Black Elk Environment

Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.1

Black Elk was born in 1862 on the banks of the Little Powder River, a tributary of the Yellowstone River in what is now the state of Wyoming. Then it was in the westernmost territory of the Lakota. Black Elk belonged to the Oglala Band. His father and grandfather—both also named Black

Elk—were medicine men. He followed them in this calling. Black Elk was born into a world radically different from the one in which he would die. It was a sacred world in which 'the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds lived together like relatives, and there was plenty for them and plenty for us'.2 By the time of his death, at the age of 88, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the vast herds of game, especially bison, that his people hunted for their subsistence were a fading memory; the faces of four United States presidents had defaced Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills, which were sacred to the Lakotas; the Yellowstone Plateau was a National Park; and the prophecy of Drinks Water, a contemporary of Black Elk's grandfather, had been fulfilled: 'you shall live in square gray houses, in a barren land, and beside those square gray houses you shall starve'.3

Trouble began the year after Black Elk was born. As a young child, he never saw a 'Wasichuo' (the name means not 'white', but 'too-many-to-count'), but he grew up hearing of them. Black Elk's mother would invoke the name as a bugbear: 'If you are not good the Wasichus will get you'.4 His father was wounded fighting the Wasichus when Black Elk was only three. Black Elk later fought for his people and saw their defeat and dispossession. He was a cousin of the great Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse. He was an eye witness of Custer's Last Stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn: 'These Wasichus wanted it, they came to get it, and we gave it to them'.5 Black Elk participated in the Ghost Dance, a millenarian pan-Indian religious revival. Although at first sceptical, it was, indeed, he who dreamed of and reproduced the famous Ghost Shirt that was supposed to protect its wearer from bullets. Black Elk was present at the slaughter of more than 300 Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee Creek, the last 'battle' of the 'Indian wars' in the USA. He travelled to England and France as a dancer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. In short, Black Elk lived through the transformation of the central plains of North America from its aboriginal condition inhabited by indigenous peoples to a land of Wasichu farms, ranches, railroads, highways, power lines, towns, motels, monuments, parks, diners, movie theatres, and all the other trappings of modern American civilization. And he participated in some of the most legendary events in the history of the American West.

After the murder of Crazy Horse and the pacification and reservationization of the Plains Indians, Black Elk undertook a vision quest, and began his career as a Thunder-Being medicine man, age 17. As a condition of employment in Buffalo Bill's troupe, he converted to

Christianity in his mid-20s, and seems, during his three years abroad (1886-9), to have been a sincere and devout convert. Then, the fervour of the Ghost Dance, which swept the country in 1889 and 1990, encouraged him to return to his native religious beliefs. Wounded Knee ended the Ghost Dance episode in American history on 29 December 1990, and embittered and demoralized the Lakota, who were the sole victims of the massacre. Afterwards, Black Elk, like most of the Lakota, turned his back on European-American culture, and defiantly continued to practise traditional medicine, which put him in conflict with the missionaries on his reservation. As the psychic and spiritual wounds of the tragedy at Wounded Knee scarred over and the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, Black Elk slowly abandoned his traditional medical practice and the religious world-view in which it was embedded in favour of Catholicism and modernity. In this transformation, he may been encouraged by his first wife, Katie War Bonnet. He was baptized in 1904 and given the name Nicholas.

Above all else, Black Elk was a religious genius, and he turned this genius into a career as a catechist in the Catholic Church's St Joseph Society, spreading the gospel to other Lakotas in their own language. For the next ten years, he travelled the Great Plains as something of a Native evangelist. With fragile health (he suffered from tuberculosis) and failing eyesight, Black Elk quit travelling and settled on the Pine Ridge reservation, the head of a large family, a pillar of the Church. His humble home was a centre of Catholic social life, and he was a man to whom the missionaries pointed with pride as a model of their success in leading the Lakota from the darkness of heathenism into the light of Christianity and civilization.

