The strange tale of the Paiute Messiah
I have been writing a series of articles exploring the notion of messianism. I have been showing in various ways that people generally take a much too narrow view of the issue. In the main, messianism in any form is an outgrowth of unacceptable circumstances. It is a yearning for things to be set right. It is a cry for justice and a desire to see peace and harmony for all time. Depending on the context in which it arises, this longing for restoration can take on strange forms. Usually we think of the word messiah in the context of Judaism or Christianity, where messianism is developed along familiar lines. An objective study of the issue becomes clouded, however, because of preconceived religious ideas and the cultural biases that influence our thoughts. For this reason I believe that exploring messianism in other contexts can be helpful in broadening our understanding. With this in mind, I present for your consideration the bizarre story that took place in the American West, just a little over a hundred years ago.
The Setting This is a story about two men who never met, but who shared a common vision. Both were introspective, spiritual men. Neither would be called a charismatic leader, but they were swept up in a wave of enthusiasm and militancy by those around them, as a result of of their message. Both were destined to see the greatest of catastrophes come to their people.
Much has been said of the mistreatment and deceit of native Americans by an ever expanding American nation in it's youth. It is no secret that the Indians were treated shamefully and robbed of their land, their independence, and their pride. Every Indian nation suffered. Wave after wave of oppression forced them to descend into a pitiful state of existence.
The Great Basin of the West had been the home of the Paiute Nation for as long as anyone could remember. Like many Indian tribes, they had garnered a meager existence from their austere surroundings for centuries. Their lives were relatively peaceful until the coming of the white man who wanted to impose his political will and his religion. Still others simply wanted to push the Native American off his rightful homeland and draw the wealth from it. It was a clash of cultures, that in the end could only end badly for the indigenous peoples.
At first came the Spanish, with their zeal for Roman Catholicism, their lust for gold, and their thirst for blood. Our history books record the sorry spectacle of these conquerors and the destruction left in their wake. But eventually an equilibrium was reached in which the Indians accepted the fixed land grants imposed on them. It ended their migrationary patterns, but they still had sizeable permanent lands to sustain themselves. In addition the Spanish left behind a unintentional technological legacy, however, that was to change the life of the Indians forever - horses and firearms. Horses gave the Indians greater range of movement for hunting and fighting, and the firearms gave them for greater destructive power. The net effect was an increase in intertribal warfare. Encroaching on the hunting territories of neighboring tribes lead to territorial disputes, which in turn led to war. Dislike for other tribes led to permanent enmity. Eventually, they accepted as normal the practice of killing their enemies on sight.
The Indians acceded to the religion of the Spanish, though they practiced it with considerable indifference, maintaining the shamanistic patterns that were familiar to them, and coloring the rituals with their own forms of worship and theology. The Indians were always a very spiritual people, always thinking of and deferring to the spirits that control their lives. Care was taken to appropriately thank the spirits of the animals they killed for food and the try to live in harmony with creation. To a great extent I have noticed this same characteristic among Native Americans today. While one might debate their theology and the purity of their worship, they have generally approached the Great Spirit in a reverential way, certainly no less monotheisticly than Christianity with its angelology and godhead, and certainly no less respectfully than Judaism, which does not deign to speak the name of the creator out of respect for him.
When America became a nation in its own right, and acquired the vast Louisiana Purchase from France, a new dynamic was thrust into the lives of Native Americans. The Anglos were bent on expansion. They had little regard for the Indian, his lands, or his way of life. They simply wanted to push him out of their way, end eventually there was no place to be pushed to, no arable land for him to cultivate, no herds of animals to hunt, and no place to live. Indians were left poor, without national pride, and starving. Those who survived were those who accommodated the white mans way of life, and allowed themselves to be assimilated into it. Indians adopted Anglo names, wore Anglo clothing, many lived in European style permanent housing though of poor quality, and sought menial work from the white man, for which they were greatly underpaid. Most lived on reservations and received an unpredictable and undependable ration of basic foodstuff from the governments. Often it was little more than sugar and coffee - no real nutrition.
It was in this miserable time that our story begins. White settlers had already laid claim to the Indian's land, and for them Indians were just a problem to be dealt with. Most were treated as a source for cheap labor.
In the land of the Piautes was a mostly ingnored religious teacher named Tavibo. He was regarded as a sort of prophet among his people. He emphasized the concept of religious dance to them. He frequently went alone to the mountains to talk to the spirits there. On one occasion he received a vision. They told him that if the people would dance the Ghost Dance, it would give the Indians great power . It would bring a great change. It would cause the land to open up and swallow the white man and to make the world again safe for the real human beings - the Indians. Most of the Paiute people were unconvinced. He went back to the mountains again. He returned this time with a message that there would be a resurrection of all the native dead who would join in the great new Indian society. Again the people failed to be motivated by this new vision. Tavibo went yet again to the mountains, returning with a message of doom to those who did not join in the dance. They would vanish along with the white man. Once again his teaching failed to take root. Tavibo's influence as a prophet steadily waned.
