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How a ranch on the Siksika First Nation became a destination for people seeking hope

The story of how two white buffalo came to the Siksika First Nation, east of Calgary, is a story of light after darkness. Across many indigenous cultures, the white buffalo is a sacred animal because it’s seen as a symbol of hope. The story begins, however, in a residential school, a place where many indigenous children experienced trauma, loneliness, illness and abuse.

“I was born in a residential school. That’s when my mother and dad conceived me,” Lisa Big Snake explains. “I didn’t have an opportunity to be raised with my father. My mom left the school and my dad didn’t leave with her.”

Big Snake is now a successful business owner, mother and grandmother but the shadows cast by years of trauma passed down through generations have been difficult to overcome.

“For the first time in my life, I feel that I have a vision and I have a path that I’m going to walk with my head held high because as a young girl I felt that hopelessness that are youth are feeling now.”

In late 2019, Big Snake’s home community of Ochapowace First Nation east of Regina was struck by tragedy. A series of suicides had the community reeling and members reached out to Big Snake’s husband, Carlon, for help.

“They needed something in their community and I think the idea of a having a white bison would give hope,” he said.

Carlon Big Snake agreed to look for a white bison for the Ochapowace First Nation.  He made calls and followed leads in North and South Dakota, Missouri and Montana.

“They told me that a fellow with a white buffalo had moved to Canada,” he recalled.

The white buffalo were living on a ranch near Sylvan Lake, Alta. The Big Snakes asked if they could come by.

“He says, ‘Yeah, you’re more than welcome, come out and we’ll accommodate you but just to let you know, they’re not for sale.”

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“When we went there, we didn’t know this individual,” said Lisa. “All of a sudden he’s talking about a man and I sat there and I was thinking you’re talking about a beautiful person and it was my Dad he was talking about.”

“(The owner) had started telling a story about a gentleman in Manitoba which his late father took in, like a son,” Carlon said.

That man was Kelly Bunn, the former chief of the Birdtail Sioux First Nation in southern Manitoba and Lisa’s dad, who had died of cancer the year before.

“I felt it was a sign for him to look after us and put me on that journey to help people the way he did because he was chief for 28 years.”

Once the three realized the connection, there were hugs, tears and stories shared.  The owner of the white buffalo also agreed to sell.

Since then, Tomahawk and Kelly Spirit — named for Lisa’s dad — have called the White Buffalo Trading Post home, attracting hundreds of visitors every year. The brightly coloured ribbons tied to the fences left by visitors who come to lay down tobacco and offer prayers.

“A lot of people who come through out gate are coming with hardships, whether its grief, additions,” said Lisa Big Snake. “I feel when they look into the eyes of the buffalo they’re walking away with a sign of hope, a sign to keep trying.”

The Big Snakes say their ranch is open to visitors every day: sometimes its a chartered bus full of elders, former prime minister Stephen Harper with his wife and security detail in tow, or a family from thousands of kilometres a way.

“The furthest we got I believe was from Nunavut,  It was a family of five that travelled down here.  It took them five days to get out here, to drive,” Carlon Big Snake said.

In 2021 the Big Snake’s bisons gave birth to baby boy. Against the odds, Kuna Kokomi-kisomm was born with a white coat as well.

“It’s a mixture of Cree and Blackfoot. ‘Kuna’ means snow and ‘kokomi-kisomm’ means moon,” says Carlon.

Once he was old enough, the younger white bison was sold to the Standing Buffalo First Nation. The Big Snakes turning down a lucrative offer from a Texas zoo to ensure the sacred animal could roam the prairies with his own herd while remaining a symbol of strength and hope.

&copy 2024 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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