The human brain, which is meant to constantly scan the environment through all senses and then decide on what action is necessary, is predisposed to notice in particular every anomaly. What is done about it is a matter of individual temperament and the advice of the culture, which could say it’s good or bad, mostly depending on whether it’s a culture where there is enough ease to spare energy and time for differences or whether it’s a culture that’s so severe as to teach people to assume the worst.
Put that together with the technical genetic fact that every mammal has genes that determine color and therefore every mammal species, given a mutation or developmental glitch, has an albino phase -- an anomaly -- and you have the makings of an icon of either good or evil. Most animals in groups (birds also have albino phases) will try to eliminate any individual that is very different, so a white crow is going to be attacked. Albino humans, especially those who are normally black, are also going to be viewed with suspicion. In stories they may be killers, like the half-brother in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”.
Off hand I can’t think of any albino humans in stories who are the heroes or definitively “good,” but when it comes to albino buffalo they are seen as a crack in the universe that lets the magic from another world come through -- symbols of salvation meaning that the world will be more merciful now. Plains Indians had stories about White Buffalo Woman, who was a benign figure, rather like the Chinese Quan Yin or the European Dark Madonna. (Dark was the anomaly there.) Maybe Yellow Pollen woman in the Native American corn cultures.
A white buffalo calf gets everyone excited because it is considered a sort of promise of a better future. The media goes crazy, thousands show up to endow the little critter with some amazing symbolic name, like “Lightning Medicine Cloud.” The owner, Arby Little Soldier, of this particular anomalous bison calf, born May 12, 2011, on a North Texas ranch called “Lakota Ranch” (though Sioux territory is more usually in the states of Dakota) tragically found the calf dead last Monday before they could celebrate his first birthday. The mother died the next day. No autopsy reports yet.
A number of bison ranchers have been inbreeding their buffs in an attempt to create exciting white calves in the same way Siegfried and Roy have inbred tigers to get albino cubs for their glamorous Las Vegas act. David Quammen blew the whistle on this inbreeding for white in an essay some years ago, but people didn’t want to know. Color genes are also active in other ways in the body so inbreeding for color will affect the rest of the animal -- one of the basic biological rules is that everything is connected. White animals are vulnerable beyond being obvious to predators. For instance, certain kinds of white blue-eyed kittens will be stone deaf. Strangely, the same romantic folks who are so lathered up about “purebred bison” meaning no domestic cow genes -- so much so that they will butcher any unfortunate gene carrier of cow genes -- don’t seem to register inbreeding bison to get albinos. Human inbreeding, of course, is pretty universally condemned and mocked. By now even the British royal family has come around.
So here we have some things to think about: anomalies that are such unexpected reversals that they seem supernatural; the quandary about whether it is better to eliminate such anomalies or consider them preciously unique; the failure to realize that everything is connected and therefore has consequences that might be not predictable; the exploitation of emotion that is seeking signs; the technological science of genetics that is not grasped by ordinary people; opportunism -- all recognizably overlapping with religion. Here’s more: the idea that Native American people are more pure and directly connected to the land, particularly the tribes that have been glorified by the media; the slipping over of that enchanted aura onto the bison that were the foundation of their world; the guilt and dissocation of contemporary white people because of realizing that “we” systematically killed the buffalo in order to eliminate the Native Americans on the prairie.
No one preaches about these things. The major environmental media will not touch them. Bison and wolves are sacrosanct. In quietly erudite circles people will discuss such esoteric phenomena as albinism and assume in a mild way that they are better because they dare to do so.
Oh, sigh. Referring back to the lead sentence, what should we do about what our brains take in? We can’t even decide what to do about the overabundance of ordinary dark bison in Yellowstone Park. Ranchers declare that moving them to the reservations will cause the collapse of their operations, which were founded by their ancestors. (All of maybe 150 years ago -- on land taken from Indians.) But people have been successfully ranching bison for decades, which is part of the reason their genes got mixed up with those of cows. Then there’s the disease factor -- brucellosis, which varies in the public mind from a raging plague dropping animals in their tracks to what one cute little bison-hugger informed me was a nonexistent disease invented for political purposes. (Is that what killed Lightning Medicine Cloud, and his -- we aren’t told the gender of the calf -- mother, almost on Mother’s Day?) Actually, politics can be lethal.
It happens that Bob Scriver had an intimate relationship with “Big Medicine,” the white buffalo bull that lived on the Moiese Bison Range over in the Flathead Valley. Bob was commissioned to mount the beast, who now stands in the second-floor hallway of the Montana Historical Society with a nice mural behind him. Big Medicine lived a long peaceful and prosperous life. By the time he died, like so many of us, he’d gotten nearly bald and so peaceful that he hardly moved at all. But the director of the Society who was managing the project insisted that he be mounted as though he were a young bull on the rut, tail up and ready for action. Facts don’t make history -- myths make history. If a historical society wants to be funded, they will go for story, the more provocative the better. If Bob wanted his check, he would be obedient.
It’s an old story. There’s Big Medicine in a phony pose, revered by many as an authentic manifestation of nineteenth-century Native American legends (though he lived out his life on a federal reservation -- oh, well, um . . .). And down under that is a story of opportunism and merchandizing. How religious. We know what to do with anomalies: commercialize them. Exploit them.