But change was in the wind. Indian peoples were being actively evangelized by Catholic, Protestant and Mormon missionaries. New and unfamiliar spiritual concepts were being accepted by the Indians in addition to their long standing shamanistic beliefs. There was, in fact, a spiritual revolution taking place among protestants during the whole of the nineteenth century. Replacing the cold formality of high church was a new spirit of apocalyptic fervor, leading to the springing up of movements such as Pentecostalism, adventism, and dispensationalism. A plethora of new denominations were being born. Theology was being turned around. Religious leaders such as Edward Irving, William Miller, Joseph Smith, Charles Taze Russell, and John Darby worked busily throughout the nineteenth century to turn Christianity on it's ear. Suddenly the emphasis was on the endtime. Preachers were proclaiming that God was about to restore direct revelation to Christians in their time. Churches began to experience a new wave of people exhibiting so-called gifts of the spirit. Instead of quietly worshipping in church, now they were prophesying, shouting, speaking in tongues, running up and down in the aisles, being taken over by the "Spirit". The laity began to see visions and proclaim messages from God. The new message would change Christianity for all time. New doctrines were concocted, new prophetic concepts were born. Great, rambling prophetic scenarios came into being. The theology and eschatology that now pervades popular Christianity, began during this era. Though a relative minority actually followed these preachers, the teachings came to infect almost all of Christianity. And Indian missionaries were disseminating these new teachings as well.
The adoption of the teachings of this new brand of Christianity with its radical eschatological concepts would profoundly change the Indian mindset. In time their devotion would eclipse the whites in the extent to which the believe their existence depends on the daily benefits of the spirits. If someone from among their people claimed to have seen a vision or a vivid dream, his words were immediately seen as a message from God. There was little skepticism. There was immediate acceptance of this individual as a prophet or shaman. While the interpretation of his vision might be questioned, the vision itself was not. For the Native Americans the spirit world was all around us and was only barely concealed.
Enter the Prophet About 1854 a boy was born into the family of the Paiute prophet in Mineral County, Nevada. The boy was named Wovoka. He was somewhat light skinned, hence the name Wovoka, which translated to "white man" - an epithet that earned him the scorn of his people later in life. The boy grew up in the teaching of his father, Tavibo, who died suddenly when Wovoka was about 18. Wovoka was taken in by the family of a white rancher named David Wilson. There he was taught the teachings a Christianity. He took the name of Jack Wilson. He soon, however, returned to live among the Paiute.
He was profoundly influenced by the religious teaching of both his father and David Wilson. After becoming deliriously ill with a fever, on January 1, 1889, Wovoka had a vision of a new and glorious world for the native peoples. There happened to be a solar eclipse that day.
"When I was in the other world with the Old Man, I saw all people who have died. But they were not sad. They were happy while engaged in their old-time occupations and dancing, gambling, and playing ball. It was a pleasant land, level, without rocks or mountains, green all the time. and rich in abundance of game and fish. Everyone was forever young.
After showing me all of heaven, God told me to go back to Earth and tell His people that you must be good and love one another, have no quarreling, and live in peace with the whites; that you must work, and not lie or steal; that you must put an end to the practice of war.
If you faithfully obey your instructions from on high, you will at last be reunited with your friends in a renewed world where there would be no more death or sickness or old age. First, though, the Earth must die. Indians should not be afraid, however. For it will come live again. In the hour of tribulation, a tremendous earthquake will shake the ground. A mighty flood will follow. The water and the mud will sweep the white race and all Indian skeptics away to their deaths. Then the dead ancestors will return, as will the vanished buffalo and other game, and everything on Earth will once again be an Indian paradise."
One will easily recognize elements of Judeo-Christian ethic and prophetic thought in Wovoka's vision, albeit with a uniquely Indian twist. The message was one of peace (unless you were white). It was essentially little different from the new brand of American and English evangelism that had swept the nation during that time - an apocalyptic and eschatological message that God was now prepared to act to put an end to evil. God promised a new world set aside for the righteous poor, where depleted wildlife would be replenished, and the dead would be resurrected. Pain and suffering, disease and starvation would be wiped out. Peace and harmony would reign.
It is not clear from history whether Wovoka claimed to be the instrument of this momentous change or whether he was merely the messenger. By and large, the Indian tribes had been unimpressed by the white missionary messages and their self serving theology. But Wovoka taught that the Indians would at last receive God's favor since the white man had rejected Christ. He stated that "Jesus was now on the Earth". A specific time was given when this was to take place - in the spring of 1891 when the grass is an inch high.
