Over a hundred years ago Black Elk had a vision of the time when Indian peoplewould heal from the devastating effects of European migration. In his vision the
Sacred Hoop which had been broken, would be mended in seven generations.
The children born into this decade will be the seventh generation.
Born: December 1863? - Little Powder River, Wyoming
Died: August 17, 1950
Born to a medicine man who followed Crazy Horse, Black Elk witnessed the Battle
of Little Bighorn in 1876 and the upheaval that followed the tribe's flight to
Canada to join Sitting Bull. In 1886 he joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. In
1889 he returned to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where, as a spiritual authority,
he supported the Ghost Dance movement. The movement, built on the belief that
ritual observances would cause the white people to leave and the buffalo to return,
declined after it failed to protect its followers at the Battle of Wounded Knee.
In 1904 he was converted by a priest to the Catholic faith and took the name
Nicholas Black Elk. As a member of the Society of St. Joseph, he helped sponsor
the annual Catholic Sioux Congress and was active in converting others to
Black Elk with wife and daughter, circa 1890-1910
Little Powder River, Wyoming
Pine Ridge, South Dakota
Spouse(s) Katie War Bonnet (1892–1903)
Anna Brings White (1905–1941)
Children: Benjamin (?–1973)
Lucy Looks Twice (?–1978)
He?áka Sápa (Black Elk) (c. December 1863 – August 17 or August 19, 1950) was a famous Wicháša Wak?á? (Medicine Man or Holy Man) of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux). He was Heyoka and a second cousin of Crazy Horse.
Black Elk participated, at about the age of twelve, in the Battle of Little Big Horn of 1876, and was injured in the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.
In 1887, Black Elk traveled to England with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, an unpleasant experience he described in chapter 20 of Black Elk Speaks.
Black Elk married his first wife, Katie War Bonnett, in 1892. She became a Catholic, and all three of their children were baptized as Catholic. After her death in 1903, he too was baptized, taking the name Nicholas Black Elk and serving as a catechist. He continued to serve as a spiritual leader among his people, seeing no contradiction in embracing what he found valid in both his tribal traditions concerning Wakan Tanka and those of Christianity. He remarried in 1905 to Anna Brings White, a widow with two daughters. Together they had three more children and remained married until she died in 1941.
Towards the end of his life, he revealed the story of his life, and a number of sacred Sioux rituals to John Neihardt and Joseph Epes Brown for publication, and his accounts have won wide interest and acclaim. He also claimed to have had several visions in which he met the spirit that guided the universe.
"My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it; for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like a heavy snow? So many other men have lived and shall live that story, to be grass upon the hills.
- Black Elk
Black Elk was born into a tribe of the Plains Indians, the Oglala Sioux. He had five sisters and one brother. He had many children, but the one discussed in this essay is his daughter, Lucy Looks Twice. The Sioux were hunters, and they relied mainly on the buffalo. Buffalo was their main source for food as well as shelter and clothing. The Sioux lived throughout the midwestern plains of North America, until they were put on Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.
At the age of nine, Black Elk received a great vision. This vision portrayed the Powers of the World, each giving Black Elk a gift and a special power. The Grandfathers, represented the powers of north, south, east, and west. With the gifts that he received, Black Elk was given the center of the nations hoop. According to the book, Black Elk Speaks, by John Neihardt, the grandfathers said to Black Elk, "Behold a nation; it is yours." And a voice said, "Behold, they have given you the center of the nation's hoop to make it live."
Black Elk took part in many historical events, like the Battle of Little Big Horn. As an adult Black Elk became a medicine man and a prominent member of his tribe. Thirty years before his death, Black Elk became a Catholic. His religion was very important to him. In the book, Black Elk; Holy Man of the Oglala by Michael Steltenkamp, Lucy Looks twice recalls that her father had "suffered a lot," and had experienced inner confusion. Black Elk knew that something was wrong in his life because he suffered socially, physically, and psychologically. Black Elk soon had to visit the hospital due to ulcers. While there he received the holy sacrament, and never suffered from his ulcers again. This instance, and with the encouragement of his friend, Kills Brave, Black Elk converted to Catholicism. On December 6th, 1904 Black Elk was baptized on the feast of Saint Nicholas, and was given the christian name, Nicholas Black Elk.
These last years of Black Elk's life are very important, because he was a devout catholic. Knowing about Christ and receiving communion were what he held sacred. Black Elk spent many years of his life as a catechist. He often walked for miles to summon a priest to administer last rights. Lucy states that, "If anything ever went wrong with my children, if he prayed, I knew everything would be all right. He had a way, since he loved little children." Black Elk's religion was so strong that it had a drastic impact on many lives. Many of the people Black Elk used to care for as a medicine man came to him for advice, and many followed in his direction.
Chronology of Black Elk's Life
1863 (December) Born on the Little Powder River
1873 Had the Great Vision
1876 Battle at the Little Bighorn River
1882 Became a medicine man
1886-1889 Traveled to Europe
1890 Massacer at Wounded Knee
1931 Told Life Story to John Neihardt
1950 Died on Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota
Black Elk's Vision
[The following is taken from the book Black Elk Speaks, by John G. Neihardt (New York: Washington Square Press, 1972), originally published in 1932. The book is Neihardt's recreation in English of the oral history that Black Elk, a medicine man (or "shaman," of the Oglala Sioux Indians, recounted for him in the Sioux language in 1931. I have selected those chapters and sections of chapters that deal most directly with Black Elk's visions and this ritual enactment of them for his tribe.]
From Chapter 2: Early Boyhood
I was four years old then, and I think it must have been the next summer that I first heard the voices. It was a happy summer and nothing was afraid, because in the Moon When the Ponies Shed (May) word came from the Wasichus [the White Men] that there would be peace and that they would not use the road any more and that all the soldiers would go away. The soldiers did go away and their towns were torn down; and in the Moon of Falling Leaves (November), they made a treaty with Red
Cloud that said our country would be ours as long as grass should grow and water flow. You can see that it is not the grass and the water that have forgotten.
Maybe it was not this summer when I first heard the voices, but I think it was, because I know it was before I played with bows and arrows or rode a horse, and I was out playing alone when I heard them. It was like somebody calling me, and I thought it was my mother, but there was nobody there. This happened more than once,and always made me afraid, so that I ran home.
It was when I was five years old that my Grandfather made me a bow and some arrows. The grass was young and I was horseback. A thunder storm was coming from where the sun goes down, and just as I was riding into the woods along a creek, there was a kingbird sitting on a limb. This was not a dream, it happened. And I was going to shoot at the kingbird with the bow my Grandfather made, when the bird spoke and said: "The clouds all over are one-sided." Perhaps it meant that all the clouds were looking at me. And then it said: "Listen! A voice is calling you!" Then I looked up at the clouds, and two men were coming there, headfirst like arrows slanting down; and as they came, they sang a sacred song and the thunder was like drumming. I will sing it for you. The song and the drumming were like this:
Behold, a sacred voice is calling you;
All over the sky a sacred voice is calling.
I sat there gazing at them, and they were coming from the place where the giant lives (north). But when they were very close to me, they wheeled about toward where the sun goes down, and suddenly they were geese. Then they were gone, and the rain came with a big wind and a roaring. I did not tell this vision to any one. I liked to think about it, but I was afraid to tell it.
Chapter 3: The Great Vision
What happened after that until the summer I was nine years old is not a story.
There were winters and summers, and they were good; for the Wasichus had made their iron road along the Platte and traveled there. This had cut the bison herd in two, but those that stayed in our country with us were more than could be counted, and we wandered without trouble in our land.
Now and then the voices would come back when I was out alone, like someone calling me, but what they wanted me to do I did not know. This did not happen very often, and when it did not happen, I forgot about it; for I was growing taller and was riding horses now and could shoot prairie chickens and rabbits with my bow. The boys of my people began very young to learn the ways of men, and no one taught us; we just learned by doing what we saw, and we were warriors at a time when boys now
are like girls.
It was the summer when I was nine years old, and our people were moving slowly towards the Rocky Mountains. We camped one evening in a valley beside a little creek just before it ran into the Greasy Grass and there was a man by the name of Man Hip who liked me and asked me to eat with him in his tepee.
While I was eating, a voice came and said: "It is time; now they are calling you."
The voice was so loud and clear that I believed it, and I thought I would just go where it wanted me to go. So I got right up and started. As I came out of the tepee, both my thighs began to hurt me, and suddenly it was like waking from a dream, and there wasn't any voice. So I went back into the tepee, but I didn't want to eat. Man Hip looked at me in a strange way and asked me what was wrong. I told him that my legs were hurting me.
The next morning the camp moved again, and I was riding with some boys. We stopped to get a drink from a creek, and when I got off my horse, my legs crumpled under me and I could not walk. So the boys helped me up and put me on my horse; and when we camped again that evening, I was sick. The next day the camp moved on to where the different bands of our people were coming together, and I rode in a pony drag, for I was very sick. Both my legs and both my arms were swollen badly and my face was all puffed up.
When we had camped again, I was lying in our tepee and my mother and father were sitting beside me. I could see out through the opening, and there two men were coming from the clouds, headfirst like arrows slanting down, and I knew they were the same that I had seen before. Each now carried a long spear, and from the points of these a jagged lightning flashed. They came clear down to the ground this time and stood a little way off and looked at me and said: "Hurry! Come! Your
Grandfathers are calling you!"
Then they turned and left the ground like arrows slanting upward from the bow. When I got up to follow, my legs did not hurt me any more and I was very light. I went outside the tepee, and yonder where the men with flaming spears were going, a little cloud was coming very fast. It came and stooped and took me and turned back to where it came from, flying fast. And when I looked down I could see my mother and my father yonder, and I felt sorry to be leaving them.
Then there was nothing but the air and the swiftness of the little cloud that bore me and those two men still leading up to where white clouds were piled like mountains on a wide blue plain, and in them thunder beings lived and leaped an flashed. Now suddenly there was nothing but a world of cloud, and we three were there alone in the middle of a great white plain with snowy hills and mountains staring at us; and it was very still; but there were whispers.
Then the two men spoke together and they said: "Behold him, the being with four legs!"
I looked and saw a bay horse standing there, and he began to speak: "Behold me!" he said. "My life history you shall see." Then he wheeled about to where the sun goes down, and said: "Behold them! Their history you shall know."
I looked, and there were twelve black horses yonder all abreast with necklaces of bison hoofs, and they were beautiful, but I was frightened, because their manes were lightning and there was thunder in their nostrils.
Then the bay horse wheeled to where the great white giant lives (the north) and said: "Behold!" And yonder there were twelve white horses all abreast. Their manes were flowing like a blizzard wind and from their noses came a roaring, and all about them white geese soared and circled.
Then the bay wheeled round to where the sun shines continually (the east) and bade me look; and there twelve sorrel horses, with necklaces of elk's teeth, stood abreast with eyes that glimmered like the daybreak star and manes of morning light.
