A white American bison.

About two weeks ago, my friend Gary and I were checking out Tennessee’s newest state park, Cummins Falls, near Cookeville. As we hiked down by the river, I mentioned that I read that many arrowheads had been found by that river in an area where Indians killed buffalo at a buffalo wallow. Gary said that he couldn’t picture buffalo living around here. Like most folks, he thinks of buffalo as a plains animal of the old West.

On the way home a little later, as we crested a rise in the two lane highway, I spotted an interesting sight ahead. I said to Gary, “you know, I can picture buffalo living right in this area, they might even still be here, in fact…there’s a herd right there.” To our timely surprise, there was indeed a herd of buffalo, in a field right along the side of the road.

Many people don’t know that buffalo actually lived right here in Tennessee. Buffalo Arch, just over the Kentucky line (about an hour north of Fairfield Glade), was supposedly named because Indians hid on the arch and shot buffalo as they passed underneath. Actually, the correct term for the animal is “bison,” not “buffalo.” The “Plains bison” that lived here, used to roam most of the 48 states and up into Canada. A related species, the “wood buffalo,” lived in Canada and Alaska, and they still do.

When Lewis and Clark explored the continent there was an estimated 40 million bison in the U.S. Some say that it was the largest mass of a species ever in the world. The decimation of the bison by sport and meat hunters, destroyed the Indian’s way of life on the plains, and very nearly exterminated the American bison. By 1900 that 40 million was down to only about 200, of which only about 23 were pure blooded bison that hadn’t crossbred with cattle. Conservation efforts now have the number of bison up to around 500,000, many of which are bred commercially for their delicious, low fat, low cholesterol, meat.

The herd, near Cookeville, wasn’t large, only about 22, but it was an unexpected sight around here. But, even more unexpected, was one of the bison was white.

You may know that white bison are extremely rare. Biologists say that only about 1 in ten million bison are born white. To many Native Americans, a white bison is sacred, and spiritually significant. To them, a white bison is a symbol of hope and unity.

Eddie Gaw is the rancher who owns the bison herd. He was patient and very informative as he answered questions from us that he probably answered many times before. I asked if any American Indians had come to see the 2-year-old white bison. He said they come all the time, and they actually weep when they see it. He said they will stay by the fence and watch it for hours.

We stood by the fence and were able to scratch some of the bison’s heads and let them lick our hands with their sandpaper tongues. But we were reminded by Mr. Gaw that each year in Yellowstone National Park, bison kill or injure more people than any other animal. He said they can be as docile as your favorite milk cow one minute and wild the next. He said his bison can be extremely unpredictable, and he is not looking forward to rounding them up for an annual spring worming shot this month. One thing that is predictable, however, is in the next month or two, there should be a field full of newborn baby bison. I plan to go back to see the babies, which will be a lot lighter than their dark brown mothers, but not white.

If you want to see the bison herd, take exit 286 in Cookeville, and head north on Willow Street (route 135). Several miles past the last buildings of town you will see the bison heard on the left near the archway over the entrance to Eddie Gaw’s Lazy G ranch. There is a wide spot near the highway where you can stop and watch. Hopefully, the herd will not be in a back pasture, and you will be able to see a great national icon, the American bison, and also, one of the most sacred animals to our Native Americans, a rare white bison.

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