America's great white hope: Thousands of pilgrims from all over the world are flocking to a small farm in Wisconsin, where a buffalo calf is being hailed as the Native American messiah

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The Independent Culture
JANESVILLE, in southern Wisconsin, has always been a quiet town, even by the standards of rural mid-America. There is a General

Motors plant there, where many of the 52,000 population work; and an impressive selection of churches, where many of them worship; but not a great deal else. Leafy, spacious and moderately prosperous, it combines sleepy sub-

urban respectablity with a certain aura of rugged, outdoor self-sufficiency.

Dave Heider is - or was - a fairly typical inhabitant. He earns a modest living as an employee of the Rock County Highway Department, and lives on the outskirts of the town in a farmhouse with a 45-acre estate that he farms in his spare time, partly for profit, partly for fun. His livestock includes cattle,

horses, peacocks, a llama - and 13 buffalo.

Seven weeks ago, on Saturday 20 August, one of these buffalo gave birth to a calf; and neither Heider's life nor Janesville's has been the same since.

THE CALF is called Miracle. This is because, though her eyes are brown, her fur is white. She is, in other words, not an albino, but a genuine white buffalo. To Native Americans, and particularly to the Sioux and the Northern Plains tribes, this makes her a miracle - not just in general terms, but in a very specific sense, as a quasi-messianic creature whose coming was prophesied centuries ago.

Oral history has no definitive texts, and the myth of the White Buffalo Calf Woman has, like any other myth, developed many variants as it has been passed down through the generations. This version, recounted by John Fire Lame Deer in 1967, gives as concise and authoritative an account as any: 'One summer so long ago that nobody knows how long, the seven sacred council fires of the Lakota Sioux came together and camped. The sun shone all the time, but there was no game, and people were starving. The chief sent two young men on foot to hunt. The men climbed a high hill to scan the whole country and met a beautiful young woman who floated as she walked. One man desired the woman and tried to touch her, but he was consumed by a cloud of snakes and reduced to a pile of bones. The other man returned to his camp and told the people that the holy woman was coming. When she arrived, the woman gave the people a sacred pipe and taught them how to use it and pray. 'With this holy pipe, you will live like a living prayer,' she said. The woman also told the Sioux about the value of buffalo, women and children. 'You are from the mother earth,' she told the women. 'What you are doing is as great as what the warriors do.' Before she left, she told the people she would return. And as she walked away, she rolled over four times, turning into a white buffalo calf. After that day, the Sioux took care of the pipe, and buffalo were plentiful.'

Ever since, the white buffalo's second coming has been eagerly awaited. There have, inevitably, been false alarms, but remarkably few. The best-known was a white calf called Big Medicine, who was born in Montana in 1993. But he was male, which disqualified him, and, in any case, had a brown top-knot on his crown. Miracle, who suffers from no such handicaps, is the first serious contender since then.

When she was born, Dave Heider knew nothing of the myth. He did, however, consider her unusual colouring worth mentioning to a journalist friend, and an article in a farming magazine ensued. This was seen by some Native American readers, and within days

Heider's farm was under siege. Miracle fever had begun.

TODAY, the fever burns more fiercely than ever. The television networks have picked up the story, and pilgrims now travel from all over America - all over the world, in fact - to see the sacred calf. 'Hi. This is the home of the great white buffalo,' says the message on the Heiders' answering machine; adding, wearily: 'Visiting hours are only on Saturdays and Sundays, from 12 to 5pm.'

If you go to Janesville, you can easily find the way to the Heiders' home, simply by following the traffic. And, once you get there, you can easily pick out the Heiders from among the milling crowd. Everyone else looks happy. They look stressed. The coming of Miracle may or may not presage a new golden age for the world at large, but for the Heiders she has proved a mixed blessing. Dave Heider has, for example, had to persuade his friends (especially the larger ones) to act as security guards, and to help supervise parking, put up special fences and make all the other arrangements that you need to make when America starts visiting your home at a rate of anything up to 4,000 people a weekend.

Many of these arrangements appear to be designed to maximise the commercial returns generated by Miracle. Photographing her, for example, is strictly forbidden. If you want photographs, you have to buy, for dollars 1 each, snapshots taken by Heider's nephew. Alternatively, you can buy limited edition prints of a portrait of Miracle and her mother painted by Gary Gandhi, local artist and friend of Dave Hieder. And no doubt you will want to buy some 'soda pop' while you are at it.

A percentage of Gandhi's takings - and, presumably, of the soft drink and photograph takings - goes to Heider. But it would be a mistake to infer from this that Heider is making a killing from Miracle. In obedience to the wishes of Native American leaders he is not charging any entry fee, so that people of all races and religions can have free access; and what money he does take (supplemented by voluntary donations from visitors) goes, he says, to a trust fund which helps with the administrative costs that Miracle has generated, and with the upkeep of the farm.