Then the bay wheeled once again to look upon the place where you are always facing (the south), and yonder stood twelve buckskins all abreast with horns upon their heads and manes that lived and grew like trees and grasses.
And when I had seen all these, the bay horse said: "Your Grandfathers are having a council. These shall take you; so have courage."
Then all the horses went into formation, four abreast--the blacks, the whites, the sorrels, and the buckskins--and stood behind the bay, who turned now to the west and neighed; and yonder suddenly the sky was terrible with a storm of plunging horses in all colors that shook the world with thunder, neighing back.
Now turning to the north the bay horse whinnied, and yonder all the sky roared with a mighty wind of running horses in all colors, neighing back.
And when he whinnied to the east, there too the sky was filled with glowing clouds of manes and tails of horses, in all colors singing back. Then to the south he called, and it was crowded with many colored, happy horses, nickering.
Then the bay horse spoke to me again and said: "See how your horses all come dancing!" I looked, and there were horses, horses everywhere--a whole skyful of horses dancing round me.
"Make haste!" the bay horse said; and we walked together side by side, while the blacks, the whites, the sorrels, and the buckskins followed, marching four by four.
I looked about me once again, and suddenly the dancing horses without number changed into animals of every kind and into all the fowls that are, and these fled back to the four quarters of the world from whence the horses came, and vanished.
Then as we walked, there was a heaped up cloud ahead that changed into a tepee, and a rainbow was the open door of it; and through the door I saw six old men sitting in a row.
The two men with the spears now stood beside me, one on either hand, and the horses took their places in their quarters, looking inward, four by four. And the oldest of the Grandfathers spoke with a kind voice and said: "Come right in and do not fear." And as he spoke, all the horses of the four quarters neighed to cheer me. So I went in and stood before the six, and they looked older than men can ever be--old like hills, like stars.
The oldest spoke again: "Your Grandfathers all over the world are having a council, and they have called you here to teach you." His voice was very kind, but I shook all over with fear now, for I knew that these were not old men, but the Powers of the World. And the first was the Power of the West; the second, of the North; the third, of the East; the fourth, of the South; the fifth, of the Sky; the sixth, of the Earth. I knew this, and was afraid, until the first Grandfather spoke again: "Behold them yonder where the sun goes down, the thunder beings! You shall see, and have from them my power; and they shall take you to the high and lonely center of the earth that you may see: even to the place where the sun continually shines, they shall take you there to understand."
And as he spoke of understanding, I looked up and saw the rainbow leap with flames of many colors over me.
Now there was a wooden cup in his hand and it was full of water and in the water was the sky.
"Take this," he said. "It is the power to make live, and it is yours."
Now he had a bow in his hands. "Take this," he said. "It is the power to destroy, and it is yours."
Then he pointed to himself and said: "Look close at him who is your spirit now, for you are his body and his name is Eagle Wing Stretches."
And saying this, he got up very tall and started running toward where the sun goes down; and suddenly he was a black horse that stopped and turned and looked at me, and the horse was very poor and sick; his ribs stood out.
Then the second Grandfather, he of the North, arose with a herb of power in his hand, and said: "Take this and hurry." I took and held it toward the black horse yonder. He fattened and was happy and came prancing to his place again and was the first Grandfather sitting there.
The second Grandfather, he of the North, spoke again: "Take courage. younger brother," he said; "on earth a nation you shall make live, for yours shall be the power of the white giant's wing, the cleansing wing." Then he got up very tall and started running toward the north; and when he turned toward me, it was a white goose wheeling. I looked about me now, and the horses in the west were thunders and the horses of the north were geese. And the second Grandfather sang two songs that were like this:
They are appearing, may you behold!
They are appearing, may you behold!
The thunder nation is appearing, behold!
They are appearing, may you behold!
They are appearing, may you behold!
The white geese nation is appearing,
And now it was the third Grandfather who spoke, he of where the sun shines continually. "Take courage, younger brother," he said, "for across the earth they shall take you!" Then he pointed to where the daybreak star was shining, and beneath the star two men were flying. "From them you shall have power," he said, "from them who have awakened all the beings of the earth with roots and legs and wings." And as he said this, he held in his hand a peace pipe which had a spotted eagle outstretched upon the stem; and this eagle seemed alive, for it was poised there, fluttering, and its eyes were looking at me. "With this pipe," the Grandfather said, "you shall walk upon the earth, and whatever sickens there you shall make well." Then he pointed to a man who was bright red all over, the color of good and of plenty, and as he pointed, the red man lay down and rolled and changed into a bison that got up, and galloped toward the sorrel horses of the east, and they too turned to bison, fat and many.
And now the fourth Grandfather spoke, he of the place where you are always facing (the south), whence comes the power to grow. "Younger brother," he said, "with the powers of the four quarters you shall walk, a relative. Behold, the living center of a nation I shall give you, and with it many you shall save." And I saw that he was holding in his hand a bright red stick that was alive, and as I looked it sprouted at the top and sent forth branches, and on the branches many leaves came out and murmured and in the leaves the birds began to sing. And then for just a little while I thought I saw beneath it in the shade the circled villages of people and every living thing with roots or legs or wings, and all were happy. "It shall stand in the center of the nation's circle," said the Grandfather, "a cane to walk with and a people's heart; and by your powers you shall make it blossom."
Then when he had been still a little while to hear the birds sing, he spoke again: "Behold the earth!" So I looked down and saw it lying yonder like a hoop of peoples. and in the center bloomed the holy stick that was a tree, and where it stood there crossed two roads, a red one and a black. "From where the giant lives (the north) to where you always face (the south) the red road goes, the road of good," the Grandfather said, "and on it shall your nation walk. The black road goes from where the thunder beings live (the west) to where the sun continually shines (the east), a fearful road, a road of troubles and of war. On this also you shall walk, and from it you shall have the power to destroy a people's foes. In four ascents you shall walk the earth with Power."
I think he meant that I should see four generations, counting me, and now I am seeing the third.
Then he rose very tall and started running toward the south, and was an elk; and as he stood among the buckskins yonder, they too were elks.
Now the fifth Grandfather spoke, the oldest of them all, the Spirit of the Sky. "My boy," he said, "I have sent for you and you have come. My power you shall see!" He stretched his arms and turned into a spotted eagle hovering. "Behold," he said, "all the wings of the air shall come to you, and they and the winds and the stars shall be like relatives. You shall go across the earth with my power." Then the eagle soared above my head and fluttered there; and suddenly the sky was full of friendly wings all coming toward me.
Now I knew the sixth Grandfather was about to speak, he who was the Spirit of the Earth, and I saw that he was very old, but more as men are old. His hair was long and white, his face was all in wrinkles and his eyes were deep and dim. I stared at him, for it seemed I knew him somehow; and as I stared, he slowly changed, for he was growing backwards into youth, and when he had become a boy, I knew that he was myself with all the years that would be mine at last. When he was old again, he said: "My boy, have courage, for my power shall be yours, and you shall need it, for your nation on the earth will have great troubles. Come."
He rose and tottered out through the rainbow door, and as I followed I was riding on the bay horse who had talked to me at first and led me to that place.
Then the bay horse stopped and faced the black horses of the west, and a voice said: "They have given you the cup of water to make live the greening day, and also the bow and arrow to destroy." The bay neighed, and the twelve black horses came and stood behind me, four abreast.
The bay faced the sorrels of the east, and I saw that they had morning stars upon their foreheads and they were very bright. And the voice said: "They have given you the sacred pipe and the power that is peace, and the good red day." The bay neighed and the twelve sorrels stood behind me, four abreast.
My horse now faced the buckskins of the south and a voice said: "They have given you the sacred stick and your nation's hoop, and the yellow day and in the center of the hoop you shall set the stick and make it grow into a shielding tree, and bloom." The bay neighed, and the twelve buckskins came and stood behind me, four abreast.
Then I knew that there were riders on all the horses there behind me, and a voice said: "Now you shall walk the black road with these; and as you walk, all the nations that have roots or legs or wings shall fear you."
So I started, riding toward the east down the fearful road, and behind me came the horsebacks four abreast--the blacks, the whites, the sorrels, and the buckskins--and far away above the fearful road the daybreak star was rising very dim.
I looked below me where the earth was silent in a sick green light, and saw the hills look up afraid and the grasses on the hills and all the animals; and everywhere about me were the cries of frightened birds and sounds of fleeing wings. I was the chief of all the heavens riding there, and when I looked behind me, all the twelve black horses reared and plunged and thundered and their manes and tails were whirling hail and their nostrils snorted lightning. And when I looked below again, I saw the slant hail falling and the long, sharp rain, and where we passed, the trees bowed low and all the hills were dim.
Now the earth was bright again as we rode. I could see the hills and valleys and the creeks and rivers passing under. We came above a place where three streams made a big one--a source of mighty waters--and something terrible was there. Flames were rising from the waters and in the flames a blue man lived. The dust was floating all about him in the air, the grass was short and withered, the trees were wilting, two-legged and four-legged beings lay there thin and panting, and wings too weak to fly.
Then the black horse riders shouted "Hoka hey!" and charged down upon the blue man, but were driven back. And the white troop shouted, charging, and was beaten; then the red troop and the yellow.
And when each had failed. they all cried together: "Eagle Wing Stretches, hurry!" And all the world was filled with voices of all kinds that cheered me, so I charged. I had the cup of water in one hand and in the other was the bow that turned into a spear as the bay and I swooped down, and the spear's head was sharp lightning. It stabbed the blue man's heart, and as it struck I could hear the thunder rolling and many voices that cried "Un-hee!," meaning I had killed. The flames died. The trees and grasses were not withered any more and murmured happily together, and every living being cried in gladness with whatever voice it had. Then the four troops of horse men charged down and struck the dead body of the blue man, counting coup; and suddenly it was only a harmless turtle.
You see, I had been riding with the storm clouds, and had come to earth as rain, and it was drought that I had killed with the power that the Six Grandfathers gave me. So we were riding on the earth now down along the river flowing full from the source of waters, and soon I saw ahead the circled village of a people in the valley. And a Voice said: "Behold a nation; it is yours. Make haste, Eagle Wing Stretches!"
I entered the village, riding, with the four horse troops behind me--the blacks, the whites, the sorrels, and the buckskins; and the place was filled with moaning and with mourning for the dead. The wind was blowing from the south like fever, and when I looked around I saw that in nearly every tepee the women and the children and the men lay dying with the dead.
So I rode around the circle of the village, looking in upon the sick and dead, and I felt like crying as I rode. But when I looked behind me, all the women and the children and the men were getting up and coming forth with happy faces.
And a Voice said: "Behold, they have given you the center of the nation's hoop to make it live."
So I rode to the center of the village, with the horse troops in their quarters round about me, and there the people gathered. And the Voice said: "Give them now the flowering stick that they may flourish, and the sacred pipe that they may know the power that is peace, and the wing of the white giant that they may have endurance and face all winds with courage."
