GOSHEN, Conn. – The birth of a white bison, among the rarest of animals, is bringing Native Americans who consider it a sacred event to celebrate at one of the least likely of places, a farm in New England.
Hundreds of people, including tribal elders from South Dakota, are expected to attend naming ceremonies later this month at the northwestern Connecticut farm of Peter Fay, a fourth-generation Goshen farmer.
Native Americans in the area have come with gifts of tobacco and colored flags for Fay and the bull calf since it was born there a month ago, and Fay is planning to offer his hay field as a campsite for the expected crowds.
"They say it's going to bring good things to all people in the world. How can you beat that? That's the way I look at it," Fay said.
Connecticut farms host only about 100 bison, a tiny fraction of the populations in Western states, such as South Dakota, the home of Sioux tribes that attach the greatest spiritual meaning to white bison. As some push for greater recognition of the bison's significance to both the United States and Native Americans, advocates say the event on the far-flung East Coast is well-placed to boost exposure for the cause.
Fay, whose family traditionally stuck to dairy farming, took on bison four years ago as a hobby, enamored by the animals' toughness. He built his herd to 40 before recently selling half of them.
Word spread rapidly after the arrival of the white bison, which experts say is as rare as one in 10 million, and Fay invited Native Americans for the ceremonies at his farm below Mohawk Mountain. In turn, he and his two daughters were asked to participate in the celebrations, which will include a feast and talks by the elders.
"They're here almost every day, teaching me," said the 53-year-old Fay, who has bison tattoos on his shoulder and chest.
Marian White Mouse, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe in South Dakota, said the birth of a white bison is a sign from a prophet, the White Buffalo Calf Woman, who helped them endure times of strife and famine. White Mouse's family of four is flying to Connecticut for the ceremonies.
"For me, it's like a surreal event. I never thought in my wildest dreams I would ever come in contact with one of them in my lifetime," said White Mouse, 51, of Wanblee, S.D.
Jim Stone, the executive director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council in Rapid City, S.D., said the oral traditions of many tribes honor white bison, which have become a universal symbol for hope and unity. He said each such birth is also an opportunity for tribes to share their history, and the celebration in Connecticut is likely to touch many non-tribal people.
The calf, born on June 16, is off-white — not an albino — and Fay said he is certain the bloodlines are pure, although he has sent its DNA for testing to confirm there was no intermingling with cattle. Fay, who also works at an excavating and rock-crushing business, focuses on breeding and selling the bison calves, but he has not determined what will happen with the white one.
To address concerns for the calf's safety, he also has at least one person stay at the farm around the clock. Last year, a white bison calf born in Texas was found dead and skinned — a slaughter that some suspect as an anti-Indian hate crime. Fay did not want the date of the ceremonies this month publicized.
Tens of millions of bison once roamed America's plains, but the over-hunted population shrank to about 1,000 toward the end of the 1800s. Their numbers have rebounded to several hundred thousand, and wildlife and tribal groups are now pushing Congress to have the bison recognized as America's "national mammal." The National Bison Legacy Act was introduced in the Senate in May.
"Any kind of awareness we can raise around bison is a good thing," said Jim Matheson, assistant director of the National Bison Association in Denver.