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.
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 hand who was driving an ATV. “We’ve got a buffalo down,” he cried, and the two headed in its direction.
“The skull was there,” Arby told me, “the ribs were there, the bones were there, the tail was there. Part of the skin was on the legs. But the meat was gone, the innards were gone, the hide was gone.”
Someone had gutted his sacred calf.
From North Dakota to North Texas
Ever since Arby and Pat bought this land, back in 2004, he had said a white buffalo would come. He couldn’t explain how he knew; he just knew. He had even put up a big sign out front in the shape of a buffalo and painted it white.
Last May, ten days after Lightning’s carcass had been found, the sign was still there and the grounds were clean and tidy as Arby and his staff got the ranch ready for the powwow. American flags hung from the white fences and flapped in the strong wind, just beyond three tall tepees. Horses and buffalo grazed in the same pasture out past the barn.
“Somehow the devil came in,” Arby said, standing in front of his ranch home. “If I’d stayed home that weekend, maybe it wouldn’t have happened.” Arby is a handsome man, with dark brown skin, hair down his back, and a thick, black mustache. He looks 15 years younger than his 61. He speaks with a trace of a North Dakota accent, and his eyes crinkle when he smiles. He has big muscular hands, thick fingers, and sinewy arms from years of wrestling steers. He has a scar across the front of his nose and another near his left eye that goes two inches up his forehead. He has lived a wild six decades. “The life I lived,” he told me, “I never thought I’d have such an animal entrusted to me.”
Arby Little Soldier was born on June 17, 1951, in Hazen, North Dakota. His father, Nathan, was from the Arikara tribe and his mother, Rosella, is a Hidatsa. Arby says he also has Mandan and Lakota in his blood and that his great-great-grandfather was Henry Little Soldier, whose father was Sitting Bull. Arby still remembers hearing his grandfather tell him the story of the white buffalo; Arby would listen, but he was a kid and thought it was just another Indian myth.
Arby’s parents raised cattle and buffalo, and he grew up learning to rope and ride. He rodeoed in high school and for a while dated a young woman named Pat Carlson, who also rodeoed. And he played basketball. “I was pretty much kind of like the Pete Maravich of my day,” he says, referring to the sixties college basketball prodigy. Arby adds that he had scholarship offers to go to UCLA and LSU and three other universities but joined the Army instead. He was sent to Vietnam, where he was a helicopter gunner.
After getting out in 1974 he worked various jobs—crane operator, pipe fitter, welder—got married, and had two sons and a daughter. “I was young, drinking whiskey, on fire at all times,” he says. “Being a rodeo guy too, it was a wild life. I looked death in the eye every day and just laughed at it.” He quit drinking in 1985 and says he hasn’t taken a drop since. His prowess on a horse, he says, earned him some screen time in Dances With Wolves, the Kevin Costner film about the Lakota. He was killed twice in the film, he says; the second time, “I open the tepee and Mary McDonnell blows me back out of the tepee.”
As Arby grew older, he became more involved in trying to help North Dakota’s impoverished Native American community. He joined the Twin Buttes school board and eventually became superintendent. He started the All-Nations Basketball Tournament for Native American high school students and went to Washington to lobby for more funding for reservation schools. He helped lead a Prayer Warriors Fellowship for young people at the All-Nations conference in Bismarck.
Arby was still rodeoing in his spare time. One day in 1997 he was in Fort Worth for an event and heard a woman say, “Hi, Arby. What are you doing here?” It was his old high school girlfriend, Pat. She’d married, had kids, divorced, and was living in Duncanville. Arby, too, was divorced by this point, and their romance was rekindled. Arby moved to Texas and married Pat that same year.
Arby, who was used to the rural North Dakota reservation life, fit right in in Dallas–Fort Worth, where there were no reservations and most Native Americans came from someplace else. The confident, self-assured North Dakotan became well-known at local festivals. In 2003 he and Pat drove to Washington, D.C., with six horses to take part in a ceremony for the unveiling of the statue of Sacagawea in the Capitol rotunda. He danced with other Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa tribe members in front of Congress. In 2006 he partnered with his cousin Ken Klaudt (a.k.a. Chief Standing Strong) to start the first Native American Indian Historical Games near Denver, an attempt to bring back games such as buffalo robe keepaway. “They have watched so much TV that the ways of the Native Americans seem weird to them,” Arby said of contemporary Indian kids. “They would rather grow up to be Michael Jordan.”