Whereas previous prophetic messages had left the Indians cold, something about Wovoka's message struck a chord. Perhaps it was time for such events to take place, but one thing was sure - it was time for the Indians to believe. And believe they did. Wovoka gave the Paiutes a new sacred paint and new words to sing for their dances. The new cult and ritual came to be called the "Ghost Dance." It spread through the Paiutes like wildfire. Soon the neighboring Shoshones and Bannocks had taken up the charge. Soon the Crow across the Northwest mountains were embracing the Ghost Dance Religion. The phenomena was not confined to the Indians of the West either. Eventually word spread to the tribes who had been forced to move to Indian Territory in the 1830's, where it met with wide acceptance. The Cheyennes, Arapahos, and the Wichita and affiliated tribes were swept along in the religious fervor of the moment. Emotions ran high. Groups were organizing in remote parts to institute the Ghost dance religion. Though there were skeptics such as the Kiowa, and those who were only lukewarm to the idea, such as the Comanches, the wave of enthusiasm for Ghost Dance was unprecedented.
Wovoka never left the land of the Paiutes. He may not have had the financial means to take his message elsewhere. But that seemed not to matter. When word of his vision spread, it aroused an intense curiosity. Other tribes sent delegations to see if what they were hearing was true. They returned home with dramatic stories that they had witnessed people in the dance who went into trances and saw their dead relatives on the other side.
Now we do not have any specific record of the ceremony of the Ghost Dance. We are told that it continued for five days and four nights. Dancers danced until they collapsed into an unconscious state. When they revived, they recounted stories of visits with their dead friends and relatives. They saw a new Earth, green and productive, where death and sorrow were unknown - a world where the Buffalo and wild horses were once again plentiful and the old ways were once again practiced. It was a more than a short respite from the pain and suffering of their day to day existence. It was a dream and a promise of deliverance.
The Dance We do, however, have a very interesting description of the Medicine Dance, undoubtedly very similar to the Ghost Dance, that was described in a book entitled "Our Wild Indians", published by Col. Richard I. Dodge in 1883 (My apologies to Native Americans for Col. Dodge's title). An excerpt from that book was published in Frontier Times Magazine in August of 1938. I will quote from that article here:
"The Cheyenne word Hoch-e-a-yum, is a generic term applying exactly as the word church in English... Every Indian of a tribe may attend the Hoch-e-a-yum... The meeting itself is exactly analogous to the great campmeetings so common in parts of our country...
A circular space of some twenty feet in diameter is roped off for the dancers. A concentric space of a few feet is for the guard; all the outer portion of the lodge is for the spectators. in accordance with his rights and duty, the medicine chief now announces his selection of the warriors who are to make the dance. The number varies, but is on an average one for every hundred persons in the bands represented. The head chief also announces his selection of the guard, whose duty it is to see that the dancers are in no way interfered with, and that they perform their duty in accordance with the instructions of the medicine chief. The number of guards is about equal to that of the dancers. The announcement of the names of dancers and guards, and of the hour when the dance is to commence, is made in a loud voice from the door of the medicine lodge. Each and all named are warned that disgrace and death will be the portion of any warrior who fails to appear at the time appointed.
A few moments before the specified time the guard, fully armed and under its appointed captain, files into the lodge and takes its place just outside the ropes of the inner circle. At the appointed instant, the dancers are escorted by the medicine chief to the inner circle. Each is stripped to the breech-clout (sometimes entirely nak- ed), and holds in his mouth a small whistle of wood or bone, in the lower end of which is fastened a single tail feather of the medicine bird. (the road runner or chaparral cock.) The medicine chief arranges the dancers in circle facing to the center, whilst he himself, having got out of the way, gives the signal to commence. At once every dancer fixes his eye on a suspended image, blows shrilly and continuously on his whistle, and begins the monotonous and graceless Indian dance, the whole line of dancers moving slowly around the circle. Some of the young ones, carried away by religious enthusiasm, bound vigorously into the air. but the older and more experienced expend only a bare sufficiency of force, for this is a dance of endurance. The will of the gods is to be known by the effect of the dance on the dancers, and, until the high priest shall announce himself satisfied, the dancers must continue their weary round without sleep, food, drink, or obedience to any demand of nature.