So I took the bright red stick and at the center of the nation's hoop I thrust it in the earth. As it touched the earth it leaped mightily in my hand and was a waga chun, the rustling tree, very tall and full of leafy branches and of all birds singing. And beneath it all the animals were mingling with the people like relatives and making happy cries. The women raised their tremolo of joy, and the men shouted all together: "Here we shall raise our children and be as little chickens under the mother sheo's wing."
Then I heard the white wind blowing gently through the tree and singing there, and from the east the sacred pipe came flying on its eagle wings, and stopped before me there beneath the tree, spreading deep peace around it.
Then the daybreak star was rising, and a Voice said: "It shall be a relative to them; and who shall see it, shall see much more, for thence comes wisdom; and those who do not see it shall be dark." And all the people raised their faces to the east, and the star's light fell upon them, and all the dogs barked loudly and the horses whinnied.
Then when the many little voices ceased, the great Voice said: "Behold the circle of the nation's hoop, for it is holy, being endless, and thus all powers shall be one power in the people without end. Now they shall break camp and go forth upon the red road, and your Grandfathers shall walk with them." So the people broke camp and took the good road with the white wing on their faces, and the order of their going was like this:
First, the black horse riders with the cup of water; and the white horse riders with the white wing and the sacred herb; and the sorrel riders with the holy pipe: and the buckskins with the flowering stick. And after these the little children and the youths and maidens followed in a band.
Second, came the tribe's four chieftains, and their band was all young men and women.
Third, the nation's four advisers leading men and women neither young nor old.
Fourth, the old men hobbling with their canes and looking to the earth.
Fifth, old women hobbling with their canes and looking to the earth.
Sixth, myself all alone upon the bay with the bow and arrows that the First Grandfather gave me. But I was not the last; for when I looked behind me there were ghosts of people like a trailing fog as far as I could see--grandfathers of grandfathers and grandmothers of grandmothers without number. And over these a great Voice--the Voice that was the South--lived, and I could feel it silent.
And as we went the Voice behind me said: "Behold a good nation walking in a sacred manner in a good land!"
Then I looked up and saw that there were four ascents ahead, and these were generations I should know. Now we were on the first ascent, and all the land was green. And as the long line climbed, all the old men and women raised their hands, palms forward, to the far sky yonder and began to croon a song together, and the sky ahead was filled with clouds of baby faces.
When we came to the end of the first ascent we camped in the sacred circle as before, and in the center stood the holy tree, and still the land about us was all green.
Then we started on the second ascent, marching as before, and still the land was green, but it was getting steeper. And as I looked ahead, the people changed into elks and bison and all four-footed beings and even into fowls, all walking in a sacred manner on the good red road together. And I myself was a spotted eagle soaring over them. But just before we stopped to camp at the end of that ascent, all the marching animals grew restless and afraid that they were not what they had been, and began sending forth voices of trouble, calling to their chiefs. And when they camped at the end of that ascent, I looked down and saw that leaves were falling from the holy tree.
And the Voice said: "Behold your nation, and remember what your Six Grandfathers gave you, for thenceforth your people walk in difficulties."
Then the people broke camp again, and saw the black road before them towards where the sun goes down, and black clouds coming yonder; and they did not want to go but could not stay. And as they walked the third ascent, all the animals and fowls that were the people ran here and there, for each one seemed to have his own little vision that he followed and his own rules; and all over the universe I could hear the winds at war like wild beasts fighting.
And when we reached the summit of the third ascent and camped, the nation's hoop was broken like a ring of smoke that spreads and scatters and the holy tree seemed dying and all its birds were gone. And when I looked ahead I saw that the fourth ascent would be terrible.
Then when the people were getting ready to begin the fourth ascent, the Voice spoke like some one weeping, and it said: "Look there upon your nation." And when I looked down, the people were all changed back to human, and they were thin, their faces sharp, for they were starving. Their ponies were only hide and bones. and the holy tree was gone.
And as I looked and wept, I saw that there stood on the north side of the starving camp a sacred man who was painted red all over his body, and he held a spear as he walked into the center of the people, and there he lay down and rolled. And when he got up, it was a fat bison standing there, and where the bison stood a sacred herb sprang up right where the tree had been in the center of the nation's hoop. The herb grew and bore four blossoms on a single stem while I was looking--a blue, a white, a scarlet, and a yellow--and the bright rays of these flashed to the heavens.
I know now what this meant, that the bison were the gift of a good spirit and were our strength, but we should lose them, and from the same good spirit we must find another strength. For the people all seemed better when the herb had grown and bloomed, and the horses raised their tails and neighed and pranced around, and I could see a light breeze going from the north among the people like a ghost; and suddenly the flowering tree was there again at the center of the nation's hoop where the four-rayed herb had blossomed.
I was still the spotted eagle floating and I could see that I was already in the fourth ascent and the people were camping yonder at the top of the third long rise. It was dark and terrible about me, for all the winds of the world were fighting. It was like rapid gunfire and like whirling smoke, and like women and children wailing and like horses screaming all over the world.
I could see my people yonder running about, setting the smokeflap poles and fastening down their tepees against the wind, for the storm cloud was coming on them very fast and black, and there were frightened swallows without number fleeing before the cloud.
Then a song of power came to me and I sang it there in the midst of that terrible place where I was. It went like this:
A good nation I will make live.
This the nation above has said.
They have given me the power
to make over.
And when I had sung this, a Voice said: "To the four quarters you shall run for help, and nothing shall be strong before you. Behold him!"
Now I was on my bay horse again, because the horse is of the earth, and it was there my power would be used. And as I obeyed the Voice and looked, there was a horse all skin and bones yonder in the west, a faded brownish black. And a Voice there said: "Take this and make him over; and it was the four-rayed herb that I was holding in my hand. So I rode above the poor horse in a circle, and as I did this I could hear the people yonder calling for spirit power, "A-hey! a-hey! a-hey! a-hey!" Then the poor horse neighed and rolled and got up, and he was a big, shiny, black stallion with dapples all over him and his mane about him like a cloud. He was the chief of all the horses; and when he snorted, it was a flash of lightning and his eyes were like the sunset star. He dashed to the west and neighed, and the west was filled with a dust of hoofs, and horses without number, shiny black, came plunging from the dust. Then he dashed toward the north and neighed, and to the east and to the south. and the dust clouds answered, giving forth their plunging horses without number--whites and sorrels and buckskins, fat, shiny, rejoicing in their fleetness and their strength. It was beautiful, but it was also terrible.
Then they all stopped short, rearing, and were standing in a great hoop about their black chief at the center, and were still. And as they stood, four virgins, more beautiful than women of the earth can be, came through the circle, dressed in scarlet, one from each of the four quarters, and stood about the great black stallion in their places; and one held the wooden cup of water, and one the white wing, and one the pipe, and one the nation's hoop. All the universe was silent, listening; and then the great black stallion raised his voice and sang. The song he sang was this:
My horses, prancing they are coming.
My horses, neighing they are coming;
Prancing. they are coming.
All over the universe they come.
They will dance; may you behold them.
A horse nation, they will dance.
May you behold them. (4 times)
His voice was not loud, but it went all over the universe and filled it. There was nothing that did not hear, and it was more beautiful than anything can be. It was so beautiful that nothing anywhere could keep from dancing. The virgins danced, and all the circled horses. The leaves on the trees, the grasses on the hills and in the valleys, the water in the creeks and in the rivers and the lakes, the four-legged and the two-legged and the wings of the air--all danced together to the music of the stallion's song.
And when I looked down upon my people yonder, the cloud passed over, blessing them with friendly rain, and stood in the east with a flaming rainbow over it.
Then all the horses went singing back to their places beyond the summit of the fourth ascent, and all thing sang along with them as they walked.
And a Voice said: "All over the universe they have finished a day of happiness." And looking down, I saw that the whole wide circle of the day was beautiful and green, with all fruits growing and all things kind and happy.
Then a Voice said: "Behold this day, for it is yours to make. Now you shall stand upon the center of the earth to see, for there they are taking you." I was still on my bay horse, and once more I felt the riders of the west, the north, the east, the south, behind me in formation, as before, and we were going east. I looked ahead and saw the mountains there with rocks and forests on them, and from the mountains flashed all colors upward to the heavens. Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.
Then as I stood there, two men were coming from the east, head first like arrows flying, and between them rose the daybreak star. They came and gave a herb to me and said: "With this on earth you shall undertake anything and do it." It was the daybreak-star herb, the herb of understanding, and they told me to drop it on the earth. I saw it falling far, and when it struck the earth it rooted and grew and flowered, four blossoms on one stem, a blue, a white, a scarlet, and a yellow; and the rays from these streamed upward to the heavens so that all creatures saw it and in no place was there darkness.
Then the Voice said: "Your Six Grandfathers--now you shall go back to them."
I had not noticed how I was dressed until now, and I saw that I was painted red all over, and my joints were painted black, with white stripes between the joints. My bay had lightning stripes all over him, and his mane was cloud. And when I breathed, my breath was lightning.
Now two men were leading me, head first like arrows slanting upward--the two that brought me from the earth. And as I followed on the bay, they turned into four flocks of geese that flew in circles, one above each quarter, sending forth a sacred voice as they flew: Br-r-r-p, br-r-r-p, br-r-r-p, br-r-r-p!
Then I saw ahead the rainbow flaming above the tepee of the Six Grandfathers, built and roofed with cloud and sewed with thongs of lightning; and underneath it were all the wings of the air and under them the animals and men. All these were rejoicing and thunder was like happy laughter.
As I rode in through the rainbow door, there were cheering voices from all over the universe, and I saw the Six Grandfathers sitting in a row, with their arms held toward me and their hands, palms out; and behind them in the cloud were faces thronging, without number, of the people yet to be.
"He has triumphed!" cried the six together, making thunder. And as I passed before them there, each gave again the gift that he had given me before--the cup of water and the bow and arrows, the power to make live and to destroy; the white wing of cleansing and the healing herb; the sacred pipe; the flowering stick. And each one spoke in turn from west to south, explaining what he gave as he had done before, and as each one spoke he melted down into the earth and rose again; and as each did this, I felt nearer to the earth.
Then the oldest of them all said: "Grandson, all over the universe you have seen. Now you shall go back with power to the place from whence you came, and it shall happen yonder that hundreds shall be sacred, hundreds shall be flames! Behold!"
I looked below and saw my people there, and all were well and happy except one, and he was lying like the dead--and that one was myself. Then the oldest Grandfather sang, and his song was like this:
There is someone lying on earth in a sacred manner.
There is someone--on earth he lies.
In a sacred manner I have made him to walk.
Now the tepee, built and roofed with cloud, began to sway back and forth as in a wind, and the flaming rainbow door was growing dimmer. I could hear voices of all kinds crying from outside: "Eagle Wine Stretches is coming forth! Behold him!"