By then, he and Pat had bought a ranch on U.S. 380, just outside of Greenville—a spacious expanse of lush pastures and tall oak, pecan, and pine trees. Arby named the property Lakota Ranch and put up white fences around dirt areas, creating space for roping and barrel racing. He and Pat bought horses and buffalo. When they weren’t working on the ranch, they rodeoed, traveling all over the U.S. and Canada; she concentrated on barrel racing, he on steer wrestling. Walking through his ranch house, Arby pointed out framed pictures of him and Pat in action. In one he was wrestling a steer to the ground. “This was in Montana,” he said. “You can see how I got his legs off the ground. That’s how powerful I am.” I asked how old he was in the photo. “I was fifty-four.” I told him he was crazy. He smiled. “I’m a man’s man right there. That’s professionally done right there. That is the elite of the elite right there.” Arby talks fast and doesn’t like dead air. “It’s been quite a life,” he said.
Soon after they moved in, Arby put up a tepee and, over the front gate, a four-color medicine wheel—white, black, red, and yellow—representing the four colors of people, the four seasons, the four directions, the four elements that make up the Great Spirit. The circle of life. Above it were three crosses, for Arby is also a Christian.
Finally, Arby put up the white buffalo sign. Maybe it was all those stories his grandfather told him that filled him with such certainty. His friends would joke with him, “Arby, where’s that white buffalo?”
“He’s on his way,” Arby would reply, smiling. Something special was going to happen at Lakota Ranch, Arby could feel it.
In 2008 Arby began running the annual Greenville High School Scholarship Pow Wow, held every January at the school. It had been started in 1994 by Ron Shackel-ford, a teacher at Greenville High, to raise money to send local Native American kids to college. With good weather, several thousand people might attend the event. When Shackelford retired, Arby agreed to take it over. He had plenty of help from area Native Americans, including a Lakota woman from Dallas named Yolonda Blue Horse and Albert Old Crow, who had a radio show on KNON called Beyond Bows and Arrows. Blue Horse began volunteering for Arby, helping him sell raffle tickets and clean up; Old Crow began emceeing the powwows.
In the spring of 2011 Arby and Pat were planning on heading north to get out of the heat and into the Badlands rodeo circuit. Then their whole world changed.
On May 11, 2011, a huge thunderstorm blew through the Greenville area; lightning struck the earth at least three times on Lakota Ranch, once knocking down a tree. The next morning, Pat looked out the kitchen window through a pair of binoculars and saw something small and white following something large and brown. She told Arby that it looked as though the couple’s fourteen-year-old dog, J Bez, was wandering in the pasture. “J Bez is right here,” said Arby. He looked out at the herd and thought they had a coyote, so he got in his four-by-four and drove out. Something was hiding behind Buffalo Woman. A few seconds later, a white face peeked out from behind her shoulder. Arby couldn’t believe his eyes. He called Pat on his cellphone. “I’m looking at a white buffalo calf,” he said. Pat didn’t believe her husband, who was always joking around, so she drove out too. There on the grass lay the calf, curled up in a ball like a deer, as white as snow.
Plenty of buffalo calves sporting white hair have been born over the past two hundred years, but few have been authentic sacred calves. Many are beefalo, a cream-colored cross between a brown bull and a white Charolais cow, and some are albinos. There are specially bred white buffalo, like those at the Texas Hunt Lodge, in Ingram, which, until public outrage—including death threats—ended the practice, offered customers the chance to shoot and kill one for a modest $13,500.
According to Arby, for a white buffalo to be considered authentic to the Lakota, it must be born from a brown mother and must be a male, with black eyes, nose, and tail. There haven’t been many. A white buffalo was killed by the Cheyenne in 1833; another was killed by a hunter near Snyder in 1876 (Teddy Roosevelt tried and failed to buy the hide for $5,000). One of the longest lived was Big Medicine, who was born on a Montana rez in 1933. In 2005 and 2006, four males were born in Canada and the northern United States. Arby liked to cite the National Bison Association’s claim that the odds of a white buffalo birth are one in ten million and then put his odds—as a Native American in Texas, where there are few buffalo at all—at one in six billion.
