With visible breath I am walking.
A voice I am sending as I walk.
In a sacred manner I am walking.
With visible tracks I am walking.
In a sacred manner I walk.
-Song of the White Bison Woman
When you hear the name Black Elk, you may know him as a medicine man and holy man of the Oglala Lakota and a cousin of Crazy Horse. Still, you may know that he witnessed the Battle of Little Big Horn, performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and traveled throughout Europe. You may also know that he took part in the revival of the Sun Dance and fought in the Battle of Wounded Knee.
In 1932, he sat down with John Neihardt and recorded the material for what was to become the book, Black Elk Speaks. Both Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung borrowed generously from this book in their study of myth, symbol, and ritual. So what is this book about and what else did Black Elk do to warrant such notoriety!
From the age of four, Black Elk remembers hearing voices. However, he is most revered for what happened in the summer of his ninth year. He became ill and unresponsive for several days and this is when he had a prophetic revelation; one that would be the foundation for all his other visions as well as his work as a healer and holy man for his people.
It wouldn’t be until he was the age of 17 that he would tell of his dream in detail. In addition, he knew that the only way to properly tell of his vision is to perform it as a ritual, to make it understood from within. He would ensure this throughout his long life.
In his vision, Thunder Beings take Black Elk to see the six Grandfathers who were representative of the six sacred directions; north, south, east, west, above and below. They stood at the center of the earth, the axis of the six sacred directions, at the central mountain of the world where stillness and movement embrace as one.
From on high he looked below and saw a circle surround his people, what he called the sacred hoop; as well as other sacred hopes of other nations all interconnected. There were many he recognized and even more that he didn’t know existed. And these sacred hoops comprised one large circle of which at the center was a tree to shelter everyone. He saw all of this from the central mountain, but then he wisely surmises, “But anywhere is the center of the world.”
“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 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. But anywhere is the center of the world.” -Black Elk*
And this was his great revelation; the interconnectedness of all people and nations as One! And with this knowledge one must ask, where is the central mountain? For Black Elk, it was Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota. For some, it is Israel, for others, Mecca or it could be right where you’re standing, for there isn’t a circumference only a center which is everywhere, spread out over the universe. In each of us, we are the center and within we find the same still point and movement as that of the universe
“As above, so below; As within, so without”
Black Elk also came to realize the end of his people and the way they lived as the wasichu (non-Indian) came encroaching in on Indian lands, breaking treaties and breaking people. To Black Elk, the sacred hoop of his people shatters as he had witnessed death and destruction at Wounded Knee. He felt the sacred tree had died and along with it a people’s dreams. He died regretting all he didn’t do to save his brethren. But he did not realize the ubiquity of his vision for it was also intended for the wasichu and all nations and people… for all things under the sun.
And Black Elk’s vision holds true today as it did then. We who hold influence over the Earth today must keep his vision alive so that his people did not die in vain. As we see our sacred hoops expand more and more we’re reminded to care for and cherish the Earth and each other.
*DeMallie, Raymond J (1984). The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's teachings given to John G. Neihardt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-1664-5.