Friday, August 17, 2012

Black Elk (1863-1950): Man With A Vision

Black Elk with 2nd wife,
Anna Brings White, &
daughter Lucy Looks
Black Elk

Black Elk (Heȟáka Sápa) was a famous Medicine Man/Holy Man of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux), a heyoka = sacred clown/jester. He was a second cousin of Crazy Horse.

"Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking", Black Elk once said. Born on the Little Powder River in Wyoming, he came from a line of powerful medicine men. Though he began hearing inner messages from the time he was about 4, it was at age 9 that he experienced a life-changing vision in which he heard a call to save his people. Black Elk said that during his life, he had several of these visions. In his "great vision," he said that he met the spirit who guided the universe and saw a great tree, symbolizing the life of the earth and of the Indian people. He only spoke of this after he was much older, but his family apparently understood that he was clairvoyant.

Black Elk was involved in several battles with the U.S. Cavalry, including the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, when he was about 12. In 1887, Black Elk traveled to England with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Black Elk remembers this as an unpleasant experience, as he relates in John G. Neihardt's later book, Black Elk Speaks. In 1890 Black Elk was among the injured survivors of the massacre at Wounded Knee.

He married his first wife, Katie War Bonnet, in 1892. She became a Catholic, and all three of their children were baptized as Catholic. It wasn't until after her death in 1903 that he, too, was baptized. He took the name Nicholas Black Elk and served as a lay catechist. He was a spiritual leader among his people, and saw no contradiction in embracing what he had found valid in both his tribal traditions and in Christian teaching. He was married a second time, in 1905, to Anna Brings White, a widow with two daughters. Together they had three more children and remained married until Anna died in 1941. Toward the end of his life, Black Elk revealed the story of his life and a number of the sacred Lakota rituals to John Neihardt and Joseph Epes Brown who later published books: Black Elk Speaks (Neihardt, 1932) and The Sacred Pipe (Brown, 1953).

Black Elk died at age 67 on the reservation, August 17, 1950.

In a tradition not unlike the biblical prophets, Black Elk's legacy was strong medicine wisdom, as witnessed in just two quotes:

"Grown men can learn from very little children,  for the hearts of little children are pure. Therefore, the Great Spirit may show to them many things which older people miss."

"There can never be peace between nations until there is first known that true peace which is within the souls of men."

Perhaps our world could use a few more sacred clowns!

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