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For Native Americans, the birth of a rare white bison is a blessing and a warning

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hundreds of people gathered just outside Yellowstone National Park yesterday for a ceremony celebrating the birth of a rare white bison inside the park. Many Native Americans believe such a birth is both a blessing and a warning. Wyoming Public Radio's Hanna Merzbach was there.

HANNA MERZBACH, BYLINE: Near a dark blue lake outside Yellowstone National Park, under cloudy skies, the crowd is silent as Lakota spiritual leader Arvol Looking Horse takes the stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARVOL LOOKING HORSE: (Speaking Lakota).

MERZBACH: He stands behind an altar of bison skulls and burning cedar and sage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOOKING HORSE: This is a very momentous time in our history.

MERZBACH: Wearing a white-and-black, feathered headdress with red beads, 70-year-old Looking Horse tells the crowd he didn't think he'd live to see this day. He says the birth of the white bison, which many Indigenous people call a buffalo, is comparable to the second coming of Jesus Christ and that, when he first heard a white calf had been born...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOOKING HORSE: My heart is so heavy. I just want to cry. (Crying) Can't believe that this is happening.

MERZBACH: White bison are sometimes born in captivity to parents with cow DNA. Yellowstone staff have not confirmed the recent birth, but Looking Horse says this one, which has been photographed by tourists, is completely wild and fulfills the white buffalo calf woman prophecy. He says she came to the Lakota people two millennia ago and taught them how to live peacefully together and pray. And she said next time she returns...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOOKING HORSE: Mother Earth, (speaking Lakota), is going to be sick and has a fever.

(CROSSTALK)

MERZBACH: Patti Baldes from the Northern Arapaho and Northern Paiute tribes traveled about 5 hours from the Wind River reservation for the ceremony. She says she feels a bit scared for the change the prophecy predicts, but...

PATTI BALDES: Following the lead of something that, you know, we're not fully aware of and respecting the unknown is really important to me.

MERZBACH: Looking Horse says the prophecy speaks of an uptick in disasters, like earthquakes, wildfires and more viruses, if we don't better protect the Earth and the sacred buffalo. Yellowstone National Park is currently debating how large its bison herd should be allowed to grow. The ceremony ends in song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

MERZBACH: For NPR News, I'm Hanna Merzbach in West Yellowstone, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "OH, WHAT A WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Hanna Merzbach