Black Elk, or Hehaka Sapa, was a medicine man of the Oglala Sioux tribe. He lived during the final conflict with the native peoples, from 1863 to 1950 and was able to merge the gap between American Indian spirituality and many modern scholars of myth, including Joseph Campbell. Some European authors praised him as being one of the greatest spiritual thinkers of the Native North Americans, particularly because he created an authentic Lakota Christianity by finding commonality with the Lakota spiritual teachings. Black Elk, in fact, believed that the Sioux could continue to celebrate their own cultural identity while embracing the essence of Christianity. To Black Elk, and to many scholars of mythology and religion, the essence of most of the Amerindian traditions -- celebration of the earth, respect for each other and nature, a code of conduct from which to live, and a striving for peace and oneness with the universe are tenets of most major religions (Stampolous, 2010).
Just prior to his death in 1950s, Black Elk decided that he should share his knowledge as the keeper of the Sacred Pipe of the Sioux with the world, and during Joseph Brown's residence at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Black Elk orally describes and discusses the seven sacred rites given to the Sioux through the White Buffalo Cow Woman (or the Sacred Earth Mother). The rites are a transitory spirituality in which the Sioux came to terms with both God and nature, as well as all humans, through a spirit of sacrifice, empathy and self-determination. In his own words, Black Elk said, "It is my prayer that, through our sacred pipe, and through this book in which I shall explain what our pipe really is, peace may come to those peoples who can understand, and understanding which must be of the heart and not of the head alone. Then they will realize that we Indians know the One true God, and that we pray to Him continually" (Brown xx).
Chapter 1 (The Gift of the Sacred Pipe): "Behold this and always love it!.With this you will send you voices to Wakan-Tanka, your Father and Grandfather. And after the mysterious woman said this, she took from the bundle a pipe…. "With this sacred pipe you will walk upon the Earth: for the Earth is your Grandmother and Mother and She is Sacred" (6). Each culture has its own creation story that, it seems, explains how and why humans were created, and their place on earth. It is interesting that for the Lakota, we see similarities to other cultures as well as concepts of the Yin and Yang, Light and Darkness, Feminine and Masculine, Positive and Negative. Since these early peoples were more in tune with nature, the idea of masculine and feminine as creators of new life would be constant and a universal. The idea, though, that a sacred woman brings a sacred object that only pure men can interact with suggests, at least to this reader, that the significant force in the universe is Mother Nature, from which all flows. If that is held true and sacred, then society (the People) will prosper. The idea of the rites are the organizational ways that humans can connect with their creator -- perhaps by reminding themselves of the constancy of nature and the importance of ritual.
Chapter 2 (The Keeping of the Soul): "By keeping a soul according to the proper rites, as given to use by the White Buffalo Cow Woman… one so purifies it that it and the Spirit become one, and is thus able to return to the "place" where it was born -- Wakan-Tanka- and need not wander about the earth as is the case with the souls of bad people" (11). Here we are given an organization of spirituality and a way to see a final goal: to be a good person, to follow the ways of Mother Earth, to have respect and empathy, and then, after living a good life, to rejoin one's creator in a better place. Again, I was taken with the conception of the afterlife -- and the manner in which the universality of love was the path towards the righteous person. This made sense, too, since the Lakota, like other hunter-gatherer cultures, depended upon the cooperation of each other in order to survive.
Chapter 3 (The Rite of Purification) -- For the Lakota, the term for the sweat lodge is Inipi, meaning to live again. For men, going through the rite of purification is necessary to help the vision quest seeker enter into a kind of humility and a spiritual nature of rebirth. Black Elk tells us about the prayers to the powers of the Earth, Water, Fire and Air -- in other words, all the elements of the physical nature of the universe. I found this to be very similar to readings about the early history of Christianity, monastic prayer, purification and even flagellation; and of course, the meditative rituals of many of the Eastern religions. The message seems quite clear, in order for the individual to move beyond the "present," they must be willing to go on a spiritual journey that may use herbs, heat, chanting or other forms of stimuli to exercise a different form of consciousness -- and in that form of consciousness, one can more clearly experience a oneness with the Creator.
Chapter 4 (Crying for a Vision) -- The idea of "crying for a vision," expands on the idea of purification and, according to Black Elk, is typically performed in an isolated area without food or water. Thus, the mind hallucinates and forms, to the Sioux, a bond with Nature and the Universe. However, the person undergoing the ritual must be pure of heart and soul, and the vision is usually accompanied by a spiritual contact with an animal -- the so-called Spirit Guide. We must remember, it dawned on me during this chapter, that Black Elk is orally describing something that is really indescribable in actual cohesive terms -- a spiritual journey and a spiritual connection. Ironically, during Western History it was celebrated if Christians received "a voice or a word from God," witness the current popular series about the Borgia Pope who "has visions and hears God's word." However, these same celebrations of piety and holiness were looked upon as pagan rituals from various Amerindian tribes, even though the end result is exactly the same -- oneness with God, with Nature, and a vast and empathetic journey towards the celebration of the brotherhood of humankind. It also seemed interesting that even in Amerindian cultures, those who wished to undertake a spiritual journey used herbs, rituals, heat, and deprivation to "turn off the noise" of society so they could fulfill their destiny.
Chapter 5 (The Sun Dance) - Black Elk's description of the Sundance and the reasons for it were quite moving. Early in the history of the Lakota a young warrior is in dire straits and asks the Great Mystery to allow his brothers and sisters (tribe or family) to hear him. The Sundance is a recreation of that plea to the universe -- asking for nature (the eagle) to intercede in the affairs of men to celebrate the oneness of the universe. Like many rituals, it seems that the repetition and the sharing of a common theme and purpose brings the people together. I was also reminded of times when I would see my relatives reciting the Rosary over a sick person, or using the Rosary to enter a state of mind that calmed their soul and provided them a "ritual" way of communicating with the Divine. Black Elk tells us that the Sundance is one of the most sacred rituals given to humans by the creator and can be seen as the Alpha and the Omega -- or beginning and the end. The Sundance is not for everyone, one must be invited and spend time in preparation -- which also harkens back to the seriousness of this rite within the Lakota tribal spirituality. Rituals means something; a Latin Mass, a Lakota Sundance, a Zuni Birth Ceremony -- and seem to be one of the ways in which the spirituality of the culture is both celebrated and handed down towards younger members of the tribe -- a kind of spiritual or cultural "glue."
Chapter 6 (The Making of Relatives) -- The Making of Relatives is Black Elk's explanation of how the individual celebrates and revitalizes the relationship between humans and God. "O Grandfather, Wakan-Tanka, behold us! Here we shall make relatives and peace; it is Your will that this be done…. I am now making smoke, which will rise to you. In everything that we do, You are first, and this our sacred Mother Earth is second, and next to Her are the four quarters" (103). How similar is this to the idea of incense being burned in Orthodox or Christian rituals; to the concept of the Holy…