For the first eight or ten hours, the dance is uninteresting enough, but by that time fatigue, the slow rotary motion, the constant keeping the eyes on the spot, and the expenditure of breath in unceasing whistling, begin to tell. By this time every foot of space inside the lodge is crowded with eager and intensely interested spectators. Relatives and friends watch every movement of the dancers, rouse up the flagging by yells and shouts, by words of encouragement or terms of endearment. The lodge is a frightful babel of sounds, which culminate in shrieks and rush of women as some dancer totters, reels, and falls to the ground. The rush is sternly met, and the body dragged by the guard out of the circle of dancers, and into that of the guards. There it is laid on its back, and the high priest proceeds to paint symbols and hieroglyphics on the face and person, with "medicine paint" of varied colors. If consciousness is not restored by this treatment, the body is taken into the open air and buckets of water thrown over it. This, as a rule, soon revives the inanimate form, at sight of which the women set up yells of delight, and surround the priest with prayers and entreaties that this dancer may be spared further effort.
Throughout all the ceremony the word of the medicine chief is law. which no power may question. He may now order the revived dancer back to the circle to dance until he again falls, or he may excuse him. Influenced by the women, or by the promise of one, two, or half a dozen ponies (according to the wealth of the dancer) the priest generally accedes to the request, and the overcome dancer is carried off to his lodge by his women, to be petted and condoled with until fully recovered.
In the meantime the dance goes on. One by one the dancers fall, to be revived by the same process, and excused by the same persuasion. or sternly ordered back to their work. As the death of a dancer is indicative of "bad medicine", this forcing one back after falling is only done in rare and important cases, or when the priest has an object to gain. If the dance progresses to the end of the appointed time without a resulting death, the priest proclaims "good medicine". The dance ceases, and the dancers are feted and caressed, and the medicine lodge is taken down. Happiness and congratulation are expressed in every face. The chiefs and warriors, assured of the power and protection of the Good God, meet in council to decide upon the program for the year, which after "good medicine" is generally war.
But it may happen that one or more bodies are brought from the dance which neither paint nor water will revive. There is no need to announce "bad medicine" for no sooner is death assured than the whole camp becomes a pandemonium. The howl of the men mingles with the shrieks and wails of the women. The dance is broken up. Horses are killed for the use of the dead in the Happy Hunting Grounds. Their widows inflict ghastly wounds on their arms and breasts. The whole camp is a turmoil of consternation and mourning. As soon as the last rites for the dead are completed, the bands separate and each in its own way seeks escape or avert the wrath of the Bad medicine.
Such was the medicine dance in its rigor."
The Word Spreads In southwestern Indian Territory, the reception to the ghost dance was mixed. The Kiowas and the Cheyennes participated only lukewarmly. But among the Wichita and affiliated tribes it was common to see the Ghost Dance ritual practiced every night. The post commander at Fort Sill detailed Lieutenant Scott to keep an ever watchful eye on the activities of the Indians. At one point General Wesley Merit ordered Scott to prepare to stop the dance and disarm the Indians. Scott persuaded the General to hold off at that time. After it failed to achieve results by late Spring, the Indians began to loose enthusiasm for it. Disillusionment soon prevailed and the dance was abandoned. But soon the movement was to take on new life, albeit a tragic one, in a distant land.
When word of the Ghost Dance movement reached the Lakota Sioux in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, there was intense interest. It was a time of great despair for the Sioux. Half their territory had been deceitfully wrested from them in the preceding decade, followed by the worst drought on record. Congress cut their beef ration. They were starving. Hundreds of children, weakened by poor nutrition, died in a measles epidemic. Word of an Indian Messiah in a distant western land was the only ray of hope they had.
The Sioux dispatched Kicking Bear and Short Bull to search out Wovoka and to learn his prophetic message. This was to be an ominous turn of events. For whereas Wovoka was a gentle man who preached pacifism and moral virtues, the Sioux had a warlike and vengeful mindset. They brought back a more radical form of the message of Wovoka. It was a message of peace and prosperity for the Indians, but it was a message of war and oblivion for the Whites. It appears that they concocted of the element of the message that promised the coming of their messiah in the spring of 1891, thus whipping up the fervor of the Sioux. They said they witnessed Wovoka levitate above their heads as he spoke to them. For the Sioux, the Ghost dance took on a militaristic character. The Sioux went into the dance armed to the teeth, carrying their rifles, full cartridge belts criss crossed on their bodies, and decked out in warpaint - an ominous sign to the white soldiers.
Another Prophet At this juncture another key player enters this grand pageant of events - a man who never met Wovoka - a quiet and thoughtful Sioux medicine man by the name of Black Elk. To properly tell his story we will leave the Lakota Sioux on the threshold of their crisis while we digress back a few years to the time of Black Elks youth.
Black Elk was born into the Oglala band of the Lakota in 1863 on the Little Powder River. His father was named Black Elk as was his father and grandfather before him. The famous Crazy Horse was his cousin. At the age of three he first encountered war. His father was crippled in the war known to the Sioux as the Battle of the Hundred slain. Black Elk had never seen the Wasichus (the White Man) before that, but rumors were rife that the Wasichus were coming to take away their land.
