When Joe Merrival was called to the scene of a buffalo shooting on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation recently, he stared in disbelief — not far away lay his sacred buffalo, its throat slit, its hide tattered. Medicine Wheel had been the first white buffalo born on Indian lands in more than a century.
I just felt, “Oh no, it’s the white buffalo,'”Merrival said Thursday. “I tried to control myself. My mind went blank actually. I didn’t want to say anything wrong, so I just said, “It’s the white buffalo.'”
Born May 9, 1996, the white calf was immediately viewed as a symbol of hope, rebirth and unity for numerous Great Plains tribes.
“For us, this would be something like coming to see Jesus lying in the manger,” Floyd Hand Looks For Buffalo said shortly after Medicine Wheel’s birth.
Today, the calf’s death comes amid turmoil and chaos on Pine Ridge, where internal and external pressures have rocked its 20,000 Oglala Lakota for much of the past year.
Throughout last summer, demonstrators marched on nearby Whiteclay, Neb., protesting beer sales and a spate of unsolved Indian murders. And for the past 68 days, another group has occupied the tribal administration building.
The buffalo’s death is a sign that life for American Indian people will get worse before it gets better, said Looks for Buffalo, a spokesman for the takeover group Grassroots Oyate.
According to a tribal police report, Pine Ridge’s symbol of hope and unity died just after 8 p.m. Sunday, when police officer Alex Morgan spotted the animal running down a road near the Red Cloud community.
Morgan and tribal member Leon Poor Bear pursued the animal, which ran into a yard.
“We tried to chase it back down the road, but it would put down his head and charge us,” Morgan wrote in his report. “I told Leon to shoot the buffalo for the safety of the community.” When Merrival found the buffalo’s body later that night, it appeared someone had started to butcher it, he said: its throat was slit and its hide scarred from being dragged down a gravel road.
The rare animal’s significance is rooted in Lakota oral history, which tells the story of a holy woman visiting one of their villages. She taught them their seven sacred ceremonies and their four great virtues: courage, wisdom, generosity and fortitude. Before she left, she told the people not to worry, that she would return one day, and that a sign of her arrival would be a white buffalo calf.
A version of the prophecy predicts the calf will be born white but will change in color — to black, to yellow, to red and back to white — as it matures, Merrival said. Medicine Wheel was in the black phase.
When Medicine Wheel was born, doubt existed whether the animal was 100 percent bison. Tests from Storemont Laboratory in Woodland, Calif., however, proved it to be pure.
Now that the animal is dead, Merrival will use its hair and bones “for spiritual purposes,” sharing the parts with as many people as he can. After that, “I’ll put it back into the pasture to where it was born.”
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