The Mystery of Lightning Medicine Cloud

Arby Little Soldier was sure that the birth of a rare white buffalo on his ranch would usher in an age of peace and harmony. a year later, the animal was dead—and so was Arby’s dream.
Photograph by Misty Keasler

The pilgrims came from all over the country to see the sacred white buffalo calf get his name. More than two thousand of them gathered at Lakota Ranch, five miles west of Greenville, on June 29, 2011. Some danced, some sang, some just watched the ceremony. Many of the Native Americans were dressed in the jewelry and clothing of their tribe—Sioux, Cheyenne, Choctaw, Blackfoot. They wore eagle-feather headdresses, embroidered shawls, elaborate necklaces, and ribbon shirts. Some, such as Edwin Benson—who at 79 was the last remaining speaker of the Mandan language—had come from as far away as North Dakota. Most had come from North and East Texas, men like Gordon Poche and Sam Lone Wolf, who was the ceremonial leader, and women like Yolonda Blue Horse. Whites came too—whole families from nearby Dallas, and others who were entranced by the legend of the white buffalo, a spiritual figure as important to some Indians as Jesus Christ is to most Christians. This calf was only two months old, and those who came knew they were witnessing something special. “Anytime you get to experience history like this,” said Pama Vencill, of Grapevine, “it’s a blessing.”

Arby Little Soldier, the owner of the ranch and the calf, surveyed the scene. He had been planning the ceremony for weeks now, and the day would be packed with ritual, beginning with a 9 a.m. flyover from a C-130 that came in low over the terrain, from east to west, like the path of the sun. A group of Native American veterans formed a color guard that marched through the grounds. Three men sat around a large drum, pounding an insistent beat and singing an ancient song. Tribal elders sat in a circle and smoked a sacred pipe, each one lifting it high and raising it to the four directions, in honor of the calf.

The pilgrims were witnessing rites as old as a nation. The legend of the white buffalo goes back centuries, maybe more. Long ago, before the white man came, the Lakota Sioux were starving. The buffalo—on which they depended for food, clothing, shelter, and weapons—had disappeared, and the Lakota were aimless, lost. Two warriors were sent out to find food, and they soon came upon a beautiful woman dressed in white. The first warrior, filled with lust, tried to touch her and was struck dead. The woman told the second warrior to go back to the tribe and tell them to prepare for her arrival. He rushed back and told his people that someone holy was coming. They erected a tepee, and soon she arrived, carrying a sacred pipe, which she laid on the ground, facing east. Then she delivered a solemn message: Pray properly. Respect the earth. Smoke this sacred pipe. Treat the buffalo as the special creatures they are.

She departed, saying she would return, and as she walked away she bent down to the ground and rolled over four times. With each revolution, she turned into a buffalo—a black one, a brown one, a red one, and finally a white buffalo calf. Then she was gone. 

Soon after her visit, the buffalo herds returned and the Lakota, abiding by her message, thrived. She was Whope, the spirit of peace, but she became known as White Buffalo Calf Woman, and her story—and the hope of her return upon the birth of four white buffalo calves—became one of the signature elements of the mythology of the Lakota, and soon of other tribes as well. The white buffalo became a symbol as compelling as the peace pipe.

But far rarer. The National Bison Association, perhaps hyperbolically, has put the odds of a calf’s being an authentic white buffalo at one in ten million. Over the past two centuries only a handful of births have been reported in the United States. 

And now one had been delivered to North Texas. The Greenville pilgrims pushed forward to the white fence of the outer pasture, standing eight deep, cameras ready. Arby, carrying a lance and dressed in full regalia, including a hat with buffalo horns, rode into the pasture on a horse, bareback. As the drummers chanted and played a beat that hammered like blood through a heart, Arby rode back and forth across the pasture. He slowed his horse, the drumming got louder, and then he stopped and hurled his spear into the ground. It stuck, and the crowd whooped and clapped. Arby held up his hand and solemnly waved.

A murmur swept through the throng as a dozen buffalo were steered into the pasture—and suddenly, there he was, the sacred calf. In a teeming mass of brown and black, the calf was easy to make out. He looked like a mild little lamb, white with a beige tint. He scampered along next to his mother, Buffalo Woman, horn nubs poking out of his head, to the cheers of the adoring crowd. When the herd stopped along the fence, he stood knock-kneed, wagging his tail. When a big bull rushed past him, he huddled closer to his mother.

This special animal now had a name: Lightning Medicine Cloud. “The spiritual message behind this buffalo today is the hope of all nations to come together,” Arby announced. “We are all Americans. We’ve got to unite as one. That’s the message.” The pilgrims nodded and smiled. “It’s the new birth that’s going to refeed everything,” said Gordon Poche. “The buffalo are coming back, and the white bison’s here to represent the new age.”

But the new age didn’t last long. Ten months later, on April 30, Arby, who had just returned with his wife, Pat, from a weekend in Oklahoma, was working on a tractor down by the pond, getting his land ready for Lightning’s birthday twelve days later, a celebration that would also serve as a huge community powwow. As he worked, he saw something in the distance, near the pasture where the calf had been officially named. It looked like an animal lying on the ground. Arby flagged down Alesha Runnels, a ranch

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