And he had no idea what to do with his calf. The stories he had heard as a boy were just stories. What do you do when a sacred animal is born in your pasture? “We didn’t have a clue,” says Pat. “The first thing I said was, ‘We’re gonna have to get on the Internet.’ ”
Arby also called some elders, including his mother, Rosella, who at 92 is the oldest living Hidatsa. “You’re blessed,” she said. “God sent you the white buffalo. And it’s going to make you famous.” Arby called Edwin Benson, the last remaining Mandan speaker, a man he had known his entire life. Arby says Benson couldn’t believe what he was hearing—a white buffalo born in Texas. When Benson asked what Arby wanted to name him, he said Lightning Medicine Cloud. The first name because the calf had been born after such a stormy night: “He was sent by lightning.” The second in honor of Big Medicine, one of the earlier white buffalo. The third because the clouds protect people from the sun, and Arby thought that this little calf was going to need all the help he could get. Benson told him that he and a few other elders would go up on a mountain for a few days, fast, and ruminate on the name.
Arby says Benson also told him to get three “war chiefs”—local Native Americans whom Arby trusted—to help protect and take care of the calf. Arby chose three from three tribes: Albert Old Crow, who is Cheyenne; David Rice, a young Choctaw-Chickasaw from Oklahoma who had moved to Greenville to work at Texas Instruments; and Frank Owens, a burly rancher and land developer who is part Cherokee. “The rest of your entire life has changed,” Owens told Arby.
Four days later Benson called back. He told Arby that he agreed that the calf’s name should be Lightning Medicine Cloud and that he and some other elders would be there in six weeks for the naming ceremony. “He’s the hope of all nations,” Benson told Arby. “He’s going to bring us all together.”
Arby’s mother wasn’t so sure. “You’d better watch it,” she warned her son. “Watch who your friends are.” The North Dakota Indians were already envious, she said; they’d had buffalo for centuries, and few sacred whites had been born to them. Now this expatriate living in North Texas got one? “They couldn’t believe it,” she told me. “They were jealous that someone in Texas would have a white buffalo. He gets the publicity, they don’t. The Indians are their own worst enemies when it comes to jealousy.”
In the weeks after the birth, Arby fed the calf but couldn’t touch him; no human could do so, Arby’s elders told him, until he turned one year old. Arby would bring a bucket of food into the pasture, pour it out, and leave briskly. Buffalo Woman and the other adults were protective of the calf, encircling him when a human approached.
After Dallas newscasts did several stories on Lightning’s birth, the curious began stopping by on Highway 380, which runs between McKinney and Greenville, to see if they could catch sight of the white buffalo. They came to the gate and talked to Arby. “I was put here because I was gonna be sent a white buffalo,” Arby said. “I was put here because I was sent by my great-great-great grandfather to speak these words.” That man, Arby told everyone, was Sitting Bull, the greatest Lakota of all.
The Greenville community was supportive of Arby. In fact, the only complaints came from his inner circle, and in particular Old Crow, who frequently objected to the way Arby did things. Old Crow didn’t like Arby’s idea of allowing vendors at the naming ceremony. He also objected to Arby’s $5 parking fee. Charging for seeing a sacred animal was like charging people to go to church, he said. But Arby insisted that with all these people coming he needed the money to pay for expenses and upkeep of the ranch. Yolonda Blue Horse agreed with Old Crow; the whole event felt to her like a circus, not a sacred moment.
Arby and Old Crow continued to butt heads throughout the summer and fall, at a benefit powwow in September (again over parking and vendors) and then when Arby announced his plan to move the time and place for the annual scholarship powwow from January at the high school to May at the ranch—and to use the event to celebrate Lightning’s birthday. “Those are two separate things,” Old Crow told Arby. “The scholarships are about money. The calf shouldn’t be about money.” Arby ignored him.
Even though the two disagreed often, they were united in one thing: Lightning was a special creature. They would stand and watch him run around and play in the pasture or wade in the pond. Lightning was gentle, says Arby: “He had a sweet eye.” And except for his tail, he began to change color, first to a yellow cream, then a rusty red, and finally a deep brown. This is natural and seen by some as proof of the idea that white buffalo are intended as a sign for all nations and all colors.
