‘Sacred Return’: Tribal ceremony honors birth of prophesied white buffalo calf

A buffalo hide with a painting of Wakan Gli was unveiled on June 26, 2024. (Blair Miller/Daily Montanan)

Blair Miller/Daily Montanan

HEBGEN LAKE, Montana — The birth of a sacred white buffalo calf earlier this month in Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley fulfills a tribal prophecy, according to Native American spiritual leaders.

The prophecy means people need to take better care of Mother Earth and must come together to do so, leaders and elders told a group of about 500 people gathered Wednesday on the north shore of Hebgen Lake.

“It’s up to each and every one of you to make it happen for the future of our children. We must come together and bring that good energy back,” said Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the spiritual and ceremonial leader of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people and the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe and Bundle.

Looking Horse presided over the ceremony just west of Yellowstone National Park, which encompasses sacred ancestral lands for many western and northern plains tribes. He unveiled a buffalo hide painted with a portrait of the calf, naming it Wakan Gli, which means “Sacred Return,” “Sacred Comes Home,” or “Comes Holy,” according to tribal leaders who were at the ceremony.

A photo of the new white buffalo in Yellowstone National Park taken by photographer Jordan Creech. (Copyright Jordan Creech, provided by the Buffalo Field Campaign)
A photo of the new white buffalo in Yellowstone National Park taken by photographer Jordan Creech. (Copyright Jordan Creech, provided by the Buffalo Field Campaign) 

Representatives from the Shoshone-Bannock, Lakota, Sioux, Northern Arapaho and Colville tribes were among those who told the crowd of tribal members, tourists, and others who had traveled to the ceremony at the Buffalo Field Campaign headquarters that the birth of Wakan Gli was a foreboding message that the world is in a bad place at the moment, but also that it would help bring forth guidance on how to fix things.

“Understand that our ancestors come here and that when we come here, those spirits of our ancestors wake up and we introduce ourselves to the land,” said Darnell Sam, the Wenatchi Salmon Chief and member of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington. “…When we sing our songs, those spirits visit one another. They hold each other up. And that’s what we’re here to do today is to support one another for this buffalo spirit.”

Long ago, Looking Horse said, there was a time when food was disappearing, bison were scarce, and the people were sick and hungry. Tribes were looking for buffalo near what is now known as Devil’s Tower, when the White Buffalo Calf Woman presented herself to two scouts.

The next day, the White Buffalo Calf Woman appeared again, as she had promised, and brought the sacred red-stone pipe and bundle and showed them how to pray to the creator and find food. As she left over the hills, she first took the form of other colors of buffalo, then turned into a white buffalo. She told the people that she would one day return as a white buffalo calf with a black nose, black eyes, and black hooves.

“Mother Earth is going to be sick and has a fever. And that’s happening right now, as we speak. This is a prophecy that has been fulfilled,” Looking Horse said. “…And that’s the only way Mother Earth is going to speak – through these white animals.”

Looking Horse called the calf’s birth a “momentous time in our history.” About a dozen tribal members from across the region shared versions of what the white buffalo, and the American bison species in general, mean to the tribes and their heritages, and led the ceremony in prayer and song.

The arrival of the calf also offered a chance for deep reflection, the speakers said, on why it appeared now and how people need to recognize that its coming means they will have to change their behaviors with each other and with nature in order to save Mother Earth.

“Look at the interactions that we have as human beings, because there’s something we’re missing there,” said Devin Old Man of the Northern Arapahoe Tribe on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. “And it’s just as simple as sitting underneath the tree listening to the birds, watching the bees get the honey. Paying attention to these wild animals because they’re in their natural habitat.”

The calf has been elusive after it was first photographed in the Lamar Valley by Kalispell photographer Erin Braaten in early June. The Buffalo Field Campaign has provided photos of the calf taken by Jordan Creech.

Chief Arvol Looking Horse (center) is the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe and Bundle and presided over the naming ceremony and celebration on June 26, 2024, of a white buffalo born in Yellowstone National Park. (Blair Miller/Daily Montanan)
Chief Arvol Looking Horse (center) is the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe and Bundle and presided over the naming ceremony and celebration on June 26, 2024, of a white buffalo born in Yellowstone National Park. (Blair Miller/Daily Montanan) 

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly said in an interview last week the staff at the park had not seen the calf yet but the “search was on.” He said if the calf survives, he imagines it will become an animal celebrity of sorts, like Grizzly 399, the grizzly bear that lives in Grand Teton National Park and is followed by dozens of photographers.