He certainly does not look or sound as though he is enjoying an unexpected windfall. A tanned blond man of medium build in his mid-forties, he has an air of exhaustion and tension that suggests somebody under extreme pressure. 'You get cut no matter which way you turn,' he says. 'You have no privacy, everyone wants to come and see. People from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England and people from all the unions in the United States have been here. We have no time for ourselves, no social life, people constantly phoning, coming, wanting to see the calf all hours of the day and night.' None the less, he has turned down several offers to buy Miracle, both from Native American tribes and, reputedly, from white celebrities such as Ted Nugent (who recorded the 1974 hit 'Great White Buffalo') and Shirley Maclaine. 'She's not for sale,' he says firmly. 'We are not going to sell her. She is staying right here.'

There can be little doubt that Miracle has the potential to generate great wealth both for Heider and for Janesville, especially if public access to her continues to be so tightly controlled. But it is also clear that Heider respects the beliefs of the pilgrims who visit her. Shortly after news broke of Miracle's birth, Heider received a telephone call from a Native American spiritual leader called Looks For Buffalo, who prophesied that Miracle's father would die, so that Miracle might live. Two days later, Marvin, the bull that sired her, died, from stomach ulcers. Heider was subsequently visited by another spiritual leader, Arvol Looking Horse, a Sioux from South Dakota who is revered as Keeper of the Sacred Buffalo Pipe. With Heider's cooperation, Arvol Looking Horse recently organised a ceremony - attended by tribes from all over America - to bless the calf and all human beings.

AS FOR Miracle herself - well, she is as elusive as any other modern mega-star. On a Saturday afternoon last month, I joined hundreds of other pilgrims as we queued up to pay tribute to her. They included people of all races and religions, with a definite majority of whites.

Several, including the group of women in front of me, had wet eyes. 'Are you crying?' I asked them. 'What do you expect?' came the reply. 'This is a great moment.'

Three of the group were Native Americans; the fourth was white, but claimed to have 'an Indian heart'. They all bore gifts of sage and trinkets. The sage, said one of the Native Americans, was 'a sign of blessing and purification. We are going to leave some on the fence for Miracle, the little white buffalo who is a symbol of unity for all nations, the races of white, yellow, red and black, and we've been waiting for hundreds and hundreds of years for this.'

After signing their names in a small school exercise book, everyone walked down the long path towards the place where Miracle is kept. It was a warm sunny day, and we walked in solemn silence, children clutching on to their parents as if afraid. Home-made signs reminded us to keep away from the electric fence. We passed the llama, the peacocks, and the cattle and horses, but no one bothered to stop and look, not even one child.

Around halfway, the path narrowed, and we saw a gate ahead, manned by huge security guards. The gate was covered in colourful trinkets brought by the Native Americans as offerings to the calf. To the right, Gary Gandhi, dressed in a bright pink shirt, was putting the finishing touches to a huge painting of Miracle.

It was feeding time, and two men were standing behind the fence, summoning the buffalo by banging a large stick on a gallon drum. The crowd, meanwhile, were silent, waiting with bated breath for a glimpse of the white calf. Then there was a rustling sound, and, through the shrubs, we saw the star - white and fuzzy-furred - approaching. The audience began to murmur excitedly, and one woman let out a shrill scream - at which point the little creature turned tail and disappeared back into the shrubs. The show was over.

Reluctantly at first, then more rapidly, the crowd began to plod back down the path. Some seemed disappointed, some just baffled, while one little girl loudly cursed the stupid woman who had screamed. Yet overall they seemed resigned and, on the whole, content. After all, they had seen the miracle that they had come to see - even if it only lasted ten seconds.

FOR THE Heiders, and for Janesville, the possibility that the Miracle phenomenon as a whole may prove short-lived as well is a

worrying one. In her short life, the little white

buffalo has already given a substantial economic boost to the family, to the town - and even to the state of Wisconsin. In a few weeks' time, when she is three months old, Miracle is due to shed her first coat, and there are those who predict that, when this happens, the new coat that replaces it will be brown - after which she will be just another buffalo, the Heiders' farm will be just another mid-Western smallholding, and Janesville will be just another non-descript town in a largely non-

descript state whose main previous claim to fame was to have produced the world's highest per capita concentration of serial killers (Jeffrey Dahmer among them).

Heider shrugs off the possibility. 'If she turns red, green, purple or whatever it is not going to make any difference. She was born white, born female and she is still very sacred.' Arvol Looking Horse agrees.

In any case, nothing can take away the spiritual thrill that tens of thousands of pilgrims - and countless other enthusiasts for Native American culture - have already experienced through Miracle. 'Even the curiosity-seekers experience this,' says Gary Gandhi. 'They can't interpret it or explain what it does, but it definitely fufills something in them.'

'This is where the white buffalo was born,' he adds. 'That changes it for ever.' ]