When Lightning turned one, everything would change. Arby would wean the calf from his mother and take charge of his life. He would, he said, begin his “spiritual walk” with him. “I’d have been taking care of him one-on-one. He and I would have got used to each other, he would have known he was safe. He would have attached to the Native Americans through me.” Arby would be the link, the translator between his people and this sacred symbol.
Arby didn’t know what to do after he found Lightning Medicine Cloud’s body. He called his elder Sam Lone Wolf, who lived in Palestine. Lone Wolf’s response: take a hair sample and get the animal into the ground as quickly as possible. Bury him. This, he said, was the protocol for dealing with a sacred animal. Lightning’s father, Ben, had died only a month earlier when, Arby says, he was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. Arby had buried Ben in a field under some trees near the eastern fence. Now he buried Lightning on top of his father.
To Arby’s horror, on the following day, May 1, Lightning’s mother, Buffalo Woman, also died. She had been lethargic, refusing to eat. Though Arby could find no wounds on her body, he thought she had suffered a punctured lung and was probably killed trying to protect her calf. “I think it was a professional hit on the mom,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “It was a slow death.” The whole sacred family had been wiped out.
Arby had had enough, and on May 3 he phoned his friend John Horn, a county judge. Before long, officers from the Hunt County Homeland Security office as well as Sheriff Randy Meeks’s office were on the scene. A Texas Ranger, Laura Simmons, showed up. Arby, Pat, and his war chief David Rice were waiting.
Pat told the officers that the calf had been skinned. Arby said he thought Lightning had been shot and added that his feet were facing south and his head was facing east—a clear sign that the killer had a purpose, a design. “That was Indian,” he said. The officers asked to see the body, and Arby led them to the fresh grave, where he and Rice began to dig. Soon a horn poked through the dirt. Then a skull, and a rib cage.
Arby didn’t want to go public with news of the calf’s death until after the birthday powwow, in order to “lure the enemy into our camp.” But someone tipped off Dallas TV station CBS 11, and hours after Arby had dug up the carcass the station reported the death. The news went viral. Who would slaughter a helpless calf, a sacred symbol? Was it a hate crime committed against Native Americans? Or was it, as Arby suggested, an act perpetrated by other Indians, who knew the calf’s significance? “There’s a reason they didn’t want him to have his first birthday,” Arby told reporters.
Arby told investigators he had a few suspects, including his friends Blue Horse and Old Crow, who had grown increasingly disaffected with how Arby ran the ceremonies. It had to be someone who knew Arby and Pat, Arby said, someone who knew they’d be out of town that weekend. And jealousy was a powerful motive. “There’s jealousy among the tribes, other nations,” he told me. “Some don’t want more power to be with another nation. But it could be satanic too.”
Arby got calls from everywhere. One man was so upset he couldn’t talk; he just wept into the answering machine. Four psychics called. The Little Soldiers received hundreds of emails and letters, including dozens of cards from schoolchildren; one showed Lightning and his mother with wings. Two musicians wrote, recorded, and posted on the web songs called “Lightning Medicine Cloud.” “Now a once great nation mourns, a mother and calf are gone,” went one. “Taken by human hand, how’d we go so wrong?”
Arby started a reward fund, and donors began pledging—$10 here, $25 there. One man sent $150 and a note: “To help catch the evil bastards.” An anonymous donor gave $5,000. Pledges to the fund grew to $45,000.
Arby was determined to keep his calf’s message alive. And though Lightning was “the hope of all nations,” Arby believed he was also a warning. It was no coincidence, he said, that the calf had been born in a year of extreme environmental disaster—the tornadoes that ripped through Dallas and the South, the drought that crippled the Southwest, the fires that burned Texas, to say nothing of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan. “Mother Earth is upset,” Arby said, “and our Heavenly Father knows it.” When four white buffalo are born, he said, White Buffalo Calf Woman will return. And she won’t be happy. By Arby’s reckoning his calf was number three. (He did not acknowledge a few of the earlier white buffalo.) And what happens when the fourth one comes? I asked. “That’s like Revelations in the Bible,” Arby replied. “You better have your stuff together. Get your heart, soul, and mind back to the Creator is what Lightning was saying to everybody. Stop and take stock of your life. Get back to the spirituality you once had.”