The next two decades were a time of turmoil and uncertainty for the Lakota. They moved about from place to place to avoid war and death. Treaties were made and broken. The soldiers were in and out of their lives. Treacherous men with an eye for "the yellow metal that makes the Wasichus crazy" violated their own law and the lands of the Lakota. They built an iron road through their land, dividing the hunting lands in half. The vast herds of Buffalo that provided their sustenance were systematically squandered by wasteful white hunters. From time to time bloodshed could not be avoided. Sometimes they were victorious over the Wasichus, sometimes they were the vanquished. But always there was death, starvation, and suffering.
While just a child, Black Elk would occasionally hear voices that no one else could hear. They were brief, fleeting episodes at first and he thought little of it. But he told no one of the voices. But when he was nine years old, he could not ignore the voices any longer. They were more insistant and more frequent. He experienced a dreamlike periods when his legs would hurt or crumple beneath him. He quickly became very ill. His whole body was swollen and he could not walk. Then he saw two men coming down from the clouds, headfirst like arrows slanting down. From their long spears lightning flashed. "Hurry" they said, "Your Grandfathers are calling you!" What followed was what Black Elk called his Great Vision.
Many years later he related his vision so clearly and in such detail to his friend John Niehardt. Because of the beauty and detail of his vision and because Niehardt translated it so eloquently (Black Elk spoke no English) I am going to include the vision in its entirety here. It is taken from John Niehardt's Black Elk Speaks, first published in 1932: Black Elk's Vision "What happened after that until the summer I was nine years old is not a story. There were winters and summers, and they were good; for the Wasichus had made their iron road (The Union Pacific Railway) along the Platte and traveled there. This had cut the bison herd in two, but those that stayed in our country with us were more than could be counted, and we wandered without trouble in our land.
Now and then the voices would come back when I was out alone, like someone calling me, but what they wanted me to do I did not know. This did not happen very often, and when it did not happen, I forgot about it; for I was growing taller and was riding horses now and could shoot prairie chickens and rabbits with my bow. The boys of my people began very young to learn the ways of men, and no one taught us; we just learned by doing what we saw, and we were warriors at a time when boys now are like girls.
It was the summer when I was nine years old, and our people were moving slowly towards the Rocky Mountains. We camped one evening in a valley beside a little creek just before it ran into the Greasy Grass (The Little Big Horn River), and there was a man by the name of Man Hip who liked me and asked me to eat with him in his tepee.
While I was eating, a voice came and said: "It is time; now they are calling you." The voice was so loud and clear that I believed it, and I thought I would just go where it wanted me to go. So I got right up and started. As I came out of the tepee, both my thighs began to hurt me, and suddenly it was like waking from a dream, and there wasn't any voice. So I went back into the tepee, but I didn't want to eat. Man Hip looked at me in a strange way and asked me what was wrong. I told him that my legs were hurting me.
The next morning the camp moved again, and I was riding with some boys. We stopped to get a drink from a creek, and when I got off my horse, my legs crumpled under me and I could not walk. So the boys helped me up and put me on my horse; and when we camped again that evening, I was sick. The next day the camp moved on to where the different bands of our people were coming together, and I rode in a pony drag, for I was very sick. Both my legs and both my arms were swollen badly and my face was all puffed up.
When we had camped again, I was lying in our tepee and my mother and father were sitting beside me. I could see out through the opening, and there two men were coming from the clouds, headfirst like arrows slanting down, and I knew they were the same that I had seen before. Each now carried a long spear, and from the points Of these a jagged lightning flashed. They came clear down to the ground this time and stood a little way off and looked at me and said: "Hurry! Come! your Grandfathers are calling you!"
Then they turned and left the ground like arrows slanting upward from the bow. When I got up to follow, my legs did not hurt me any more and I was very light. I went outside the tepee, and yonder where the men with flaming spears were going, a little cloud was coming very fast. it came and stooped and took me and turned back to where it came from, flying fast. And when I looked down I could see my mother and my father yonder, and I felt sorry to be leaving them.
Then there was nothing but the air and the swiftness of the little cloud that bore me and those two men still leading up to where white clouds were piled like mountains on a wide blue plain, and in them thunder beings lived and leaped and flashed.
Now suddenly there was nothing but a world of cloud, and we three were there alone in the middle of a great white plain with snowy hills and mountains staring at us; and it was very still; but there were whispers. Then the two men spoke together and they said "Behold him, the being with four legs!"
I looked and saw a bay horse standing there, and he began to speak: "Behold me!" be said. "My life history you shall see." Then he wheeled about to where the sun goes down, and said: "Behold them. Their history you shall know."
I looked, and there were twelve black horses yonder all abreast with necklaces of bison hoofs, and they were beautiful, but I was frightened, because their manes were lightning and there was thunder in their nostrils.
