fires and instructed young scouts to search in all directions for game. Walking northwest from camp, towards Devil’s Tower, two scouts stopped to rest on a hill, and spotted a figure in the distance. As it came closer they saw it was a White Buffalo calf. Suddenly the calf turned into a beautiful young woman dressed in shining-white buckskin, colorfully decorated in quills. She told them she was bringing a holy gift from the Buffalo Nation, and to prepare the way for her. On hearing this news, and with great excitement, the people in the camp made ready to receive her in a large Medicine Lodge, supported with 24 poles. Four days later, the Holy Woman entered, and began to teach the people the Seven Sacred Rites. She then opened a pouch to reveal a Sacred Pipe and began praying. Filling the Pipe with red-willow bark tobacco, she lit it with a burning Buffalo chip. After walking around the lodge in four circles, she passed the Pipe to the band Elders, saying that the smoke was the breath of the Great Grandfather Spirit, the bowl represented the unity of the Buffalo and the Red Man’s flesh and blood, and the wooden stem was all things that grew on the Earth.

Next she removed from her bundle, gifts of corn, wild turnip and pemmican. She showed the women how to cook foods in water in a Buffalo paunch by dropping in a red-hot stone heated by a hearth fire. She then spoke to the children -- the precious ones of the next generation -- how someday they would grow up to have little ones, and to hold the Sacred Pipe and pray. Before departing, she told the gathering that they were chosen to keep the Sacred Pipe for all First Nations People on this Turtle Island. She promised to return someday to renew harmony, prosperity and spirituality. As she walked away into the setting red sun, she rolled over four times in the form of a Buffalo, in turn becoming black, brown, red, and finally a white calf. Soon after, great herds of Buffalo appeared on the grassy hills, providing the Lakota Nation with all the resources they needed. Since then, a White Buffalo Calf has become the most-venerated of all living things.

With the assistance of the City of Winnipeg Translation Services, and Aboriginal Languages of Manitoba, I was able to have this Legend translated into French, Dakota, Cree, Ojibway and Dene, in both Roman orthography and syllabics. The artwork was created by my daughter-in-law, Bobbie-Joe Leclair, of First Nations ancestry. These signs demonstrate our appreciation to First Nations people for the gift of sharing their spiritual beliefs and traditions with us.

[Download PDF versions of White Buffalo Calf Woman interpretive signs: Left Sign (280 Kb) - Right Sign (180 Kb)]

Hundreds of thousands of Zoo visitors come to see Blizzard each year, and many individuals have developed a close relationship with him, offering prayers, songs, and gifts of tobacco ties, colored cloth, and dream-catchers. This calf has become so much more than a display animal -- he is a symbol of spiritual renewal and hope in our community, and has focused attention on bringing people of all backgrounds together. It has been a wonderful experience interacting with numerous individuals from First Nations and Métis communities, and they have taught me so much about their traditional relationships with Nature and the spiritual world. I hope you will have an opportunity to visit Blizzard, and to appreciate what his presence brings to many people, here in Manitoba and from elsewhere.

More White Buffalo Resources

For more information on white buffalo's here's a good book: “Seeing the White Buffalo”, by Robert B. Pickering, 1997, Johnson Books, 160 pp.

An episode of "The Sharing Circle" TV show, Season 15, No. 7, entitled the White Buffalo Prophecy is available for purchase from the Sharing Circle Website. Click on their "Order DVD" link.

Photo Credits

Photos in this article are by Darlene Stack, Dr. Robert Wrigley, Donna Sutherland and Ron Boily.



For more NatureNorth at the Zoo:

Manitoba Wildlife at the Zoo | Manitoba Amphibians at the Zoo | Tale of a Wandering Spider

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