But that apocalypse could wait. Now he had a powwow to put on—as a memorial. “My little boy went on home,” Arby announced at a press conference, choking back tears. “His mom went on home. His dad went on home.”
On the weekend of May 11, Native and non–Native Americans descended on Arby and Pat’s ranch for the 1st Annual Lightning Medicine Cloud Birthday and Powwow. They came from all over the area—including those who bore the blood of Comanche, Choctaw, Cherokee, Kiowa, Apache, Cherokee, Sioux, Navaho, Osage, and Aztec Indians. It rained heavily that first day, so the crowds were smaller than expected, but there were still several hundred curious people. They paid $5 for parking, which, again, Old Crow and Blue Horse objected to; Arby, who had expenses to pay, ignored them. A white goat ran around, as did two white dogs; a white horse stood in a corral. They were all gifts to Arby. “White folks bring food,” Pat said. “Indians bring animals.”
As at most powwows, there was a lot of dancing and singing. Six men sat in the center of the main pasture, each beating the same big drum. They sang memorial songs and chants with high melodies that shot up and down. Dancers kept time with gourd sticks.
Lightning was on everyone’s mind. Greenville mayor Tom Oliver, county judge Horn, and state representative Dan Flynn all came and spoke to the crowd. Flynn gave Arby a Texas flag flown over the state capitol in honor of him and Lightning. “We’re gonna find the guilty party. We’re gonna prosecute,” said Mayor Oliver. He read a proclamation to “this rare, living symbol of unity and understanding. . . . An image of hope and resurgence was found slaughtered and skinned.” Police officers from nearby Point and Caddo Mills stood watching the crowd, as did men from the sheriff’s office. Meeks also had a pair of undercover officers patrolling the grounds; he had developed a couple of persons of interest and wanted to see if they’d show up.
All weekend long people gravitated to Arby, who stepped easily into the role of spiritual leader. He stood tall, wearing a black hat with feathers, a shirt full of ribbons, and a vest made of grizzly bear claws. “They give me the voice to speak,” he told me, “and to speak strongly.” When he wasn’t dancing or taking part in ceremonies, he was comforting the stricken, who would approach him, put their arms around him, and hold tight; a few quietly cried in his arms. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” they said. “Our loss,” he replied. “Our loss.” They would hold him for fifteen or twenty seconds; he would release his arms and they would keep hugging. “They didn’t kill the message,” he said quietly. “We’ll see that it lives.” They stood in line to look into his eyes, shake his hand, tell him their dreams. He took special pride when he met other Native Americans, particularly children. He would crouch down, hold their hands, and speak to them. “It is an honor to have you here,” he said, staring into their eyes.
Arby found himself telling and retelling the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman and the saving of the Lakota people. And now, he said, he was the second warrior, the hero who went back to the people to prepare them for her arrival. “They left me alive to tell you all,” he told a small group, tears in his eyes. “I’m the messenger.” To the larger crowd he said, as deliberately as possible, “I am that warrior that was left to give the word to our people. I know that vision now in my heart.” Several times he cried onstage. “That’s the first time I ever saw him break down,” said his mother, who had flown in from North Dakota for the powwow.
Indeed, there were times when Arby seemed to be on the verge of losing it. On Sunday morning, after two long days of serious spiritual talk, Arby, speaking to the crowd, compared finding the white buffalo calf to winning the lottery. “If you got up in the morning and, your usual scenario, made your coffee and all of a sudden in the kitchen there’s a big pile of money wrapped up, and you look at it and say, ‘Yeah, right,’ and so you make your coffee and go about your day, look over again, ‘Is that really there?’ That’s the way [it was].” Maybe it was the stress that made him talk this way, maybe it was something else.
“Arby is in another mode,” said Pat at one point. “I told the sheriff, you need to get the killer before Arby finds him. I know that look in his eyes. He has terrible dreams at night. He doesn’t sleep or eat. On the outside he looks fine but inside is turmoil. He’s spinning like a dryer. There will be no peace until this is settled.”
Arby wasn’t shy about what would happen to the criminal. “This man who did this, he’ll be taken care of,” he said. “He’ll suffer. He’ll die in a bad way.”