Then the bay horse wheeled to where the great white giant lives (the north) and said: "Behold!" And yonder there were twelve white horses all abreast. Their manes were flowing like a blizzard wind and from their noses came a roaring, and all about them white geese soared and circled.
Then the bay wheeled round to where the sun shines continually (the east) and bade me look; and there twelve sorrel horses, with necklaces of elks teeth, stood abreast with eyes that glimmered like the daybreak star and manes of morning light.
Then the bay wheeled once again to look upon the place where you are always facing (the south), and yonder stood twelve buckskins all abreast with homs upon their heads and manes that lived and grew like trees and grasses. And when I had seen all these, the bay horse said: "Your Grandfathers are having a council. These shall take you; so have courage." Then all the horses went into formation, four abreast the blacks, the whites, the sorrels, and the bucks and stood behind the bay, who turned now to the west and neighed; and yonder suddenly the sky was terrible with a storm of plunging horses in all colors that shook the world with thunder, Neighing back.- Now turning to the north the bay horse whinnied, and yonder all the sky roared with a mighty wind of running horses in all colors, neighing back.
And when he whinnied to the east, there too the sky was filled with glowing clouds of manes and tails of horses in all colors singing back. Then to the South he called, and it was crowded With many colored, happy horses, nickering. Then the bay horse spoke to me again and said: "See how your horses all come dancing. I looked and there were horses, horses everywhere -a whole sky full of horses dancing round me.
"Make haste!" the bay horse said; and we walked together side by side, while the blacks, the whites, the sorrels, and the buckskins followed, marching four by four.
I looked about me once again, and suddenly the dancing horses without number changed into animals of every kind and into all the fowls that are, and these fled back to the four quarters of the world from whence the horses came, and vanished.
Then as we walked, there was a heaped up cloud ahead that changed into a tepee, and a rainbow was the open door of it; and through the door I saw six old men sitting in a row.
The two men with the spears now stood beside me, one on either hand, and the horses took their places in their quarters, looking inwards four by four. And the oldest of the Grandfathers spoke with a kind voice and said: "Come right in and do not fear." And as he spoke, all the horses of the four quarters neighed to cheer me. So I went in and stood before the six, and they looked older than men can ever be - old like hills, like stars.
The oldest spoke again: "Your Grandfathers all over the world are having a council, and they have called you here to teach you." His voice was very kind, but I shook all over with fear now, for I knew that these were not old men, but the Powers of the World. And the first was the Power of the West; the second, of the North; the third, of the East; the fourth, of the South; the fifth, of the Sky; the sixth, of the Earth. I knew this, and was afraid, until the first Grandfather spoke again: "Behold them yonder where the sun goes down, the thunder beings! You shall see, and have from them my power; and they shall take you to the high and lonely center of the earth that you may see; even to the place where the sun continually shines, they shall take you there to understand."
And as he spoke of understanding, I looked up and saw the rainbow leap with flames of many colors over me. Now there was a wooden cup in his hand and it was full of water and in the water was the sky.
"Take this," he said. "It is the power to make live, and it is yours." Now he had a bow in his hands. "Take this," he said. "It is the power to destroy, and it is yours."
Then he pointed to himself and said: "Look close at him who is your spirit now, for you are his body and his name is Eagle Wing Stretches." And saying this, he got up very tall and started running toward where the sun goes down; and suddenly he was a black horse that stopped and turned and looked at me, and the horse was very poor and sick; his ribs stood out.
Then the second Grandfather, he of the North, arose with a herb of power in his hand, and said: "Take this and hurry." I took and held it toward the black horse yonder. He fattened and was happy and came prancing to his place again and was the first Grandfather sitting there.
The second Grandfather, he of the north, spoke again: "Take courage, younger brother," he said; on earth a nation you shall make live, for yours shall be the power of the white giants wing, the cleansing wing." Then he got up very tall,and started running toward the north; and when he turned toward me, it was a white goose wheeling. I looked about me now, and the horses in the west were thunders and the horses of the north were geese. And the second Grandfather sang two songs that were like this:
"They are appearing, may you behold They are appearing, may you behold! The thunder nation is appearing, behold!
They are appearing, may you behold! They are appearing, may you behold! The white geese nation is appearing, behold!"
And now it was the third Grandfather who spoke, he of where the sun shines continually. "Take courage, younger brother," he said, "for across the earth they shall take you!" Then he pointed far where the daybreak star was shining, and beneath the star two men were flying. "From them you shall have power, he said, "from them who have awakened all the beings of the earth with roots and legs and wings." And as he said this, he held in his hand a peace pipe which had a spotted eagle outstretched upon the stem; and this eagle seemed alive, for it was poised there, fluttering, and its eyes were looking at me. "With this pipe," the Grandfather said, "you shall walk upon the earth, and whatever sickens there you shall make well." Then he pointed to a man who was bright red all over, the color of good and of plenty, and as he pointed, the red man lay down and rolled and changed into a bison that got up and galloped toward the sorrel horses of the east, and they too turned to bison, fat and many.
