A North Dakota town that calls itself "the Buffalo City" is mourning the loss of its best-known resident.
The National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown announced Tuesday that the albino bison named White Cloud has died.
She died peacefully of old age, the museum says, 20 years after her birth at the Shirek Buffalo Ranch near Michigan, North Dakota.
In 1997 White Cloud was released into the herd at the National Buffalo Museum and spent most of her life there, giving birth to 11 calves including a white bull named Dakota Miracle. Last spring, in poor health, she was returned to the Shirek Ranch where she lived out her last days.
In the museum's statement, board president Don Williams said "She will be missed by the Museum, our city, and by all the travelers that could look to the North and view her as they drove along the I-94 interstate pasture.”
The museum estimates that 3 million visitors saw White Cloud during her years around Jamestown, which has a population of about 15,000.
They plan to have a full body mount of White Cloud brought back to the museum for display and are collecting donations for that. (Send them to the White Cloud Preservation and Memorial Fund, c/o National Buffalo Museum, 500 17th St. SE, Jamestown, ND, 58401.)
Spiritual significance of white buffalo
White bison (the mammals are commonly called buffalo) are very rare.
The American Indian College Fund says the National Bison Association has estimated that one in 10 million bison is born white.
White buffalo are considered sacred by a number of native tribes. Several stories explaining their significance are collected here.
In particular, the Dakota (also known as Lakota or Sioux) have revered white buffalo for centuries.
According to one Lakota website, spiritual leader John Lame Deer has called a white buffalo "the most sacred living thing you could ever encounter." They summarize the story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman this way:
"One summer a long time ago, the seven sacred council fires of the Lakota Sioux came together and camped. The sun was strong and the people were starving for there was no game. Two young men went out to hunt in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Along the way, a beautiful young woman dressed in white appeared to the warriors and said, "Return to your people and tell them I am coming." This holy woman presented the Lakota people with the sacred pipe which showed how all things were connected. She taught the Lakota people the mysteries of the earth. She taught them to pray and follow the proper path while on earth. As the woman left the tribe, she rolled upon the earth four times, changing color each time, and finally turning into a white buffalo calf. Then she disappeared. Almost at the same time as her leaving, great herds of buffalo could be seen surrounding the camps. It is said that after that day, the Lakota honored their pipe, and buffalo were plentiful."