In August 1930 John G.Neihardt came to Pine Ridge looking for informants on the Ghost Dance and the massacre at Wounded Knee for the final volume of his epic poem Cycle of the West. He was directed to Black Elk, who seemed to be expecting him, in the traditional manner of a prescient shaman recruiting a spirit-designated apprentice. The two immediately discovered they had an extraordinary rapport. At the end of the day Black Elk said: 'There is so much to teach you. 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.'6 Neihardt did return the following spring, not for the purpose of fulfilling his own agenda, but Black Elk's. A special teepee was erected. In it, Black Elk spoke for many days to Neihardt in Lakota; Black Elk's son Benjamin interpreted; and Neihardt's daughters, Enid and Hilda, recorded the translation, from which they later made typescripts. Neihardt then drew upon his literary skills to craft these interviews into Black Elk Speaks, one of the greatest achievements of American letters, and a genre exemplar in post-colonial American Indian literature. According to Vine Deloria, Jr, a Lakota philosopher and activist, the book has realized Black Elk's intent and more: 'The most important aspect of the not its effect on the non-Indian populace who wished to learn something of the beliefs of the Plains Indians, but upon the contemporary generation of young Indians who have been aggressively searching for roots of the structure of universal reality. To them the book has become a North American bible of all tribes .So important has this book become that one cannot today attend a meeting on Indian religion and hear a series of Indian speakers without recalling the exact parts of the book that lie behind contemporary efforts to inspire and clarify those beliefs that are "truly Indian".'7

It is a mistake to suspect that Black Elk Speaks is solely the product of Neihardt's romantic imagination. The typescripts of the 1931 interview were preserved among Neihardt's papers in the archives of the University of Missouri and were published in 1985. Comparison with these shows the book to be a faithful rendition. Neihardt's contribution was in fact purely literary, editing the narrative, simplifying and stylizing the prose. Indeed, in Neihardt's own estimation, Black Elk Speaks is 'the first absolutely Indian book thus far written.all out of the Indian consciousness'.8 How Black Elk's poignant account of the 'truth' and 'power' of his Great Vision—vouchsafed to him when he was only a 9-year-old boy, as innocent of missionary propaganda as he was of all things Wasichu— may be reconciled with his later and never recanted devotion to Christianity remains unclear. In response to Neihardt's question about that, he said simply, 'My children had to live in this world'.9 Black Elk Speaks should, therefore, be taken at face value—as an authentic window into the traditional Lakota world-view (if not that 'of all tribes').

And when we look through that window, what do we see? Many wonderful things, including a powerful environmental ethic.

The Lakota world-view, although thoroughly indigenous, is hardly aboriginal. As late as the eighteenth century, the Lakota were a woodland people living in the region of the western Great Lakes. They were pushed out onto the plains by the Algonkian-speaking Ojibwa in a kind of domino-effect of expanding European settlement of the

American Eastern Seaboard. They quickly adopted the mounted bison-hunting plains culture that was already established, and which was itself a post-Columbian phenomenon. Although evolved in North America, the horse, upon which reliable bison hunting depended, had been extinct in the Western hemisphere for ten thousand years. It was reintroduced by the Spanish, and the domesticated species reestablished feral populations on the vast grasslands of North America. It was welcomed by the Indians of the interior, not, as formerly, a game animal, but as a beast of burden and a companion in war and in the chase. Further, the Lakota themselves recognized that their sacred-pipe religion is of recent historical origin in the myth of White Buffalo Cow Woman, who gave it to them.

The Lakota world-view grew out of and reflected the relatively featureless, open spaces of the Great Plains. Its parameters are six in number—sky, earth, and the cardinal directions: west, north, east and south—each personified as a 'power'. Black Elk Speaks opens with an invocation and an explanation of the symbolism of the sacred pipe:

These four ribbons hanging here on the stem are the four corners of the universe. The black one is for the west where the thunder beings live to send us rain; the white one for the north, whence comes the great white cleansing wind; the red one for the east, whence springs the light and where the morning star lives to give men wisdom; the yellow for the south, whence come the summer and the power to grow.10

Either the traditional collective Lakota world-view is very abstract and sophisticated or Black Elk's own personal version of it is, for there is a unity within this multiplicity that one scholar compares to the concept of Brahman in Vedic Hindu philosophy, to the mystery of the Trinity in Christian theology (one God, three persons), and to the monism of the early modern European philosopher Benedict Spinoza.11 The unifying concept is Wakan Tanka, the 'Great Spirit', whom Black Elk often refers to as 'Grandfather':