Sheriff Meeks, his investigator Roger Seals, and Texas Ranger Laura Simmons had never seen a case like this. Though they were investigating the killing as criminal mischief, they knew it could be much more. “People say, ‘It’s just a buffalo,’ ” Meeks told me in early May. “But it’s not just a buffalo.” He and his team had researched the symbolism of the white buffalo, and the more they learned, the more they believed the killing had been premeditated. The killers likely knew what the white buffalo signified, and they also likely knew the importance of his first birthday. The investigators wondered if the killers were trying to get power from the calf—or take the power from Arby. They thought that Buffalo Woman had been mortally wounded protecting her son. They were horrified that something like this would happen in their county.
But they also had nagging doubts about the stories told by the Little Soldiers. Pat said the calf had been found Sunday, Arby said Monday. Pat said the calf’s hooves had been taken, but all four were found in the grave. Arby said it had been skinned, but when he dug up the dusty carcass, it seemed to have patches of hair and skin on it. Debra Diaz, a veterinarian who was brought onto the scene, couldn’t determine a cause of death. But she did say, according to Seals, “that there was a lot of skin left and that if someone tried to skin the calf they did a poor job of it.” Alesha Runnels, the Little Soldiers’ ranch hand, said she had found a lot of hair around the carcass. “If someone knew what he was doing,” said Meeks, “there would have been very little hair at the scene.” When Seals went to the ranch in late May, Runnels showed him where Lightning had been found. The grass was still matted in four areas. It looked to Seals as if the calf had gotten up and lain down over and over, maybe from being sick.
Other things were also giving investigators pause, such as the condition of Buffalo Woman’s carcass, which, when they first visited, on May 3, was still lying on the ground. She seemed to have been dead for more than two days, and contrary to Arby’s assertions, there didn’t appear to be any wounds that would explain a punctured lung. What’s more, they interviewed the ranchers in Celeste who had sold Buffalo Woman to Arby in January 2011, back when her name was Alice. She was pregnant when Arby bought her, before she ever encountered Ben, Lightning’s supposed father. The heartbreaking saga of an entire buffalo family getting wiped out seemed to be a fiction. Things weren’t adding up. Seals and Simmons wanted to talk to Arby about it all, but he wouldn’t return their phone calls.
In late May, Arby sat on his back patio, looking tired. At the powwow he had been so engaging and open; now he was tense and angry. He was fed up with everyone—the well-intentioned people who stopped him on the street to say “I’m sorry,” the people parked at the gate gawking at his herd, and the people calling to help. Tarot card readers, witches, psychics. “All these people are latching on to me, pulling me this way and that.” Ranger Simmons had just interviewed his war chiefs, asking them whether Arby had treated his herd well. “They’re interrogating my war chiefs, want to know what a war chief is, want to know would Arby kill him. Bullshit.”
The madder he got, the faster he talked. “I’m sick of it,” he said about the path of the investigation. “I’ll gear [the killer] up. I’m a Vietnam vet. I know how to do that. The fellows back home are getting a little fired up. [The investigators] don’t want the tribes coming down here. They get them boys involved, they’re gonna light somebody up.” According to Arby, the elders—in North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, even Canada—were meeting in Minnesota that weekend, talking about what to do next. “If they’re not satisfied, they’ll come here and do their own investigation,” he said. Who were these elders? Arby wouldn’t say. “I can’t even mention their names,” he said. “But elders from the Red Lake Nation, Spirit Lake Nation, Oglala nations. Sioux, Chippewa, Hidatsa—all different nations. There’s a lot of fasting, pipe ceremonies. These guys will get an answer and relay it to me.”
The whole ordeal had transformed Arby into an elder. “The young warriors are really looking at me to see how I stand and uphold myself,” he said. “The elders are saying, ‘They’re looking at you now. If you fail them now, you fail their nation. So don’t fail them. Be the strong elder.’ ”
On July 24 Arby and his elder Sam Lone Wolf held a press conference at Lakota Ranch and demanded that Meeks and law enforcement solve the case. “We are looking for justice,” Arby said. Lone Wolf was more insistent. “I am a warrior,” he said, adding that he and Arby had identified seven suspects. “If the killers want Indian justice,” he continued, “they will get it.” Simmons and Seals were intrigued; they asked Arby to come to the sheriff’s office and tell them who these suspects were.