“There will probably be a lot of people going to find the white bison. Maybe that bison figured it out and took off into the deep backcountry just to hang out there,” Sholly said. “But I’m sure it’ll be news if we see it again.”

According to the National Park Service Biological Resources Division and to Looking Horse, the last white buffalo with black eyes, nose and hooves to survive infancy was born in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1994.

Called “Miracle,” she was the first white buffalo calf born since 1933; that bison is known as “Big Medicine.” These types of white buffalo differ from albino buffalo. Another white buffalo calf born in Minnesota in 2012 died two weeks later.

Mike Mease, the campaign coordinator for the Buffalo Field Campaign, said Wednesday that holding the ceremony for the sacred white buffalo calf was “the biggest honor of my life.” He helped start the organization nearly three decades ago to help preserve the nation’s largest wild bison herd, which Indian Country and many who work in the field refer to as buffalo.

“From that day to this day, I’ve had the honor of standing with these buffalo, of learning from these buffalo, understanding them more than I understand most people, to be quite honest,” Mease said. “And those buffalo teach me about unity and about caring for one another.”

He explained that buffalo help each other survive the bitterly cold and long winters each year and help other animals in the ecosystem survive as well through months of deep snow. The lead bison cuts through the deepest snow, and the rest of the herd follows behind in a single file, then allows the lead buffalo to move to the back to rest.

“In that lesson, we learn the buffalo as a family, as a herd, share the burden of survival. They work together to make it all work. And when that trail is built back there in the deep snows, then the deer use it. The elk use it. The wolves use it,” he said. “Because the buffaloes are the protectors of the land, the people, and all the other animals.”

Looking Horse said when he was chosen in 1966 at 12 years old to be the sacred pipe and bundle keeper, his grandmother who preceded him in that role had a warning about Mother Earth and the prophecy of the White Buffalo Calf Woman.

“She also told the people that if people don’t straighten up, then I shall be the last sacred bundle keeper, and that is always in my heart.”

Yellowstone National Park statement about white bison calf


  • At this time, Yellowstone National Park can confirm, based on multiple creditable sightings, that a white bison calf was born in Lamar Valley on June 4, 2024.
  • Yellowstone’s Center for Resources Bison Management Team received numerous reports and photos of the calf taken on June 4 from park visitors, professional wildlife watchers, commercial guides and researchers.
  • To date, park staff have been unable to locate the calf.
  • To our knowledge, there have been no confirmed sightings by park visitors since June 4.
  • Photos provided to park biologists indicate the calf is leucistic (black eyes and hooves with some pigmentation), rather than an albino animal.


  • The birth of a white bison calf was a rare natural phenomenon that once occurred before the near extinction of bison in the late 19th century, when bison numbered in the tens of millions.
  • The birth of a white bison calf may reflect the presence of a natural genetic legacy that was preserved in Yellowstone’s bison, which has revealed itself because of the successful recovery of a wild bison population of 3,000-6,000 animals.
  • The birth of a white bison calf in the wild is a landmark event in the ecocultural recovery of bison by the National Park Service (NPS).
  • The NPS has never reported a white calf being born within Yellowstone National Park.
  • The birth of a white bison calf in the wild is believed to occur in 1 in 1 million births or even less frequently.
  • The NPS acknowledges the cultural significance of a white bison calf for American Indians.

Bison population

  • The bison population fluctuates from 3,000 to 6,000 animals in two subpopulations, defined by where they gather for breeding. The northern herd breeds in the Lamar Valley and on the high plateaus around it. The central herd breeds in Hayden Valley.
  • The NPS estimates the 2024 pre-calving bison population around 4,550. Calving occurs in a single pulse during late spring and early summer.
  • The NPS will complete annual post-calving counts this August.
  • Each spring, about 1 in 5 bison calves die shortly after birth due to natural hazards.
  • Read more about bison ecology and bison management in Yellowstone.