Black Elk was revered as a holy man and healer of the Oglala Lakota Sioux. Born in 1863 in Wyoming near the Powder River Basin, he grew up in the traditional Lakota ways and was a second cousin to Crazy Horse. The family of Black Elk followed Crazy Horse around the western plains, as the wars between the United States and the Sioux engulfed many tribes. Black Elk was witness to many historic battles throughout the West, such as the Fetterman Battle and the Battle of the Little Bighorn where Custer and his men were defeated.
Experiencing so much of the struggle and hardship among his people as the United States worked to annihilate the Native Americans from the West, Black Elk relied on his visionary nature and his ability to see what was true and right in order to help his people. Upon using his senses as a holy man to see where his people were headed when conditions became more and more hopeless. Black Elk stated, “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.”
Black Elk understood that all of us as humans must come to the understanding that we are the same, and there is no reason that we should not be at peace with one another in order to flourish – in order for all things on this earth to flourish.
After the Little Bighorn, Black Elk fled to Canada but then returned to Wounded Knee. He experienced much of the ugly realities of early reservation life, such as no food, inferior shelter, meager provisions and uncaring superintendents. This was how the reservations were before the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Black Elk was also dismayed at the disorder and lack of harmony that existed in the world during his lifetime. He experienced the atrocities that the U.S. committed against his people simply because they were Native American. Recalling with great distress his memory of the Wounded Knee Massacre, Black Elk said,
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heapen and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A peoples dream died there. It was a beautiful dream. . . .the nations hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
We are fortunate enough to know about many of the traditional Lakota ways through the book titled “Black Elk Speaks.” In this, Black Elk tells of his life and the vast sweep of life on the Plains for the Oglala Lakota in the latter part of the 1800s, when the Sioux Wars were ending and the U.S. was working in earnest to destroy the traditional ways of life for Native Americans.
In summary, Black Elk spoke to the extensive hope that an entire population had for the way of life they had known for centuries. Their way of life was vital to the way they approached the world, gave them balance and gave meaning to almost everything on the earth… the earth as a center, themselves as a center, that center that exists in all of us.
As a Native American myself, I feel that heartbeat when I hear the drums at powwow… that innate sense of my circle and who I am. And, I see who I am and who I was – that intangible connection to my ancestors through the tangible traditions that are alive today.
I think that is why Black Elk’s life and teachings through his words are so very important – because they give insight to the world around us, that center. This helps me to walk in two worlds, the world of my Native relatives and the world of my non-Native relatives. And really, Black Elk’s life speaks to Lakota values that we can all find relevant, essential actually: Generosity, Kinship, Fortitude and Wisdom. Each of these runs much deeper than their simple definition. Each is essential to finding that peace and balance and a life unlimited that Black Elk yearned for his people, and for all people.
*** Footnote to readers: I hope you’ve enjoyed all six of my topics on Native American Chiefs & Leaders. This is my last entry in the series. However, if there is a particular leader you would like me to write about, please post a comment to let me know.