And now the fourth Grandfather spoke, he of the place where you are always facing (the south), whence comes the power to grow. "Younger brother," he said, "with the powers of the four quarters you shall walk, a relative. Behold, the living center of a nation I shall give you, and with it many you shall save." And I saw that he was holding in his hand a bright red stick that was alive, and as I looked it sprouted at the top and sent forth branches, and on the branches many leaves came out and murmured and in the leaves the birds began to sing. And then for just a little while I thought I saw beneath it in the shade the circled villages of people and every living thing with roots or legs or wings, and all were happy. "It shall stand in the center of the nation's circle," said the Grandfather, "a cane to walk with and a people's heart; and by your powers you shall make it blossom."
Then when he had been still a little while to hear the birds sing, he spoke again: "Behold the earth!" So I looked down and saw it lying yonder like a hoop of peoples, and in the center bloomed the holy stick that was a tree, and where it stood there crossed two roads, a red one and a black.
"From where the giant lives (the north) to where you always face (the south) the red road goes, the road of good", the Grandfather said, "and on it shall your nation walk. The black road goes from where the thunder beings live (the west) to where the sun continually shines (the east), a fearful road, a road of troubles and of war. On this also you shall walk, and from it you shall have the power to destroy a people's foes. In four ascents you shall walk the earth with power."
I think he meant that I should see four generations, counting me, and now I am seeing the third.
Then he rose very tall and started running toward the south, and was an elk; and as he stood among the buckskins yonder, they too were elks.
Now the fifth Grandfather spoke, the oldest of them all, the Spirit of the Sky. "My boy," he said, "I have sent for you and you have come. My power you shall see!" He stretched his arms and turned into a spotted eagle hovering. "Behold," he said, "all the wings of the air shall come to you, and they and the winds and the stars shall be like relatives. You shall go across the earth with my power." Then the eagle soared above my head and fluttered there; and suddenly the sky was full of friendly wings all coming toward me.
Now I knew the sixth Grandfather was about to speak, he who was the Spirit of the Earth,. and I saw that he was very old, but more as men are old. His hair was long and white, his face was all in wrinkles and his eyes were deep and dim. I stared at him, for it seemed I knew him somehow; and as I stared, he slowly changed, for he was growing backwards into youth, and when he had become a boy, I knew that he was myself with all the years that would be mine at last. When he was old again, he said: "My boy, have courage, for my power shall be yours, and you shall need it, for your nation on the earth will have great troubles. Come."
He rose and tottered out through the rainbow door, and as I followed I was riding on the bay horse who had talked to me at first and led me to that place.
Then the bay horse stopped and faced the black horses of the west, and a voice said: They have given you the cup of water to make live the greening day, and also the bow and arrow to destroy." The bay neighed, and the twelve black horses came and stood behind me, four abreast.
The bay faced the sorrels of the east, and I saw that they had morning stars upon their foreheads and they were very bright. And the voice said: "They have given you the sacred pipe and the power that is peace, and the good red day." The bay neighed, and the twelve sorrels stood behind me, four abreast.
My horse now faced the buckskins of the south, and a voice said: "They have given you the sacred stick and your nation's hoop, and the yellow day; and in the center of the hoop you shall set the stick and make it grow into a shielding tree, and bloom." The bay neighed, and the twelve buckskins came and stood behind me, four abreast.
Then I knew that there were riders on all the horses there behind me, and a voice said: "Now you shall walk the black road with these; and as you walk, all the nations that have roots or legs or wings shall fear you."
So I started, riding toward the east down the fearful road, and behind me came the horsebacks four abreast-the blacks, the whites, the sorrels, and the buckskins-and far away above the fearful road the daybreak star was rising very dim.
I looked below me where the earth was silent in a sick green light, and saw the hills look up afraid and the grasses on the bills and all the animals; and everywhere about me were the cries of frightened birds and sounds of fleeing wings. I was the chief of all the heavens riding there, and when I looked behind me, all the twelve black horses reared and plunged and thundered and their manes and tails were whirling hail and their nostrils snorted lightning. And when I looked below again, I saw the slant hail failing and the long, sharp rain, and where we passed, the trees bowed low and all the hills were dim.
Now the earth was bright again as we rode. I could see the hills and valleys and the creeks and rivers passing under. We came above a place where three streams made a big one-a source of mighty waters (Black Elk believes this to be the Three Forks of the Missouri) - and something terrible was there. Flames were rising from the waters and in the flames a blue man lived. The dust was floating all about him in the air, the grass was short and withered, the trees were wilting, two-legged and four-legged beings lay there thin and panting, and wings too weak to fly.