But these four spirits are only one Spirit after all, and this eagle feather here is for that One.. .Is not the sky a father and the earth a mother, and are not all living things with feet or wings or roots their children? And this hide upon the mouthpiece here, which should be bison hide, is for the earth, from whence we came and at whose breast we suck as babies all our lives, along with all the animals and birds and trees and grasses.12

So, in brief, the sky is a universal father; the earth, a universal mother; each of the four quarters (sometimes also called winds and each associated with its distinctive colour) is a spirit with a peculiar power. All are united, however, in the Grandfather (as distinct from the Father) Spirit, Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit.

This world-view is the foundation of an environmental ethic, which is quite expressly stated in Black Elk Speaks, albeit with characteristic simplicity and brevity: after invoking each of these spirits individually and the Great Spirit, of which they are all particular manifestations, Black Elk prays: 'Give me the strength to walk the soft earth, a relative to all that is!'13 Black Elk's rhetoric routinely implies a familial egalitarianism among all the children of Father Sky and Mother Earth— human animal, non-human animal or plant. Human beings differ from other living beings only in number of legs, or the absence of wings or roots. Again, this egalitarianism is expressly stated briefly and simply: 'all over the earth the faces of living things are all alike'.14 In bad things as well as good, the native two-leggeds and four-leggeds share a common destiny: 'the Wasichus came, and they have made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller, for around them surges the gnawing flood of the Wasichu'.15

The Lakota environmental ethic is similar to, but, in important ways, also differs from the familiar 'land ethic' formulated by Aldo Leopold in 1949. The Leopold land ethic is based on a social model of nature, which is similarly egalitarian—in which a human being is but a 'plain member and citizen' of the 'biotic community'.16 But nature in the land ethic is represented as one big society, while in the Lakota environmental ethic nature is portrayed as one big family. According to the ecological 'community concept', each species occupies a niche, role or profession in the economy of nature. Just as in the human social microcosm there are farmers, truckers and doctors, each specializing in a particular task, so in the natural macrocosm there are producers (the green plants), consumers (animals of all sorts), and decomposers (fungi, bacteria and the like). And just as our non-privileged membership in human communities generates our human-to-human ethics, so our 'plain' membership in biotic communities generates land ethics, according to

Leopold. In the Lakota environmental ethic, however, the relationship of human beings to nature seems closer, warmer—just as our relationship to a family member is more intimate and our obligations more compelling than to a fellow citizen of our municipality or country. Instead of a 'land' environmental ethic, perhaps we could call Black Elk's a 'family' environmental ethic.


1 Black Elk Speaks, Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, p.






















7 Vine Deloria, Jr, 'Introduction', Black Elk Speaks, Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, pp. xii-xiii, 1979.

8 John G.Neihardt to Julius T.House, 3 June 1931, The Sixth Grandfather, p. 49.

11 The Sacred Pipe.

14 Ibid.

16 Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 204, 1949.

See also in this book


Black Elk's major writings

Neihardt, John G., Black Elk Speaks, Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, New York: Morrow, 1932.

-When the Tree Flowered: An Authentic Tale of the Old Sioux World, New

York: Macmillan, 1951.

Brown, Joseph Epes, The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953.

DeMallie, Raymond J. (ed.), The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G.Neihardt, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Further reading

Deloria, Ella C., Dakota Texts, Publications of the American Ethnological Society, no. 14, New York: G.E.Stechert, 1932. Lame Deer, John (Fire) and Erdoes, Richard, Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions, New

York: Simon & Schuster, 1972. Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933. Rice, Julian, Black Elk's Story: 'Distinguishing Its Lakota Purpose', Albuquerque,

NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1991. Walker, James R., Lakota Belief and Ritual, ed. Raymond J.DeMallie, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.

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  • hobson
    What do you see of Black Elk's history reflected in The Sacred Pipe?
    9 years ago
  • robert
    What famous travelling troupe employed black elk in 1886?
    8 years ago
  • bianca marchesi
    Where is an elks natral envirment?
    5 years ago

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