Buffalo 'Spirit'
June 9, 2004
Deborah Benjamin
Copyright, Oklahoma Gazette

The latest addition to the Nature Conservancy's fund-raising campaign and art exhibit is based upon the legend of the White Buffalo Calf Woman.

A cold wind brushed through the short grass of the intersection of Northwest 36th and Shartel June 2. But it didn't faze the strong-shouldered white buffalo now sitting squarely on the Oklahoma Gazette's grounds.

The Gazette recently purchased the buffalo, the latest addition to the Nature Conservancy's fundraising campaign and art exhibit, Spirit of the Buffalo. An unveiling ceremony took place June 2.

Named "Spirit" and based upon the legend of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, it will remain on site through September.

"Spirit" was created by Guthrie artist Harvey Pratt, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. The White Buffalo Calf Woman is an important figure in American-Indian culture, Pratt said.

"Supposedly she brought the sacred pipe to some of the tribes through the white buffalo – she changed back and forth (between woman and buffalo)," Pratt said. "... Most tribes used the pipe in ceremonies and to consecrate certain things; in discussions and in ceremonies they will smoke the pipe. The pipe is significant to the fact that it's used to promote honesty and in honor of nature and ancestors and the sacredness of whatever you're doing." According to legend, a woman approached an American-Indian warrior and told him that she would return to his camp with a great gift. She came back bringing a pipe adorned with 12 eagle feathers, a spiritual offering to aid those who used it. Pratt said the pipe's smoke "joins us to God." As the healer left, she changed into a white buffalo calf, the legend says. John Parrish, executive director of the Jacobson House Native Art Center in Norman, said the legend is derived from the Plains Indians. Parrish, who attended the unveiling, said Pratt's heritage is in the Plains Indians, and so he has a deep understanding of the legend and its significance.

"He's an accomplished artist, he has tremendous skill and he's also a very technical artist," Parrish said.

Pratt's artistic creation is rife with intricate details and symbolism, not the least of which is the White Buffalo Calf Woman holding the sacred pipe. The pipe on the white buffalo is painted as if it were lit, with swirls of smoke trailing to all of the wildlife painted on the buffalo – hummingbirds, butterflies and dragonflies. The left side of the buffalo depicts female animals and insects, the right side male. A caterpillar represents rebirth, Pratt said. "I love the fact that he put in some of the meaningful little touches, like the dragonfly and the hummingbird and the butterfly, all which carry their own significance," Parrish said. Smoke also fingers through the spine of the buffalo itself, until it winds its way to the animal's nostrils.

"The sacred smoke touches all things when you smoke it in a sacred manner," Pratt explained.

Pratt also used gradations of black acrylic paint from the hooves to the legs to show that "this white buffalo has run through the sacred fires. He's been there, he's been tempered, he's been steeled. He's run through those fires, and he is a special, holy person." Other fine details include small buffalo skulls brushed in the shadows of the fiberglass mammal's pupils, which Pratt said were intended to signify that buffalos are spiritually powerful whether dead or alive.

He also painted tears slowly dropping from the fiberglass buffalo's eyes. "All things cry for things that they have dominion over," he said of the tears, "and I think that the sacredness of this buffalo at times is going to cry for its people and for the things that it has tried to do."

"I think it is important that tears can be tears of joy, too," Parrish added.

The Spirit of the Buffalo campaign is loosely based on a 1998 public art display of fiberglass cows in Zurich, Switzerland. A year later, Chicago adopted the art idea, calling it Cows on Parade, with the bovines being auctioned off to charity.

The Gazette's buffalo is one of 100 that will be on display through September, said Keven Virgilio, associate director of philanthropy for the Oklahoma chapter of the Nature Conservancy. So far, 96 buffalos have been "adopted."

Virgilio said the Nature Conservancy hopes to net about $100,000 from the fund-raiser. Each buffalo costs about $3,500. Out of that sum, each artist gets paid $1,000 honorarium for his or her work. The organization also must deduct $1,500 for the cost of the fiberglass buffalo, which includes the fee for transporting the life-sized fiberglass figure from the manufacturer, Fiber Stock of Buffalo, Minn. Nature Conservancy nets about $1,000 for each buffalo. Proceeds will help fund the Nature Conservancy's mission to protect the state's natural landscape, Virgilio said. The Nature Conservancy has 13 land preserves in the state, three of which are suited for public visitation, Virgilio said.

The Nature Conservancy met with representatives of local art organizations and galleries in November 2003, soliciting from them names of artists, and then made a call for artists to help with the project. About 260 artists submitted proposals for the buffalos, the majority of whom are from central Oklahoma, although the buffalos themselves are showing up all over the state, including Checotah, Clinton, Cheyenne, Enid, Lawton, Ardmore and Woodward. "Spirit," though, was one of only three buffalos to be displayed at this year's Red Earth Festival.

"The whole concept was to give humanity hope and give them a gift and an aid to help them through hard times," Pratt said of "Spirit." "... I look at it as almost a symbol of hope, that if you do certain things, things are going to be better for you."