White buffalo, considered sacred by some Native Americans, are not albino—they are produced when recessive genes trigger the rare trait. Fewer than 50 white bison live in the United States, ranchers estimate. View NBC video coverage of the unique animals.
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“The significance of the white buffalo has been recognized by all the tribes that are buffalo culture people,” Jim Stone, a Yankton-Yanktonai Sioux and executive director of the Intertribal Buffalo Councilin Rapid City, S.D., told The Oregonian.
Pendleton Woolen Mills will source the white hair from 11 bison located on a central Oregon sanctuary, raised by half-Lakota Sioux woman Cynthia Hart-Button and her husband, Charles Button.
The blankets launched in late fall 2010, and the mill prospectively plans its next production for 2011, says spokesman Robert Christnacht. “I’m hopeful we might be able to make up to 200 of the blankets in the coming year,” Christnacht told The Oregonian.
The blankets retail for $500 each; shipping costs an additional $20. The first 11 special collectible blankets will run $5,250 each, featuring the name of one of the 11 white buffalo on them. A portion of the profits will benefit Hart-Button’s nonprofit Sacred World Peace Alliance that operates the white buffalo sanctuary, undercutting land rental and hay fees.
Hart-Button brought the herd, raised in Flagstaff, Ariz., to Oregon five years ago. In 1997, a couple black bison birthed the herd’s first white buffalo, DNA-test proven as a true-bred bison. Hart-Button worked with the herd owned by Dena Riley and her husband, Jim, for a decade. She delightedly watched more white buffalo born to the genetically predisposed herd. “It’s like winning a lottery ticket 11 times,” Hart-Button told The Oregonian.
When Jim Riley passed away, grief-stricken Dena Riley left the herd in Hart-Button’s care. In 2005, the founder of Pemmican Beef Jerky, Paul Hait, also the 1960 Olympic gold medalist in swimming, caught word of the species and impulsively flew to Flagstaff to see the white buffalo. Ultimately, he persuaded Hart-Button the animals should call central Oregon home. Afterall, the Madras High School’s mascot is a white buffalo, and school officials pledge their mascot was chosen to honor Native Americans on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Believed to be the world’s largest collection, the 11 white buffalo now roam the vast, sequestered juniper forest east of Bend along with three black buffalo. Hart-Button keeps the sanctuary’s exact location a secret to protect the unusual creatures from livestock raiders.
Seventy-year-old Hait also spawned the idea for the blankets woven with white buffalo hair and wool. Hait carried a bag of shed hair to Pendleton President C.M. “Mort” Bishop when he pitched his idea. “My wife and kids said, ‘What are you smoking?’ ” Hait told The Oregonian. Pendleton Woolen Mills also makes a Native American collection of blankets, throws, shawls and the like.