White Magic

UPDATED 10/03/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/03/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

THE OFFERINGS ARE FESTOONED along a barbed-wire fence at Dave and Valerie Heider's 43-acre farm in Janesville, Wis. They are mystical gifts—dream catchers, medicine wheels, sweet grass, alabaster, turquoise and cedar berries—all left by Native American people who have traveled here to pay homage. Wayne McArthur, who drove 23 hours from the Pheasant Rump Reservation in Saskatchewan, Canada, left an eagle feather. "It is the most sacred gift," says McArthur, 39, a Nakota, "because the eagle flies closest to the Creator."

The object of their devotion: a baby buffalo, born Aug. 20. She's white, and the first such female known to have been born in this century. To the thousands who have been visiting Miracle, as the Heiders named her, she is a manifestation of the divine. The Plains Indians believe that White Buffalo Calf Woman, the spirit they believe created the bison, would someday return. And when she arrived—in the form of a white female buffalo—she would bring peace and prosperity. As word of Miracle spread, the pilgrimages began. "This would be like Christ returning," says McArthur. "It marks a new beginning and gives hope to our people."

For the Heiders, having a possible incarnation of a Native American spirit on their farm has been a mixed blessing. "How'd you like 1,200 people coming through your yard in 5 hours?" grouses Heider, 46, who drives a dump truck for the county and raises buffalo for sale to breeders. Still, it's non-Native Americans he has problems with. Heider had to rescue one man who was trying to pet Miracle, oblivious to her 1,000-pound mother glowering at him. "She'd kill you if you attempted to approach her baby," says Heider.

Miracle's special status was a total surprise to the Heiders. "I'd never heard of any of this stuff," says Dave. "The wife bought some books, and we started reading up on it. I have great respect for the Indian people, and we want to do the right thing."

Because he and his wife, Valerie, consider themselves custodians of a sacred trust, Dave Heider has turned away some tempting offers to part with his newest heifer. Rocker Ted Nugent, who recorded a song called "Great White Buffalo" in 1974, wanted Miracle for his ranch, and an anonymous bidder offered $250,000. Ordinarily, a 1-year-old female buffalo fetches about $l,400. "It's very impressive watching them pray," Heider says of the Chippewa, Sioux and other people who perform their ceremonies just outside Miracle's enclosure. "They drive hundreds of miles, stay a few minutes, wish us happiness and then they drive back home. I've learned a lot."

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