When I went through the door, the face of the day of earth was appearing with the daybreak star upon its forehead; and the sun leaped up and looked upon me, and I was going forth alone.
And as I walked alone, I heard the sun singing as it arose, and it sang like this:
With visible face I am appearing.
In a sacred manner I appear.
For the greening earth a pleasantness I make.
The center of the nation's hoop I have made pleasant.
With visible face, behold me!
The four-leggeds and two-leggeds,
I have made them to walk;
The wings of the air, I have made them to fly.
With visible face I appear.
My day, I have made it holy.
When the singing stopped, I was feeling lost and very lonely. Then a Voice above me said: "Look back!" It was a spotted eagle that was hovering over me and spoke. I looked, and where the flaming rainbow tepee, built and roofed with cloud, had been, I saw only the tall rock mountain at the center of the world.
I was all alone on a broad plain now with my feet upon the earth, alone but for the spotted eagle guarding me. I could see my people's village far ahead, and I walked very fast, for I was homesick now. Then I saw my own tepee, and inside I saw my mother and my father, bending over a sick boy that was myself. And as I entered the tepee, some one was saying: "The boy is coming to; you had better give him some water."
Then I was sitting up; and I was sad because my mother and my father didn't seem to know I had been so far away.
from Chapter 4: The Bison Hunt
When I got back to my father and mother and was sitting up there in our tepee, my face was still all puffed and my legs and arms were badly swollen; but I felt good all over and wanted to get right up and run around. My parents would not let me. They told me I had been sick twelve days, lying like dead all the while, and that Whirlwind Chaser, who was Standing Bear's uncle and a medicine man, had brought me back to life. I knew it was the Grandfathers in the Flaming Rainbow Tepee who had cured me; but I felt afraid to say so. My father gave Whirlwind Chaser the best horse he had for making me well, and many people came to look at me, and there was much talk about the great power of Whirlwind Chaser who had made me well all at once when I was almost the same as dead. Everybody was glad that I was living; but as I lay there thinking about the wonderful place where I had been and all that I had seen, I was very sad; for it seemed to me that everybody ought to know about it, but I was afraid to tell, because I knew that nobody would believe me, little as I was, for I was only nine years old. Also, as I lay there thinking of my vision, I could see it all again and feel the meaning with a part of me like a strange power glowing in my body; but when the part of me that talks would try to make words for the meaning, it would be like fog and get away from me.
[From this point much of Black Elk's narrative is taken up with the description of the suffering that his people endured at the hands of the "Wasichus" or White Men. By the time Black Elk was sixteen years old his tribe had been decimated, and what remained of his people would soon be subjected to living on the terms of the White Man, on what were to become Indian reservations. All during this time Black Elk avoids speaking of his vision to anyone, although he often draws strength from it privately. Eventually, however, his uncertainty about its significance and the continued secrecy begin to be too much for him.]
From Chapter 13: The Compelling Fear
I was sixteen years old and more, and I had not yet done anything the Grandfathers wanted me to do, but they had been helping me. I did not know how to do what they wanted me to do.
A terrible time began for me then, and I could not tell anybody, not even my father and mother. I was afraid to see a cloud coming up; and whenever one did, I could hear the thunder beings calling to me: "Behold your Grandfathers! Make haste!" I could understand the birds when they sang, and they were always saying: "It is time! It is time!" The crows in the day and the coyotes at night all called and called to me: "It is time! It is time! It is time!"
Time to do what? I did not know. Whenever I awoke before daybreak and went out of the tepee because I was afraid of the stillness when everyone was sleeping, there were many low voices talking together in the east, and the daybreak star would sing this song in the silence:
In a sacred manner you shall walk!
Your nation shall behold you!
I could not get along with people now, and I would take my horse and go far out from camp alone and compare everything on the earth and in the sky with my vision. Crows would see me and shout to each other as though they were making fun of me: "Behold him! Behold him!"
When the frosts began I was glad, because there would not be any more thunder storms for a long while, and I was more and more afraid of them all the time, for always there would be the voices crying!: "Oo oohey! It is time! It is time!"
The fear was not so great all the while in the winter, but sometimes it was bad. Sometimes the crying of coyotes out in the cold made me so afraid that I would run out of one tepee into another, and I would do this until I was worn out and fell asleep. I wondered if maybe I was only crazy; and my father and mother worried a great deal about me. They said: "It is the strange sickness he had that time when we gave the horse to Whirlwind Chaser for curing him; and he is not cured." I could not tell them what was the matter, for then they would only think I was queerer than ever.
I was seventeen years old that winter.
When the grasses were beginning to show their tender faces again, my father and mother asked an old medicine man by the name of Black Road to come over and see what he could do for me. Black Road was in a tepee all alone with me, and he asked me to tell him if I had seen something that troubled me. By now I was so afraid of being afraid of everything that I told him about my vision, and when I was through he looked long at me and said: "Ah-h-h-h!," meaning that he was much surprised. Then he said to me: "Nephew, I know now what the trouble is! You must do what the bay horse in your vision wanted you to do. You must do your duty and perform this vision for your people upon earth. You must have the horse dance first for the people to see. Then the fear will leave you; but if you do not do this, something very bad will happen to you."
So we began to get ready for the horse dance.
Chapter 14: The Horse Dance
There was a man by the name of Bear Sings, and he was very old and wise. So Black Road asked him to help, and he did.
First they sent a crier around in the morning who told the people to camp in a circle at a certain place a little way up the Tongue from where the soldiers were. They did this, and in the middle of the circle Bear Sings and Black Road set up a sacred tepee of bison hide, and on it they painted pictures from my vision. On the west side they painted a bow and a cup of water; on the north. white geese and the herb; on the east. the daybreak star and the pipe; on the south, the flowering stick and the nation's hoop. Also, they painted horses, elk and bison. Then over the door of the sacred tepee, they painted the flaming rainbow. It took them all day to do this, and it was beautiful.
They told me I must not eat anything until the horse dance was over, and I had to purify myself in a sweat lodge with sage spread on the floor of it, and afterwards I had to wipe myself dry with sage.
That evening Black Road and Bear Sings told me to come to the painted tepee. We were in there alone, and nobody dared come near us to listen. They asked me if I had heard any songs in my vision, and if I had I must teach the songs to them. So I sang to them all the songs that I had heard in my vision, and it took most of the night to teach these songs to them. While we were in there singing, we could hear low thunder rumbling all over the village outside, and we knew the thunder beings were glad and had come to help us.
My father and mother had been helping too by hunting up all that we should need in the dance. The next morning they had everything ready. There were four black horses to represent the west; four white horses for the north; four sorrels for the east; four buckskins for the south. For all of these, young riders had been chosen. Also there was a bay horse for me to ride, as in my vision. Four of the most beautiful maidens in the village were ready to take their part, and there were six very old men for the Grandfathers.
Now it was time to paint and dress for the dance. The four maidens and the sixteen horses all faced the sacred tepee. Black Road and Bear Sings then sang a song, and all the others sang along with them, like this:
Father, paint the earth on me.
Father, paint the earth on me.
Father, paint the earth on me.
A nation I will make over.
A two-legged nation I will make holy.
Father. paint the earth on me.
After that the painting was done.
The four black-horse riders were painted all black with blue lightning stripes down their legs and arms and white hail spots on their hips, and there were blue streaks of lightning on the horses' legs.
The white-horse riders were painted all white with red streaks of lightning on their arms and legs, and on the legs of the horses there were streaks of red lightning, and all the white riders wore plumes of white horse hair on their heads to look like geese.
The riders of the sorrels of the east were painted all red with straight black lines of lightning on their limbs and across their breasts, and there was straight black lightning on the limbs and breasts of the horses too.
The riders of the buckskins of the south were painted all yellow and streaked with black lightning. The horses were black from the knees down, and black lightning streaks were on their upper legs and breasts.
My bay horse had bright red streaks of lightning on his limbs, and on his back a spotted eagle, outstretching was painted where I sat. I was painted red all over with black lightning on my limbs. I wore a black mask, and across my forehead a single eagle feather hung.
When the horses and the men were painted they looked beautiful; but they looked fearful too.
The men were naked, except for a breech-clout; but the four maidens wore buckskin dresses dyed scarlet, and their faces were scarlet too. Their hair was braided, and they had wreaths of the sweet and cleansing sage, the sacred sage, around their heads, and from the wreath of each in front a single eagle feather hung. They were very beautiful to see.
All this time I was in the sacred tepee with the Six Grandfathers, and the four sacred virgins were in there too. No one outside was to see me until the dance began.
Right in the middle of the tepee the Grandfathers made a circle in the ground with a little trench, and across this they painted two roads--the red one running north and south, the black one, east and west. On the west side of this they placed a cup of water with a little bow and arrow laid across it; and on the east they painted the daybreak star. Then to the maiden who would represent the north they gave the healing herb to carry and a white goose wing, the cleansing wind. To her of the east they gave the holy pipe. To her of the south they gave the flowering stick; and to her who would represent the west they gave the nation's hoop. Thus the four maidens, good and beautiful, held in their hands the life of the nation.
All I carried was a red stick to represent the sacred arrow, the power of the thunder beings of the west.
We were now ready to begin the dance. The Six Grandfathers began to sing, announcing the riders of the different quarters. First they sang of the black horse riders, like this:
They will appear--may you behold them!
They will appear--may you behold them!
A horse nation will appear.
A thunder-being nation will appear.
They will appear, behold!
They will appear, behold!
Then the black riders mounted their horses and stood four abreast facing the place where the sun goes down.
Next the Six Grandfathers sang:
They will appear, may you behold them!
A horse nation will appear, behold!
A geese nation will appear, may you
Then the four white horsemen mounted and stood four abreast, facing the place where the White Giant lives.
Next the Six Grandfathers sang:
Where the sun shines continually,
they will appear!
A buffalo nation, they will appear, behold!
A horse nation, they will appear, may you behold!
Then the red horsemen mounted and stood four abreast facing the east.
Next the Grandfathers sang:
Where you are always facing, an elk nation will appear!
May you behold!
A horse nation will appear,
The four yellow riders mounted their buckskins and stood four abreast facing the south.
Now it was time for me to go forth from the sacred tepee, but before I went forth I sang this song to the drums of the Grandfathers:
He will appear, may you behold him!
An eagle for the eagle nation will appear.
May you behold!
While I was singing thus in the sacred tepee I could hear my horse snorting and prancing outside. The virgins went forth four abreast and I followed them, mounting my horse and standing behind them facing the west.
Next the Six Grandfathers came forth and stood abreast behind my bay, and they began to sing a rapid, lively song to the drums, like this:
They are dancing.
They are coming to behold you.
The horse nation of the west is dancing.
They are coming to behold!
Then they sang the same of the horses of the north and of the east and of the south. And as they sang of each troop in turn, it wheeled and came and took its place behind the Grandfathers--the blacks, the whites, the sorrels and the buckskins, standing four abreast and facing the west. They came prancing to the lively air of the Grandfathers' song, and they pranced as they stood in line. And all the while my bay was rearing too and prancing to the music of the sacred song.
Now when we were all in line, facing the west, I looked up into a dark cloud that was coming there and the people all became quiet and the horses quit prancing. And when there was silence but for low thunder yonder, I sent a voice to the spirits of the cloud, holding forth my right hand, thus, palm outward, as I cried four times:
Hey-a-a-hey! hey-a-a-hey! hey-a-a-hey! hey-a-a-hey!
Then the Grandfathers behind me sang another sacred song from my vision, the one that goes like this:
At the center of the earth,
behold a four-legged.
They have said this to me!
And as they sang a strange thing happened. My bay pricked up his ears and raised his tail and pawed the earth, neighing long and loud to where the sun goes down. And the four black horses raised their voices, neighing long and loud, and the whites and the sorrels and the buckskins did the same; and all the other horses in the village neighed, and even those out grazing in the valley and on the hill slopes raised their heads and neighed together. Then suddenly, as I sat there looking at the cloud, I saw my vision yonder once again--the tepee built of cloud and sewed with lightning the flaming rainbow door and, underneath, the Six Grandfathers sitting, and all the horses thronging in their quarters; and also there was I myself upon my bay before the tepee. I looked about me and could see that what we then were doing was like a shadow cast upon the earth from yonder vision in the heavens, so bright it was and clear. I knew the real was yonder and the darkened dream of it was here.
And as I looked, the Six Grandfathers yonder in the cloud and all the riders of the horses, and even I myself upon the bay up there, all held their hands palms outward toward me, and when they did this, I had to pray, and so I cried:
Grandfathers, you behold me!
Spirits of the World, you behold!
What you have said to me,
I am now performing!
Hear me and help me!
Then the vision went out, and the thunder cloud was coming on with lightning on its front and many voices in it, and the split-tail swallows swooped above us in a swarm.
The people of the village ran to fasten down their tepees, while the black horse riders sang to the drums that rolled like thunder, and this is what they sang:
I myself made them fear.
Myself, I wore an eagle relic.
I myself made them fear.
Myself, a lightning power I wore.
I myself made them fear,
Made them fear.
The power of the hail I wore,
I myself made them fear,
Made them fear!
And as they sang, the hail and rain were falling yonder just a little way from us, and we could see it, but the cloud stood there and flashed and thundered, and only a little sprinkle fell on us. The thunder beings were glad and had come in a great crowd to see the dance.
Now the four virgins held high the sacred relics that they carried, the herb and the white wing, the sacred pipe, the flowering stick, the nation's hoop, offering these to the spirits of the west. Then people who were sick or sad came to the virgins, making scarlet offerings to them, and after they had done this, they all felt better and some were cured of sickness and began to dance for joy.
Now the Grandfathers beat their drums again and the dance began. The four black horsemen, who had stood behind the Grandfathers, went ahead of the virgins, riding toward the west side of the circled village, and all the others followed in their order while the horses pranced and reared.
When the black horse troop had reached the western side, it wheeled around and fell to the rear behind the buckskins, and the white horse band came up and led until it reached the north side of the village. Then these fell back and took the rear behind the blacks, and the sorrels led until they reached the east. Then these fell back behind the whites, and the buckskins led until they reached the south. Then they fell back and took the rear, so that the blacks were leading as before toward the western quarter that was theirs. Each time the leading horse troop reached its quarter, the Six Grandfathers sang of the powers of that quarter, and there my bay faced, pricking up his ears and neighing loud, till all the other horses raised their voices neighing. When I thus faced the north, I sent a voice again and said: "Grandfather, behold me! What you gave me I have given to the people--the power of the healing herb and the cleansing wind. Thus my nation is made over. Hear and help me!"
And when we reached the east, and after the Grandfathers had sung, I sent a voice: "Grandfather, behold me! My people, with difficulty they walk. Give them wisdom and guide them. Hear and help me!"
Between each quarter, as we marched and danced, we all sang together:
A horse nation all over the universe,
Neighing, they come!
Prancing, they come!
May you behold them.
When we had reached the south and the Grandfathers had sung of the power of growing, my horse faced yonder and neighed again, and all the horses raised their voices as before. And then I prayed with hand upraised: "Grandfather, the flowering stick you gave me and the nation's sacred hoop I have given to the people. Hear me, you who have the power to make grow! Guide the people that they may be as blossoms on your holy tree, and make it flourish deep in Mother Earth and make it full of leaves and singing birds."
Then once more the blacks were leading, and as we marched and sang and danced toward the quarter of the west, the black hail cloud, still standing yonder watching, filled with voices crying: "Hey-hey! hey-hey!" They were cheering and rejoicing that my work was being done. And all the people now were happy and rejoicing, sending voices back, "hey-hey, hey-hey"; and all the horses neighed, rejoicing with the spirits and the people. Four times we marched and danced around the circle of the village, singing as we went, the leaders changing at the quarters, the Six Grandfathers singing to the power of each quarter, and to each I sent a voice. And at each quarter, as we stood, somebody who was sick or sad would come with offerings to the virgins--little scarlet bags of the chacun sha sha, the red willow bark. And when the offering was made, the giver would feel better and begin to dance with joy.
And on the second time around, many of the people who had horses joined the dance with them, milling round and round the Six Grandfathers and the virgins as we danced ahead. And more and more got on their horses, milling round us as we went, until there was a whirl of prancing horses all about us at the end, and all the others danced afoot behind us, and everybody sang what we were singing.
When we reached the quarter of the west the fourth time, we stopped in new formation, facing inward toward the sacred tepee in the center of the village. First stood the virgins, next I stood upon the bay; then came the Six Grandfathers with eight riders on either side of them--the sorrels and the buckskins on their right hand; the blacks and whites upon their left. And when we stood so, the oldest of the Grandfathers, he who was the Spirit of the Sky, cried out: "Let all the people be ready. He shall send a voice four times, and at the last voice you shall go forth and coup [hit] the sacred tepee, and who shall coup it first shall have new power!"
All the riders were eager for the charge, and even the horses seemed to understand and were rearing and trying to get away. Then I raised my hand and cried hey-hey four times, and at the fourth the riders all yelled "hoka hey," and charged upon the tepee. My horse plunged inward along with all the others, but many were ahead of me and many couped the tepee before I did.
Then the horses were all rubbed down with sacred sage and led away, and we began going into the tepee to see what might have happened there while we were dancing. The Grandfathers had sprinkled fresh soil on the nation's hoop that they had made in there with the red and black roads across it, and all around this little circle of the nation's hoop we saw the prints of tiny pony hoofs as though the spirit horses had been dancing while we danced.
Now Black Road, who had helped me to perform the dance, took the sacred pipe from the virgin of the east. After filling it with chacun sha sha, the bark of the red willow, he lit and offered it to the Powers of the World, sending a voice thus:
"Grandfathers, you where the sun goes down, you of the sacred wind where the white giant lives, you where the day comes forth and the morning star, you where lives the power to grow, you of the sky and you of the earth, wings of the air and four-leggeds of the world, behold! I, myself, with my horse nation have done what I was to do on earth. To all of you I offer this pipe that my people may live!"
Then he smoked and passed the pipe. It went all over the village until every one had smoked at least a puff.
After the horse dance was over, it seemed that I was above the ground and did not touch it when I walked. I felt very happy, for I could see that my people were all happier. Many crowded around me and said that they or their relatives who had been feeling sick were well again, and these gave me many gifts. Even the horses seemed to be healthier and happier after the dance.
The fear that was on me so long was gone, and when thunder clouds appeared I was always glad to see them, for they came as relatives now to visit me. Everything seemed good and beautiful now, and kind.
Before this, the medicine men would not talk to me, but now they would come to me to talk about my vision.
From that time on, I always got up very early to see the rising of the daybreak star. People knew that I did this, and many would get up to see it with me, and when it came we said: "Behold the star of understanding!"
From Chapter 18: The Powers of the Bison and the Elk
I think I have told you, but if I have not, you must have understood, that a man who has a vision is not able to use the power of it until after he has performed the vision on earth for the people to see. You remember that my great vision came to me when I was only nine years old, and you have seen that I was not much good for anything until after I had performed the horse dance near the mouth of the Tongue River during my eighteenth summer. And if the great fear had not come upon me, as it did, and forced me to do my duty, I might have been less good to the people than some man who had never dreamed at all, even with the memory of so great a vision in me. But the fear came and if I had not obeyed it, I am sure it would have killed me in a little while.
It was even then only after the heyoka ceremony in which I performed my dog vision, that I had the power to practice as a medicine man, curing sick people; and many I cured with the power that came through me. Of course it was not I who cured. It was the power from the outer world, and the visions and ceremonies had only made me like a hole through which the power could come to the two-leggeds. If I thought that I was doing it myself, the hole would close up and no power could come through. Then everything I could do would be foolish. There were other parts of my great vision that I still had to perform before I could use the power that was in those parts. If you think about my great vision again, you will remember how the red man turned into a bison and rolled, and that the people found the good red road after that. If you will read again what is written, you will see how it was.
To use the power of the bison, I had to perform that part of my vision for the people to see. It was during the summer of my first cure that this was done. I carried the pipe to Fox Belly, a wise and good old medicine man, and asked him to help me do this duty. He was glad to help me, but first I had to tell him how it was in that part of my vision. I did not tell him all my vision, only that part. I had never told any one all of it, and even until now nobody ever heard it all. Even my old friend, Standing Bear, and my son here have heard it now for the first time when I have told it to you. Of course there was very much in the vision that even I cannot tell when I try hard, because very much of it was not for words. But I have told what can be told.
It has made me very sad to do this at last, and I have lain awake at night worrying and wondering if I was doing right; for I know I have given away my power when I have given away my vision, and maybe I cannot live very long now. But I think I have done right to save the vision in this way, even though I may die sooner because I did it; for I know the meaning of the vision is wise and beautiful and good; and you can see that I am only a pitiful old man after all.
The Great Spirit
Black Elk's near-death experience
The near-death experiences of the Native American medicine man, Black Elk, of the Lakota Sioux nation, echo with the enchanting poetic language of an ancient society. His story reveals a traditional natural world culture, yet also many of the familiar phenomena of near-death experiences that leap across eras. Living between 1863 and 1950, Black Elk survived the collision of two eras, when the ancient primal world of his people was shattered by the violent invasion of the new industrial culture. This remarkable medicine man did not even speak English when he told his visionary experience to the author, John Neihardt, who told it in his book, Black Elk Speaks, in 1932. In this classic of Native American literature, Black Elk's near-death experience glows through his perceptions of a sacred natural world.
The world of the Lakota Sioux is filled not with soulless material objects out there but with the manifestations of the presence of being that lies behind all creation: Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery. This spiritual power is not personified as a remote God, but is both transcendent and present in all the world: in thunder, water, blood, birds, buffalo. Since the worldview of industrial society demands the expulsion of these perceptions, they seem like dim archaic memories. But Black Elk's near-death experience was a living, vital way of seeing in a sacred manner.
When Black Elk was a boy of nine, he collapsed with a severe, painful swelling of his legs, arms and face.
He lost consciousness and lay in his tipi dying. He was called by two men coming from the clouds, saying, "Hurry up, your grandfather is calling you."
He was raised up out of his tipi into the clouds, feeling sorry to leave his parents. He was shown an elaborate vision oriented around a classic Native American mandala:
the circular hoop, the four directions, and the center of the world on an axis stretching from sky to Earth, numerous neighing, dancing horses, surrounded by lightning and thunder, filled the sky at each direction.
He was told to behold this, then to follow a bay horse, which led him to a rainbow door. Inside, sitting on clouds, were six grandfathers, "older than men can ever be - old like hills, old like stars."
The oldest grandfather welcomed the boy and said: "Your Grandfathers all over the world are having a council, and they have called you here to teach you."
His voice was very kind, but the boy shook all over with fear now, for he knew that these were not old men, but the Powers of the World.
Each Grandfather gave Black Elk a power.
The first Grandfather gave him the power to heal.
The second Grandfather then gave the boy the power of cleansing.
The third Grandfather gave the boy the power of awakening and its peace.
From the fourth Grandfather the boy was given the power of growth.
The fifth Grandfather, the Spirit of the Sky, gave the power of transcendent vision.
The sixth Grandfather, a very old man, incredibly grew backwards into youth until he became the boy, Black Elk.
Growing older again he said, "My boy, have courage, for my power shall be yours, and you shall need it, for your nation on the Earth will have great troubles."
Then the boy hears a great Voice say: "Behold the circle of the nation's hoop, for it is holy, being endless, and thus all powers shall be one power in the people without end."
Then Black Elk, standing on the highest mountain, surveying the grand vista of the hoop of the world, said: "I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being."
After returning to the six Grandfathers once again to receive his powers, the boy was sent back to his dying body. When he awoke, his overjoyed parents told him that he had been sick twelve days, lying as if dead the whole time.
Black Elk was afraid to tell his experience, and moped around as a shy, withdrawn boy for eight years. Finally he told a medicine man who helped him reenact the vision as a ritual. At that moment he became a powerful medicine man or shaman, healing, he said, many people of illnesses from tuberculosis to despair.
He kept his vision alive with daily practices, such as meditation on the daybreak star. But the great sadness of his life was his inability to stop the destructive onslaught of industrial culture, in search of gold and land that almost destroyed his people.
"You live on Earth only for a few short years which you call an incarnation, and then you leave your body as an outworn dress and go for refreshment to your true home in the spirit." - White Eagle
The Sioux regard the universe as ultimately incomprehensible; life, growth, and death are mysterious and suggestive of powers difficult to understand. Since time itself is regarded as non-causal, and does not embody notions of change and progress, nothing in the universe can be considered to be inevitable. This incomprehensibility and unpredictability of the universe, anything difficult to understand, is called 'wakan', which also connotes the animating force of the universe, the totality of which is 'Wakan Tanka'. Wakan Tanka is the sum total of the personified powers that brought all things into being; sometimes it is embodied as the Six Grandfathers.
Humankind itself formed in and emerged from the womb of Mother Earth, as did the buffalo. Everything has its own spirit but all share the same spiritual essence that is Wakan Tanka; so it is that the most important aspects of personality are shared by everything in the universe. Other beings often shared their knowledge with humans or provided aid in time of crisis (See Mary Crow Dog:1991 pp.178-180), and so came to be thought of as 'people'. The observance of the human-like characteristics of these peoples led to the development of kinship with them. At birth one receives from Takuskanskan a guardian spirit and the life-breath or ghost which comes from the stars; at death these return to the spirit world.
Ritual seeks to placate the wakan beings or powers - which may be predisposed to good or evil - but also involves a process of continuing revelation. On returning from his vision quest, the vision seeker commonly integrates his vision into the life of the community by performing it ritually in public. In this way he adds to the fund of collective knowledge necessary to sustain a balanced relationship between the human community and other forms of life, both animate and inanimate. This sense of unity and of the cohesive force of ritual, is conveyed by the recurring song text: "I do this ( take part in the ritual, songs and prayers) so that I may live with my relations" (Powers:1982 p.154).
Finally, a few words on the Black Hills, why they are sacred to the Sioux. According to Charlotte Black Elk, Sioux legend says that with the creation of the universe a song was given to it, each part of the universe being imbued with a part of the song; but only in the Black Hills was the song found in its entirety, here at the "heart of everything that is" (Timewatch "Savagery and the American Indian" Part 2, BBC2 30th January 1991). Legend also says that the hills are "...a reclining female figure from whose breasts flowed life-giving forces, and to them the Lakota [Sioux] went as a child to its mother's arms" (Luther Standing Bear quoted in Matthiessen :1992 p.4). It was in the Black Hills that the Sioux people originated, and at Bear Butte on the eastern edge of the Hills, that the Creator first imparted his sacred instructions to them; thus it is that Bear Butte is the most sacred of all places, and both Sioux and Cheyenne come here each year for vision quests. Although explanations of what happens to one at death vary, it has been said that the spirits of the Sioux dead rest in the Black Hills.
The word 'Sioux' is a collective term for seven tribal groups which are organized into three main political units, the Teton, Yankton, and Santee. This conventional model of Sioux social organization seems not, however, to be applicable prior to about 1700. The people that came to be known as 'Sioux', had, by the sixteenth century settled on the headwaters of the Mississippi, Minnesota; at this time this people called themselves the 'Seven Fire Places'.
The Sioux were first positively identified by Jean Nicolet who recorded the term 'Sioux' in the Jesuit Relation in 1640. In 1660 two French explorers, Pierre Esprit Radisson, and Medard Chouart, encountered the Sioux in what is now eastern Minnesota at an annual feast of the Dead. Wars with the Chippewas and the Crees contributed to the dispersion of the eastern Sioux - collectively called the Santee - from their homes around Mille Lacs, the Chippewas being armed by French Traders. Missionaries, however, considered that the presence of traders at the junction of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, had also attracted the Santee from their original homeland. Of the seven sub-divisions of the Teton Sioux, the Oglala and Sicangu (Brule) were the first to arrive on the Plains, whilst horses, which transformed Plains life, were obtained by the Oglala about 1750, possibly from the Arikara people (Powers:1982 pp.5, 16-17, 26, 28).
In the history of the Sioux peoples the Buffalo holds a crucial place. From it the Sioux derived most of life's necessities; for example, from its hide they made clothing and tepees, ropes and snowshoes; the horns provided spoons, weapons, and ceremonial articles, whilst the sinew was used for bow strings, arrow points, and sewing materials (Salomon:1928 p.31). The Buffalo was also the comrade of the Sun, and even controlled all affairs of love; its spirit cares for the family, for the young of all beings, and for growing things or vegetation. This centrality of the Buffalo in the life and thought of the Sioux, suggests how devastating was the Buffalo's extermination for the latter's traditional culture.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century there were possibly sixty million buffalo on the Plains (Matthiessen:1992 p16); by 1884 the slaughter by hide hunters, encouraged in Government and by the army for the purpose of breaking tribal power and autonomy, was virtually complete, and, according to one contemporary estimate only eighty-five Buffalo were left in 1889 (W.T.Hornaday quoted in Dippie:1982 p.225). The Sioux, along with other Plains tribes, were now consigned to a state of dependence on Government handouts on various reservations - the Government's strategy had been a success.
Even more devastating for tribal culture and religion than the extermination of the Buffalo, was the Government's determination to forcibly civilize and assimilate Indian peoples. In view of rapid Euro-American expansion, the Federal Indian Bureau had opted for assimilation partly as the most effective means of neutralizing Indian-White conflicts. Nevertheless, Hiram Price, Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1881), stated in his annual report of October 24th, that the Indian could not be allowed to remain in his "old superstitions, laziness, and filth, when we have the power to elevate them in the scale of humanity"; the choice was clear: Indian 'civilization', or Indian 'extermination'.
When Price stated that history proves "Savage and civilized life cannot prosper on the same ground", he was echoing a long held conviction among Euro-Americans, and one, which, by the mid-nineteenth century was allied to a theory of social development that had become central to Federal Indian policy. This theory of social development both defined what the Indian was and what he ought to become, namely, a Euro-American imitation. Since it was obvious that in evolutionary terms the Euro-American was immeasurably the Indians' superior, it followed that the former knew what was best for the Indian whose humanity was yet barely developed1; in determining the Indians' future, it was therefore considered, by the Government and other interested groups, unnecessary to consult native peoples themselves, to ask them what they wanted. In practice this meant the elimination of native culture, language, and religion.
In schools Indian children were prohibited from speaking their own language and from expressing themselves through their own cultural forms - punishment followed if this rule was broken. Children were also separated from their families whose influence was viewed as deleterious to their children's 'progress'; one of the main jobs of the Indian police was to return truants to school. In his annual report for october 1st, 1889, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, T.J.Morgan, outlined his vision for Indian education. The Indian school was to be the "means of awakening loyalty to the Government, gratitude to the nation, and hopefulness for themselves [the Indian]". Reference to the Indians' own "unhappy history" should be kept to a minimum, and made only to contrast it with the "better future that is within their grasp". Furthermore, they "should hear little or nothing of the 'wrongs of the Indians', and of the injustice of the white race". As for removing children from their parents - the earlier the better - Morgan went so far as to prescribe the witholding of rations from the latter if they resisted the removal of their children to school. Mary Crow Dog (Sicangu Sioux), formerly a pupil at St.Francis Boarding school (est.1886), Rosebud Reservation, S.Dakota, gives a moving account of the prevalence of the aforementioned attitudes to Indian education as recently as the 1960's! (Mary Crow Dog:1991 Ch.3).
Indian schools nurtured in many students a sense of shame and contempt for their own people and culture2, and further eroded their tribal identity by throwing together into one class Indians of different tribes. In his Commissioner's report for 1934, John Collier expresses his desire to end this denigration of native culture in the classroom. Quoting his Commissioner's circular, issued in the January of the same year, he states: "There are Government schools into which no trace of Indian symbolism or craft expression has been permitted to enter...No interference with Indian religious life or expression will hereafter be tolerated. The cultural history of Indians is in all respects to be considered equal to that of any non-Indian group...The Indian arts are to be prized, nourished, and honoured".
In the Congressional debates over the Wheeler-Howard Act3 in June, 1934, Collier's radical support of native culture attracted severe opposition from Churches and from Indians who had enthusiastically adopted the White man's culture. In 1948 Representative Wesley D'Ewart asserted the need to "break the ties" of Indian children with their roots in order to "get them assimilated with the White race" (Dippie:1985 p.341). Despite this enduring opposition to native culture, the passing of the Wheeler-Howard Act in 1934 promoted the official reinstatement of the Sun Dance prohibited in 1881, although it appears that the Dance was operative, covertly, in the 1920's and may never have ceased. Also prohibited in the 1880's and revived in 1973 by Leonard Crow Dog, was the Ghost Dance.
The 1890 Ghost Dance was inspired by the vision of the Paiute prophet, Wovoka (Jack Wilson), the 'Messiah'. Wovoka's vision reached the Sioux late in 1889 bringing, for many, a ray of hope into a sad and desperate existence. This vision, as told by the sioux, spoke of the resurrection of the Indian dead, the restoration of one's youth, the return of the Buffalo, Elk, and other game, and the removal of the White Man from Indian country forever4. Black Elk, a well known Holy Man who attended Ghost Dances in 1890, later recalled that "The people were crying for the old ways of living and that their religion would be with them again" (DeMallie:1985 p.260). Notably, by this time all the traditional public rituals of Sioux religion including the Sun Dance, Soul-keeping, and Giveaways, had been prohibited by the Government (Ibid.)5.
Following reports from Indian Agents that the Sioux were arming themselves and showing a defiant stance toward the Government and its representatives, troops arrived at Pine Ridge on November 20th, whilst others were deployed to Rosebud and other Sioux agencies. Sitting Bull, viewed by one Agent as "...the high priest and leading apostle..." of the Ghost Dance, was arrested on December 15th and killed in the process. Followers of Sitting Bull fled to the Cheyenne River agency; alarmed at Sitting Bull's death and uneasy at the troops' presence on their Reservation, the Big Foot band, numbering about 350, headed for Pine Ridge under a flag of truce on December 23rd. Intercepted by troops they surrendered unconditionally and stayed at Wounded Knee overnight. On the following day (Dec.29th) as troops sought to confiscate the Indians' weapons, a shot went off and "carnage ensued".
Morgan records in his Commissioner's Report for October 1st, 1891, that of the troops' casualties 25 were killed [though mostly by their own fire] and 35 wounded; for the Indians those killed included 84 men and boys, 44 women, and 18 children, whilst at least 33 were wounded, many fatally6. It has been said that besides these Indian deaths "A people's dream died there..for the nation's hoop is broken and scattered" (Black Elk Speaks:1971 p.276); the ghost shirts worn by the Big Foot band had failed to protect them as it was believed they would... the dream was discredited. The Messiah's vision had promised a return to the old ways, that the White Man would be gone from the Indian's land forever...the massacre of the Big Foot band promised and affirmed the contrary; by the end of January the Indians were back at the Indian agencies.
Thus,when Leonard Crow Dog revived the Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee in 1973, he revived more than just a dance. At Wounded Knee at this time traditional Indians and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) protested to the Government at the appalling living conditions on Pine Ridge Reservation. Wounded Knee was chosen for the protest because it symbolized a continuity with the suffering and injustice experienced by those who were massacred there in 1890, and where a 'dream' also died.
The Ghost Dancers had restored and affirmed the Sacred Hoop, the life-way and the solidarity of the Sioux people, whilst also denying the alleged superiority and sovereignty of Euro-American culture. The Sacred Hoop had, however, now taken on an international character, for at Wounded Knee in 1973 Indians of different nations stood side by side against a common foe, namely, Euro-American culture and the U.S. Government itself; the attendance at the Sun Dance also illustrated this international character, whilst the Dance itself, like the Ghost Dance here, became for many Indians a focus for rediscovering and reaffirming their Indianness'. It should, however, be noted that for some Sioux the participation of other tribes in the Sun Dance is a cause for concern (see Beatrice Medicine in DeMallie;Parks:1987 pp.163-164).
The Sun Dance, Yuwipi, Purification ritual (Sweat lodge ), and Vision Quest are still regularly held. In all of these rituals one's kinship with the Earth, with Wakan Tanka, continues to be affirmed. In the modern Yuwipi prayer is still offered to the spirit of the stones, and a spirit stone is still offered to patients or clientele for protection against danger or illness, thus signifying the continued belief in a spiritual force in all forms of Creation. The Sacred Pipe, given by the White Buffalo Woman and handed down through the generations is still a symbol of unity for the Sioux people. The present Pipe Keeper, Arval Looking Horse, says of it, "The Sacred Pipe is the center, all the other pipes are the roots. When people pray with the Pipe, then the spirits come. Sometimes it takes time, but they do come. It is our way. The Sioux people believe in the Sacred Pipe" (DeMallie;Parks:1987 p.73) The Sacred Pipe thus remains the mediator between Wakan Tanka and humankind reinforcing the kinship ties of the Sioux people with all aspects of Creation. This sense of unity and kinship is further reinforced in the Sun Dance as Arthur Amiotte (Oglala Sioux) explains: "... for the one who understands it, there is a profound realization in the dance, a sacred ecstacy, a transformation whereby he realizes the wholeness and unity of all things... Through this the individual transcends all that we know of this life and finally arrives at the real world, the real place" (DeMallie;Parks:1987 p.89).
Ritual teaches the people how to live; it defines one's responsibilities to both the human and non-human communities, and affims one's kinship with the land itself. These relationships have, however, been seriously damaged by assimilation, Government educational policies, relocation, high unemployment (up to 90% on reservations), the indignity of poverty, domestic violence on reservations, and alcohol and drug abuse; children who were separated from their families often never returned. The re-establishment, then, of the traditional life-way requires no less than the rebuilding of the community from the family upwards, and there is much being done toward this end7.
Symbols DeMallie has referred to the concept of 'wakan' as the dominant "intangible symbol" of Sioux religion, the core of its belief, and the reader should turn to the section on Belief for a discussion of this important concept. The present section dicusses the circle symbolism, the Sacred Calf Pipe, and sacred numbers, so important for understanding the structure of Sioux belief.
The circle was indicative of life itself and was thus held to be sacred (wakan). "Everything", said Black Elk, "tries to be round - the world is round" (DeMallie:1985 p.291). The human body, the tree-trunk, the seasons. time (day, night, moon), a bird's nest - all of these were circles. The Sioux imitated this natural order by configuring the camp in circles, by sitting in circles for ceremonial occasions, and also by constructing circular tepees. Metaphorically, the camp circle was the 'sacred hoop', within which all was "safe, knowable, auspicious" (Powers:1982 p.41). So, the circle symbolizes wholeness and "helps us to remember Wakan Tanka, who, like the circle, has no end" (Black Elk quoted in Brown:1953 p.92).
The Sacred Calf Pipe, brought to the people by the White Buffalo Calf Woman, one of the Wakan Tanka, is the embodiment of all creation, all forms of which are understood to be one's relatives and to which one is bound by smoking the Sacred Pipe; by this act one accepts one's responsibility toward all one's relatives.
Black Elk tells us that the pipe-bowl is made of red stone and symbolizes the Earth, whilst a buffalo carved in the stone represents all the four-leggeds. The pipe stem, made of wood, symbolizes all growing things, whilst twelve feathers attached to it represents the eagle and all winged creatures. All of these "peoples" "send their voices to Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. When you pray with this Pipe, you pray for and with everything" (Black Elk quoted in Brown:1953 pp.6-7). Thus, the Sacred Pipe symbolizes the identity of the Sioux peoples - "this is the Sioux religion" (Arval Looking Horse 'The Sacred Pipe' in DeMallie:1988 p.69). (See also the end of the History section).
Sacred numbers, four and seven. The structure of the Universe and of all those things within it reflect a four-fold division. There are, for example, four divisions of time: day, night, the moon, and the year; four parts to all growing things: the roots, stem, leaves, and fruit; and four stages of human life: babyhood, childhood, adulthood, and old age. "Since the Great Spirit caused everything to be in fours, mankind should do everything possible in fours" (George Sword quoted in Powers:1982 p.48). Hence, ceremonies preferably spanned four days or a period divided into four day sections. Also, the Purification Lodge was constructed, ideally, from sixteen willow branches so arranged as to mark out the four directions. The Sun Dance Lodge was built from twenty-eight poles (4x7) with a central pole symbolizing Wakan Tanka; both of the said structures represented the Universe. The White Buffalo Woman brought to the people seven sacred rites and she stayed with them for four days. The Sioux were also formerly known as the 'Seven Fire Places' (See History section). The numbers four and seven are viewed as sacred by most North American Indians.
Tribal population estimates from the 1990 Census for American Indian Tribes and Alaska Native villages, gives the total Sioux population at 103,255. This figure, however, gives no indication of the number of Sioux who adhere to what may be understood as traditional culture. It has been noted that for native Americans generally, following much assimilation, "...large numbers of persons do not strongly identify with their American Indian heritage and do not resemble the socioeconomic profile of most American Indians... There are nearly 6 million such individuals, compared with the 1.4 million persons who better resemble conventional ideas about who is an American Indian", namely, a core group with strong ties to their tribal heritage, who are most likely to speak a native language, and probably live on a reservation (Snipp:1991 p.310). Nevertheless, it is much less clear to what extent this relationship applies to the population of any given tribe, or for our present purposes, the Sioux. This problem is complicated by the question of to what extent can Indian participation in Euro-American society be considered as acculturation. Powers suggests that acculturation studies have, by definition, been biased in favour of showing change and adaptation but not contEskimo-Aleuty (Powers:1982 p.xii).
Speaking of the Oglala Sioux, Powers makes the important observation that using the White man's technology, wearing White man's clothes etc., is no indication of the acceptance of the White man's values. Use of the White man's technology may be necessary for survival, but when the Oglala seeks his identity he does so in a "...religious system whose structure has remained in many respects constant since European contact" (Ibid. p.204). Whilst it is difficult to give a figure for the number adherents of traditional culture, there are certainly many Sioux organizations dedicated to its continuing survival. Many Sioux continue the struggle to hold on to the Black Hills, refusing a $100 million award for the Hills from the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) in 1980. The refusal of this award is a measure of the continuing vitality of and committment to traditional culture (See Beliefs section for a discussion on the sacredness of the Black Hills).
Nicholas Black Elk (1863-1950) was an Oglala Sioux medicine man in the transition period from nomadic to reservation life for his people and then, as an interviewee, a source for Native American tribal traditions and Plains Indian spirituality.
Born in December 1863 within a paternal lineage of shamans, or medicine men, Black Elk was nearly 70 years old when John Neihardt, Nebraska's poet laureate, interviewed him and several other Sioux elders in May 1931. This contact, the result of Neihardt's search to find survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 1890, produced the literary classic in American western and Native American writing, Black Elk Speaks, published in 1932. Black Elk became known to the world beyond Pine Ridge Reservation through Neihardt's literary interpretation, which covered the first 27 years of his life.
The actual interviews highlighted prominent features of Plains Indian nomadic life, including accounts of military conflict with the United States government, concluding with the 1890 tragic encounter at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. As a teenager, Black Elk had also been at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Montana, the last stand of General George Custer in 1876. Ten years later he joined William (Buffalo Bill) Cody's Wild West Show on tour in the United States, Great Britain, and the European continent between 1886 and 1889.
The central event in Black Elk's life, however, occurred when he was nine years old while suffering from a lifethreatening illness. He had then "the great vision" that took him to the spiritual center of the Lakota world where he was presented to the Six Grandfathers that symbolized Wakan Tanka or The Great Mysteriousness expressed in the powers of the four directions and of the earth and sky. In this transforming experience, Black Elk received instructions typical of shamanic initiation. For the rest of his life, the vision possessed determinative power. Especially in his young adult years, he sought to act out parts of it for the sake of preserving the unity and survival of his people. Aided by a wise elder and medicine man named Black Road, Black Elk launched his career as a shamanic healer at Fort Keogh, Montana, in the spring of 1881. Present as witnesses were his relatives, who had returned from Canada where they had been since 1877 following the death of the warrior Crazy Horse, a cousin of Black Elk's father.
The great vision, as told to Neihardt in 1931, became the center of the text of Black Elk Speaks. In remembering it so vividly, Black Elk resurrected its spiritual power, which had not waned despite his sincere conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1904. His depiction stands as a major source in visionary religious literature, attracting the interest in the last half century of symbologists, depth psychologists, and scholars in comparative mythology and prompting pan-Indian revitalization movements of traditional rituals.
Twice married, Black Elk's wife of 1892, Katie War Bonnett, died in 1903. Nicholas, added as a Christian name, lived with his second wife, Anna Brings White, from 1905 until her death in 1941. The father of four sons and a daughter, Black Elk was particularly dependent upon the third and last child by Katie, Benjamin, who provided him a home in his failing years and who also proved enormously helpful to Neihardt's projects. A victim of tuberculosis, Black Elk was treated first in 1912 and as late as the last years of his life. From the fifth decade of his life, he suffered from poor eyesight.
Traveling as a catechist for Roman Catholicism, Black Elk visited the Wind River, Winnebago, and Sisseton reservations between 1908 and 1910. But he kept some traditional practices alive in performing dances for pageants for summer tourists to the Black Hills, first probably in the late 1920s and certainly after 1935. When first hosting Neihardt, he ritualized the occasion of the telling of the great vision and of his deep involvement in the corporate life of his people. The event was so potent that Christian missionaries required Black Elk to disavow any intent to renew the traditional practices of the Sioux. Thirteen years later, he gave Neihardt another interview which became a novel entitled When the Tree Flowered when it was published the year after Black Elk died. After the interview of 1944, no disavowal was required of the octogenarian.
In 1947 Joseph Epes Brown, later a scholar of Native American religion and culture, met Black Elk in Nebraska. Brown spent the next winter with the elderly spiritual teacher in Manderson, South Dakota. Through that contact and their conversations Black Elk provided the details of seven traditional rituals of the Oglala people which Brown published as The Sacred Pipe. They included a purification ceremony (the sweat lodge), crying for a vision, female puberty, marriage, soul-keeping, throwing the ball, and the great medicine of all traditional Plains people, the Sun Dance.
Even though there is no public evidence that Black Elk practiced the healing rituals of a shaman after he converted to Catholicism, all of his adult life, beginning with his first major exposure to the world of "white" America and Europe, was spent creatively blending native and Christian perspectives. As catechist, he retained the role of spiritual leader, focused as always on the welfare and future of his people. Black Elk's bicultural religious orientation went far beyond the impression mediated by Neihardt's first book, which has no mention of his later Catholic roles and which presents an elegy to the last generation of Plains Indian survivors before the dominance of the reservation. With a spirituality infused by hopefulness and imaged as the sacred hoop and the flowering tree - symbols of the corporate reality of his people - Black Elk was continually devoted to trying to find a way for the tribe to live. His own long life, despite bad health and the economic difficulties of existence on the reservation, testified to a strong determination to endure while facing threatening cultural changes. Within a decade of his death the Sun Dance was renewed under his nephew, Frank Fools Crow. Such an action reflected the impact of Black Elk on the reservation where, coming full circle, what he described but no longer performed became a living practice again. Through the books with Neihardt and Brown, Black Elk made the world at large heirs of his spiritual wisdom, ensuring in them that the rituals of empowerment of the Sioux people would not depend on oral tradition. He died on August 19, 1950, at Manderson and was buried from St. Agnes Mission Chapel in a barren cemetery.
"The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes from within the souls of men when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Tanka, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us. This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this. The second peace is that which is made between two individuals, and the third is that which is made between two nations. But above all you should understand that there can never be peace between nations until there is first known that true peace which is within the souls of men."
"Grown men can learn from very little children for the hearts of little children are pure. Therefore, the Great Spirit may show to them many things which older people miss."
Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, 1863-1950
"Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking."
"I cured with the power that came through me. Of course, it was not I who cured, it was the power from the Outer World, the visions and the ceremonies had only made me like a hole through which the power could come to the two-leggeds."
"If I thought that I was doing it myself, the hole would close up and no power could come through. Then everything I could do would be foolish."
"Grandfather, Great Spirit, once more behold me on earth and lean to hear my feeble voice. You lived first, and you are older than all need, older than all prayer. All things belong to you -- the two-legged, the four-legged, the wings of the air,
and all green things that live.
"You have set the powers of the four quarters of the earth to cross each other. You have made me cross the good road and road of difficulties, and where they cross, the place is holy. Day in, day out, forevermore, you are the life of things."
Hey! Lean to hear my feeble voice.
At the center of the sacred hoop
You have said that I should make the tree to bloom.
With tears running, O Great Spirit, my Grandfather,
With running eyes I must say
The tree has never bloomed
Here I stand, and the tree is withered.
Again, I recall the great vision you gave me.
It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives.
Nourish it then
That it may leaf
And fill with singing birds!
Hear me, that the people may once again
Find the good road
And the shielding tree.
Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.
And I say the sacred hoop of my people was one of the many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy...
But anywhere is the center of the world.
A long time ago my father told me what his father had told him, that there was once a Lakota holy man, called "Drinks Water", who dreamed what was to be... He dreamed that the four-leggeds were going back to the Earth, and that a strange race would weave a web all around the Lakotas. He said, "You shall live in square gray houses, in a barren land..." Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking. (1932)
Quotes from Black Elk
A good nation I will make live.
After the horse dance was over, it seemed that I was above the ground and did not touch it when I walked.
Also, as I lay there thinking of my vision, I could see it all again and feel the meaning with a part of me like a strange power glowing in my body; but when the part of me that talks would try to make words for the meaning, it would be like fog and get away from me.
And as he spoke of understanding, I looked up and saw the rainbow leap with flames of many colors over me.
And I say the sacred hoop of my people was one of the many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.
And if the great fear had not come upon me, as it did, and forced me to do my duty, I might have been less good to the people than some man who had never dreamed at all, even with the memory of so great a vision in me.
And when I breathed, my breath was lightning.
And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.
But I think I have done right to save the vision in this way, even though I may die sooner because I did it; for I know the meaning of the vision is wise and beautiful and good; and you can see that I am only a pitiful old man after all.
Grandfather, Great Spirit, once more behold me on earth and lean to hear my feeble voice.
Grown men can learn from very little children for the hearts of little children are pure. Therefore, the Great Spirit may show to them many things which older people miss.
I cured with the power that came through me.
I had a vision with which I might have saved my people, but I had not the strength to do it.
I know now what this meant, that the bison were the gift of a good spirit and were our strength, but we should lose them, and from the same good spirit we must find another strength.
I looked about me once again, and suddenly the dancing horses without number changed into animals of every kind and into all the fowls that are, and these fled back to the four quarters of the world from whence the horses came, and vanished.
I looked below and saw my people there, and all were well and happy except one, and he was lying like the dead - and that one was myself.
I think I have told you, but if I have not, you must have understood, that a man who has a vision is not able to use the power of it until after he has performed the vision on earth for the people to see.
I was four years old then, and I think it must have been the next summer that I first heard the voices.
If you will read again what is written, you will see how it was.
My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it; for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like a heavy snow?
Now suddenly there was nothing but a world of cloud, and we three were there alone in the middle of a great white plain with snowy hills and mountains staring at us; and it was very still; but there were whispers.
So I took the bright red stick and at the center of the nation's hoop I thrust it in the earth.
Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking.
The boys of my people began very young to learn the ways of men, and no one taught us; we just learned by doing what we saw, and we were warriors at a time when boys now are like girls.
The soldiers did go away and their towns were torn down; and in the Moon of Falling Leaves (November), they made a treaty with Red Cloud that said our country would be ours as long as grass should grow and water flow.
There can never be peace between nations until there is first known that true peace which is within the souls of men.
They told me I had been sick twelve days, lying like dead all the while, and that Whirlwind Chaser, who was Standing Bear's uncle and a medicine man, had brought me back to life.
To use the power of the bison, I had to perform that part of my vision for the people to see.
When I got back to my father and mother and was sitting up there in our tepee, my face was still all puffed and my legs and arms were badly swollen; but I felt good all over and wanted to get right up and run around.
You remember that my great vision came to me when I was only nine years old, and you have seen that I was not much good for anything until after I had performed the horse dance near the mouth of the Tongue River during my eighteenth summer.
You see, I had been riding with the storm clouds, and had come to earth as rain, and it was drought that I had killed with the power that the Six Grandfathers gave me.
The Great Spirit is everywhere; he hears whatever is in our minds and our hearts, and it is not necessary to speak to Him in a loud voice.
"...all the wings of the air shall come to you, and they and the winds and the stars shall be like relatives.
There can never be peace between nations until there is first known that true peace which is within the souls of men.
And when I breathed, my breath was lightning.
(Black Elk speaks of the deceased Crazy Horse.) It does not matter where his body lies; there the grass is growing... but where his Spirit lies, that would be a good place to be.
It is good to have a reminder of death before us, for it helps us to understand the impermanence of life on this earth, and this understanding may aid us in preparing for our own death. He who is well prepared is he who knows that he is nothing compared with Wakan-Tanka who is everything; then he knows that world which is real.
I think I have told you, but if I have not, you must have understood, that a man who has a vision is not able to use the power of it until after he has performed the vision on earth for the people to see.
I was ten years old that winter, and that was the first time I ever saw a Wasichu (white man). At first I thought they all looked sick, and I was afraid they might just begin to fight us any time, but I got used to them.
The Sun, the Light of the world. I hear him coming. I see his face as he comes. He makes the beings on earth happy and they rejoice. O, Wakan Tanka, I offer to You this world of Light."
Wakan-Taka: The Great Spirit
Black Elk, Oglala Sioux and Spiritual Leader"The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Taka (the Great Spirit), and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us. This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this. The second peace is that which is made between two individuals, and the third is that which is made between two nations. But above all you should understand that there can never be peace between nations until there is known that true peace, which, as I have often said, is within the souls of men."
(1863 - 1950)
(1863 - 1950)