Why White Buffalo Are So Revered By Indigenous People

In spring, 2023, a rare white bison was born in Wyoming's Bear River state park, the first of its kind in the park's history, The Guardian reports. Today, science understands a few reasons why a bison might be born white, including genetic albinism or possibly leucism, a condition that causes animals to lose their pigmentation, according to the National Park Service (NPS). More often than not, these days, bison are born white when a little bit of their domesticated cattle DNA surfaces, Smithsonian Magazine writes

Regardless of what causes their white fur, many North American indigenous cultures have long considered white bison sacred, including the Sioux, Cherokee, Navaho, Lakota, and Dakota. The reason originates with the Lakota and relates to the story of Ptesan Wi', a beautiful woman who brought good tidings after a famine. In some versions of the story, she appeared as or transformed into a white bison, promising to return again. To this day, the birth of a white bison is a sign for many Native Americans that hard times have ended and good things are about to come (via Modern Farmer).

The story of Ptesan Wi'

Though similar, there are many different versions of the Ptesan Wi' story, sometimes called the White Buffalo Calf Woman. (Though distinct species, the words bison and buffalo are acceptable today when referring to the North American variety, per Smithsonian Institution). In one version of the story dating back thousands of years, two young Lakota men are out exploring when they encounter the mysterious woman. One is lured by Ptesan Wi”s beauty. He approaches her with lascivious intentions, only to be cut down into a pile of bones, the NPS writes.

Explaining she is holy, she then tells the other Lakota scout to inform his people she will soon arrive in the shape of a white buffalo. Days later, she showed up as a white buffalo that quickly transformed back into a woman, presenting the Lakota people with the white buffalo calf pipe, or chanunpa, among the holiest objects in all Lakota culture. According to the tradition, Ptesan Wi' also introduced several traditions such as the sweat lodge, vision quest, and the naming ceremony of newborn children, per Adishakti.org.

For some indigenous people, white buffalo are the most sacred thing on Earth

In the Ptesan Wi' story, before she left she also instructed the Lakota people how to pray and what to pray for and told them she would return again to restore balance and harmony. She then transformed back into a white buffalo calf and disappeared. As long as they followed her teachings, they would remain caretakers of their sacred land. 

According to Native American Cross Cultural consultant Joseph Chasing Horse (via Adishakti.org), Ptesan Wi' told the Lakota, if they remained stewards of their land, "our people would never die and would always live." Because of the Ptesan Wi' story, white buffalo calves are among the most sacred things on Earth in many Native American belief systems, representing the circle of life, hope, rebirth, and renewal, the NPS writes. 

As an article of faith, the Ptesan Wi' story is unimpeachable, but as Bear River State Park Superintendent Tyfani Sager told Cowboy State Daily, "Most of the bison you find anymore have some cattle genetics. They were nearly hunted to extinction by the late 1800s. People got concerned about extinction and cattle inbreeding was used. A white bison birth is still fairly rare." The last known white buffalo calf was born in 2012 in Minnesota but only survived two weeks before it died.