The meeting did not go well. When Simmons asked for the names of the seven, Arby, who was accompanied by his wife and Frank Owens, held up a picture of Lightning, cleared his throat, and said, “We’re looking at something innocent here, like an innocent dog that got burned.” Seals took notes while Simmons nodded. Finally, after talking for a few minutes, Arby gave them four names—Albert Old Crow; Old Crow’s wife, Kathy; Yolonda Blue Horse; and an ex-con friend of Old Crow’s.
The investigators asked some pointed questions about other things too, including the reward fund, the powwow scholarships, and Sam Lone Wolf. Arby’s go-to elder, they believed, wasn’t a Lakota or even a Native American. The investigators believed that his birth name was Joseph Angel Molano and that he was a Californian who had claimed at various times to be an Apache, a Cherokee, and a Choctaw. The American Indian Movement, a prominent Native American civil rights group, had once accused him of “conducting ceremonies and sweats for money.” Simmons told Arby and Pat, “His past is filled with lots of deceit, fraud.” (Lone Wolf says that Molano is simply an alias he has used and insists that he is in fact half Lakota and half Apache.) Pat got more and more frustrated with the questions. “It’s always coming back to ‘What have the Little Soldiers done wrong?’” she said, before storming out of the meeting.
On August 1 Arby sounded as angry as I’d heard him. “I’m gonna blow up at somebody I shouldn’t blow up at,” he told me, just before leaving for a ten-day vacation in Jamaica. “They’re cutting corners. They’re trying to slide out, saying ‘natural causes.’ How did the hide walk off? How did the meat walk off? How did the mom get killed?”
But Dean Hansen, a veterinarian friend of Arby’s, told investigators that he suspected the buffalo had died of black leg, a bacterial disease that inflames muscle tissue, producing bubbles of gas between the meat and the hide of an animal, basically suffocating it. Symptoms included lethargy and loss of appetite, and livestock are most susceptible at ages three to eighteen months. Rice told investigators that two more buffalo had died in late June, which aligned with Hansen’s theory. The buffalo, it seemed, were dying from disease—a disease for which they had not been vaccinated.
Then in mid-August investigators got a letter from the president of the Greenville chamber of commerce, who said that the Little Soldiers still owed $5,919 in expenses associated with the naming ceremony, such as public toilets and signs. And investigators subpoenaed bank records that showed that the reward account—which also included a small amount of funds for scholarships—was in reality just Pat’s personal bank account. A total of $7,345 had been deposited (other funds had been pledged but not sent yet), but as of July 31 the balance was $374.49. The Little Soldiers had used those funds to pay employees and buy supplies, as well as a couple of horses. Investigators contacted the high school and found out that the scholarship fund had gotten no money from the underattended powwow.
Three weeks later Meeks stunned nearly everyone when he closed the investigation. “Lightning Medicine Cloud died of natural causes,” he announced at a press conference. The cause of death could not be determined, but he thought it was a bacterial disease like black leg.
The next day Arby held a press conference too, in front of his ranch, where he took issue with Meeks’s findings. “We’re disappointed,” he said, standing in front of two of his war chiefs. “The way [Lightning] was desecrated was pure demonic.” He dismissed the sheriff’s conclusions. “I think it’s an easy way to close the case and get out of it.”
When he was done, a woman standing on the other side of the fence called out, “Why don’t you tell the truth, Arby?” He replied, “Just did.” She responded, “You’ve been lying since day one in this case.” After Arby was done, reporters gathered around Yolonda Blue Horse. She was furious at being fingered as a suspect—and took some pleasure in the fact that Arby didn’t have many supporters with him. “You don’t see one Native person out here, because they have all turned their backs [on him],” she said.
The bottom line for her: “There’s too many questions he can’t answer, too many stories.”
It was all those stories that finally undid Arby. Is he really part Lakota? Not even his lifelong mentor Edwin Benson thinks so: “He’s Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara,” Benson said. Was Arby really in Dances With Wolves? Maybe, though a viewing of the DVD shows he certainly isn’t the Indian shot through the tepee door. Arby has a tendency to reinvent himself based on the situation. In 2003 he told an interviewer for a Mississippi newspaper, “My last name comes from my great-great-grandfather, who was given it in 1861 when he was a scout for [General] Custer.” But after the calf was born he started telling reporters he was the great-great-great-grandson of Sitting Bull—Custer’s enemy. He later told me that his great-great-grandfather was both a scout for Custer and a son of Sitting Bull.
