Rare white bison calf spotted in Yellowstone National Park could fulfill prophecy

A Montana photographer captured a rare white bison calf at Yellowstone National Park. (Credit: Erin Braaten: Dancing Aspens Photography)

A Montana photographer has a picture she definitely will not forget after snapping a photo of a rare – and, potentially, sacred – white bison calf in Yellowstone National Park. 

Erin Braaten said the moment happened on June 4 in the Lamar Valley section of the national park. 

"As we were driving down the road, I could see something really light in color," Braaten told FOX Television Stations. " At first glance I thought it might be a coyote. "

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"There were bison crossing the river and the road, so we were stuck in traffic for a few minutes so I decided to look at the "coyote" through my camera and discovered that it wasn't a coyote but a white bison calf," she added. 

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A Montana photographer captured a rare white bison calf at Yellowstone National Park. (Credit: Erin Braaten: Dancing Aspens Photography)

Braaten said she wasn't focused capturing anything special for her viewers other than the animal's beauty. 

"We were all in awe of this rare, unique little calf that had just been born. I was just trying to enjoy the moment," she added. " I feel very blessed that we were able to see something so special and being able to share it with my family and later with others."

What is the Lakota prophecy?

A white buffalo calf is the most sacred living thing on earth, according to some Native Americans who believe that that the birth of a white calf happens in the most unexpected places, often among the poorest of people.

The Lakota prophecy portends better times, but it’s also a signal that more must be done to protect the earth and its animals.

"The birth of this calf is both a blessing and warning. We must do more," said Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the spiritual leader of the Lakota, Dakota and the Nakota Oyate in South Dakota, and the 19th keeper of the sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman Pipe and Bundle.

For the Lakota, the birth of a white buffalo calf with a black nose, eyes and hooves is akin to the second coming of Jesus Christ, Looking Horse said.

Lakota legend says about 2,000 years ago — when nothing was good, food was running out and bison were disappearing — White Buffalo Calf Woman appeared, presented a bowl pipe and a bundle to a tribal member, taught them how to pray and said that the pipe could be used to bring buffalo to the area for food. As she left, she turned into a white buffalo calf.

"And some day when the times are hard again," Looking Horse said in relating the legend, "I shall return and stand upon the earth as a white buffalo calf, black nose, black eyes, black hooves."

Other tribes also revere white buffalo.

The birth of the sacred calf comes after a severe winter in 2023 drove thousands of Yellowstone buffalo, also known as bison, to lower elevations. More than 1,500 were killed, sent to slaughter or transferred to tribes seeking to reclaim stewardship over an animal their ancestors lived alongside for millennia.

This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed.