In 1930, John Neihardt, the poet laureate of Nebraska, went to an Indian reservation in South Dakota to do research for a poem he was working on. Neihardt met Black Elk, second cousin to Crazy Horse, and told him he was writing epic poetry - roughly translate into Lakota as “vision telling.” Because he feared he would die soon, Black Elk wanted to tell Neihardt his vision so he could relate it to the world. “ What I know was given to me for men and it is true and it is beautiful. Soon I shall be under the grass and it will be lost. You were sent to save it, and you must come back so that I can teach you.” Background to Novel:
The novel covers Black Elk’s life from early childhood through the massacre at Wounded Knee. Not only does it tell of his life, it captures the history and culture of the Sioux people (the French name for the Lakota people). If you read the full novel, expect to learn about the customs and traditions from hunting to courting. The Norton Anthology reprinted only one chapter from this twenty-five chapter novel with chapter three being the vision itself. Neihardt returned with his daughters who acted as stenographers, while Black Elk’s son, Ben, roughly translated his father’s story into English. The resulting book Black Elk Speaks did not receive much attention when it was published in 1932. Only after its reissue in 1961 after Carl Jung referenced the book did it gain prominence. Because it captures so much of the religious culture of the Native Americas, it has been called a “North American bible of all tribes.” (DeLoria)
Native Americans If all you know about Native Americans came from your high school teacher, you need to do some research on your own. (Overall, I would contend that American History as taught in school is a one-sided, white-washed indoctrination. Lies My Teacher Told Me is a real eye-opener.) While most Americans may think of Thanksgiving, casinos or sports teams (Braves, Chiefs, Seminoles, etc.), they usually don’t think of Native Americans as a people. In a long, sad story dating back to Columbus, the indigenous people of this land were decimated by war and disease. If I had 20 minutes and a cup of coffee, I could make the argument that America is guilty of genocide. Since it’s beyond the scope of this presentation, I will recommend Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for those interested in hearing history from a different perspective. (easily the saddest book I’ve ever read.)
Chapter Three: The Great Vision At the age of nine, Black Elk becomes ill and has a vision: - Two men come out of the clouds and tell him, “Come! Your grandfathers are calling you!” - A cloud carries Black Elk into the sky. He is greeted by a horse that tells him he will learn. - Colored horses symbolizing different directions and powers all line up and fill the sky. - A cloud becomes a teepee with a rainbow entrance. - He enters the teepee and meets the six grandfathers who present him with different powers. - One grandfathers presents him with a cup of water (the power to create), another gives him a bow (the power to destroy), another gives him a magical herb (provides peace and understanding), another gives him a peace pipe (the power to heal), another gives him a stick (to guide/shepherd his people), and another gives him an eagle’s wing (the power to travel and spread the word). - He recognizes the sixth grandfather as himself - meaning he will be granted these powers on the earth. - After this meeting, he returns to earth to see a blue man who is described as the enemy. - An eagle kills the blue man. He knows this means he will have to kill his enemies. - He is taken to the center of the world. Here he sees the hoop or history of his people. - He has been charged Moses-esque to lead his people because difficult times are coming. - He returns to his body ending his vision and out of body experience.
What the hell does it mean? - Some background knowledge is necessary to understand the vision itself and its context. What should be apparent from the highly symbolic language is that this experience is considered sacred, and the translation of the experience into text makes it the equivalent of a Biblical passage. - The images, colors and numbers have significance to the Lakota, but their cosmology and orientation are completely different than Euro-American or Judeo-Christian ideas. - Native Americans are considered pagan in that their worship is earth based. [In any given culture, religion picks up where science leaves off. Science seeks to define, which removes the mystery and awe of a natural phenomenon. For example, it’s much more powerful to think of a rainbow as a sign from God instead of just rain drops catching the sunlight.] - These cultures, too quickly labeled “primitive,” tend to be superstitious, intuitive and have a cyclical instead of linear view of the world. Instead of a pantheon of gods, they have an animistic view of nature where everything has a spirit (essence). They would seek ways communicate with the spirit world (vision quests, sweat lodges, peyote, etc.) for guidance and guides. - They lived in balance with their environment. They couldn’t understand the concept of owning land or viewing the earth as a resource to be exploited.
Symbols Blue Man = Enemy. Someone living out of balance with nature or driven by greed and selfishness. Obviously, the white man. (“wasichu” is the Lakota name for the whites which translates as “fat eaters” or “those that take the best part.” After the Civil War, black soldiers were sent out West. Their strength and course hair reminded the Native Americans of the buffalo leading some to call them “Buffalo Soldiers.”) Grandfathers = Elders The elders represented wisdom. On earth, they led the tribe so it makes sense in the spirit world that they would be seen the same way. Thunder beings = Mystery If you lived a pagan, animistic life, you would worship the things around you that you couldn’t explain or that held a power. On the plains, thunder would be one of the most impressive, intimidating and worship-worthy things. Hoop = Circle / Balance Black Elk said that humans should look at a circle as sacred because it demonstrates the connectedness of all things. Not only are most things in nature is round (Earth, Sun, Moon, etc.), the circle can represent different aspects of the whole. See medicine wheel. Center of the World = Heaven An idyllic, Eden-like place where everything lives in harmony. While the cultures and places may change, there are many similarities. The work of Carl Jung addresses archetypes while Joseph Campbell’s work focuses specifically on mythology.
Medicine Wheel While not specifically mentioned in the excerpt, the medicine wheel serves as way to explain some of the symbolism in Black Elk’s vision. The circle represents their view of the world on many levels. It represents “Mother Earth” by representing the directions and elements. By showing aspects of the whole, it represents the interconnectedness of all things. [Western thinking tends to classify and separate] In fact, the reason this is called a medicine wheel is because illness is viewed as being out of balance. Shaman’s (witch doctors) try holistic approaches to restore balance and thus cure the individual. 4 basic directions: North, South, East, West. Up, down and within are the other 3 directions. East is yellow for the sunrise and represents the element of fire. North is white for the snows and represents the cold winds or the element of air. West is black for the sunset (night) and represents the element of earth (also physically in the form of the Rocky Mountains). South is red and represents the element of water.
Mandala is Sanskrit for circle. It is often illustrated as a palace with four gates, facing the four corners of the Earth. (notice the colors) The yin and yang is also a representation of conflict and balance. Connections Much time could be spent on the similarities that exist between cultures in terms of their understanding of the world. Briefly, here are two images you may recognize.
Later in the novel, Black Elk says that after the massacre at Wounded Knee, the circle was broken. The Native American people were out of balance. [In reality, they had long been out of balance. Guns, horses and whisky found many warriors leaving their traditional way of life.] Spirituality was forgotten or denied. No longer able to live their traditional ways, many turned to alcohol which continues to plague their communities. Today’s reservations have the highest unemployment, poverty and alcoholism rates in the US. Casinos do bring in money, but that money is not shared with other tribes. The casinos don’t always help the community with gambling addiction and alcoholism common.
Studying Native American culture and history will provide you with an alternative view of America. It will challenge the conventional versions of what you know. For the most part, Western expansion is glorified and justified by the idea of manifest destiny (the idea that God wanted Americans to control the land from sea to shining sea). The red man was portrayed as a savage and un-Christian and standing in the way of progress (and profit). Don’t just believe what I am telling you, do your own research. If nothing else, you should disabuse yourself of the mistruths that you’ve been told. This process begs the question: if they lied to me about this, what else have they lied about?