“Arby Little Soldier is not related to my great-grandfather Sitting Bull,” says
Ernie LaPointe, who has been verified by the Smithsonian as the last remaining great-grandson of Sitting Bull. He noted that Henry Little Soldier, the man Arby claims as a relative, was Sitting Bull’s stepson; Henry had two children, a son and a daughter, but only the daughter had children, and they
all carried the last name of her husband, Weasel Bear. “I know all Henry Little Soldier’s descendants,” says LaPointe, “and they’re all named Weasel Bear. When I contacted Arby about this via email, he got
Arby told so many stories about his elders—who they were, what they told him to do with the calf when it was alive and when it was dead, how angry they were—that it was hard to keep them straight. And though he usually declined to give their names, occasionally he’d throw one out: Edwin Benson, Henry Skywater, Sam Lone Wolf.
Benson affirmed that, yes, Arby did call to tell him about the calf when it was born. “I said, ‘Great, that’s good luck for the future.’ ” But did he say anything about it being the hope of all nations? He couldn’t remember. “It’s sacred to the Native American people,” Benson told me, “more so to the Lakota, the Sioux.” As for Benson’s approving the name Lightning Medicine Cloud after a days-long fast, as Arby claimed, he said, “I didn’t have anything to do with it, though I know he said that.”
Benson was also adamant that Arby shouldn’t have buried Lightning’s carcass so quickly. “It was a sacred animal. He should have had more detail about it before burying it. I would have said, ‘Get it investigated. See if there’s a bullet wound or if it was poisoned.’ Otherwise, you’ll never know what really happened.”
The truth is, we’ll never know what happened to Lightning Medicine Cloud. Arby stopped talking to the press in September and speaks now only through his lawyer, Jessica Edwards, who says, “The Little Soldiers are one hundred percent standing by what they’ve said.” The case is closed, and Meeks says no charges will be filed against Arby unless new information emerges. The sheriff sounds genuinely upset with the result. “I’ve known Arby five years and always thought he was a straight-up guy. I was close to him, visited his home. This hurts me that it turned out this way.” Piecing everything together, he thinks Arby basically panicked. “I think the calf died, it was twelve days before the powwow, he said, ‘What am I gonna do?’ His cash cow was dead. He had to come up with something or lose the money from the powwow.”
And so, it seems, he told a story—a powerful, tragic story that gave his sacred animal a more dramatic death than the mundane one it seems to have actually suffered. The story kept alive his dream of being the second warrior, the hero who’d save his people. And the story postponed the inevitable reckoning.
Old Crow thinks there was some cosmic payback involved. “He always said, ‘I’m gonna have a white buffalo calf.’ I said, ‘That’s praying. This came to you—that’s a blessing but also a burden. Now it means you’re in charge. You must make it available to anyone who wants to see it.’ A month before the calf died, I told Arby point-blank, ‘If you continue to carry on in this manner, it’ll be taken from you.’ ”
Sitting Bull’s great-grandson, LaPointe, agrees. “The sacred white buffalo was born to him, but [the calf] died because the spirits are trying to teach this man a lesson. I wrote him, ‘You should recognize your true ancestors in the spirit world who’ve passed on. You’re ignoring them and saying you’re related to a famous man. They’re saddened.’ It’s sad what happened, but he should be honest and truthful in who he is.”
Just who is Arby Little Soldier? It’s hard to know for sure. He’s a man with a complicated past who left his home and moved to a place far away, where he remade himself, became an important member of the community, and was gifted with a holy creature, something as pure as snow and as rare as a unicorn. Maybe things happen for a reason, maybe they just happen. Maybe he was chosen, maybe he was just lucky. If so, he’s one of those lucky people who got what he wished for—and then lost what he had.
In June, another white buffalo was born, this one to a Connecticut rancher named Peter Fay, who named him Yellow Medicine Dancing Boy. An Oglala Sioux named Marian White Mouse traveled all the way from South Dakota to see the calf. “It’s such a blessing for someone to take care of a bison like Peter Fay will,” she told a reporter. “I told him when it was born, ‘You don’t even know what you have on your hands here.’ ”