Then the black horse riders shouted "Hoka hey!" and charged down upon the blue man, but were driven back. And the white troop shouted, charging, and was beaten; then the red troop and the yellow.
And when each had failed, they all cried together: "Eagle Wing Stretches, hurry!" And all the world was filled with voices of all kinds that cheered me, so I charged. I had the cup of water in one hand and in the other was the bow that turned into a spear as the bay and I swooped down, and the spear's head was sharp lightning. -It stabbed the blue man's heart, and as it struck I could hear the thunder rolling and many voices that cried "Un-hee!," meaning I had killed. The flames died. The trees and grasses were not withered any more and murmured happily together, and every living being cried in gladness with whatever voice it had. Then the four troops of horsemen charged down and struck the dead body of the blue man, counting coup; and suddenly it was only a harmless turtle. You see, I had been riding with the storm clouds, and had come to earth as rain, and it was drouth that I had killed with the power that the Six Grandfathers gave me. So we were riding on the earth now down along the river flowing full from the source of waters, and soon I saw ahead the circled village of a people in the valley. And a Voice said: "Behold a nation; it is yours. Make haste, Eagle Wing Stretches!"
I entered the village, riding, with the four horse troops behind me-the blacks, the whites, the sorrels, and the buckskins; and the place was filled with moaning and with mourning for the dead. The wind was blowing from the south like fever, and when I looked around I saw that in nearly every tepee the women and the children and the men lay dying with the dead.
So I rode around the circle of the village, looking in upon the sick and dead, and I felt like crying as I rode. But when I looked behind me, all the women and the children and the men were getting up and coming forth with happy faces.
And a Voice said: "Behold, they have given you the center of the nation's hoop to make it live."
So I rode to the center of the village, with the horse troops in their quarters round about me, and there the people gathered. And the Voice said: "Give them now the flowering stick that they may flourish, and the sacred pipe that they may know the power that is peace, and the wing of the white giant that they may have endurance and face all winds with courage."
So I took the bright red stick and at the center of the nation's hoop I thrust it in the earth. As it touched the earth it leaped mightily in my hand and was a waga chun, the rustling tree (the cottonwood), very tall and full of leafy branches and of all birds singing. And beneath it all the animals were mingling with the people like relatives and making happy cries. The women raised their tremolo of joy, and the men shouted all together: "Here we shall raise our children and be as little chickens under the mother sheo's (the prairie hens) wing."
Then I heard the white wind blowing gently through the tree and singing there, and from the east the sacred pipe came flying on its eagle wings, and stopped before me there beneath the tree, spreading deep peace around it.
Then the daybreak star was rising, and a voice said: "It shall be a relative to them; and who shall see it, shall see much more, for thence comes wisdom; and those who do not see it shall be dark." And all the people raised their faces to the east, and the star's light fell upon them, and all the dogs barked loudly and the horses whinnied.
Then when the many little voices ceased, the great Voice said: "Behold the circle of the nation's hoop, for it is holy, being endless, and thus all powers shall be one power in the people without end. Now they shall break camp and go forth upon the red road, and your Grandfathers shall walk with them." So the people broke camp and took the good road with the white wing on their faces, and the order of their going was like this:
First, the black horse riders with the cup of water; and the white horse riders with the white wing and the sacred herb; and the sorrel riders with the holy pipe; and the buckskins with the flowering stick. And after these the little children and the youths and maidens followed in a band.
Second, came the tribe's four chieftains, and their band was all young men and women.
Third, the nation's four advisers - leading men and women neither young nor old.
Fourth, the old men hobbling with their canes and looking to the earth.
Fifth, old women hobbling with their canes and looking to the earth.
Sixth, myself all alone upon the bay with the bow and arrows that the First Grandfather gave me. But I was not the last; for when I looked behind me there were ghosts of people like a trailing fog as far as I could see - grandfathers of grandfathers and grandmothers of grandmothers without number. And over these a great Voice-the Voice that was the South-lived, and I could feel it silent.
And as we went the Voice behind me said: "Behold a good nation walking in a sacred manner in a good land!"
Then I looked up and saw that there were four ascents ahead, and these were generations I should know. Now we were on the first ascent, and all the land was green. And as the long line climbed, all the old men and women raised their hands, palms forward, to the far sky yonder and began to croon a song together, and the sky ahead was filled with clouds of baby faces.
When we came to the end of the first ascent we camped in the sacred circle as before, and in the center stood the holy tree, and still the, land about us was all green.
Then we started on the second ascent marching as before, and still the land was green, but it was getting steeper. And as I looked ahead, the people changed into elks and bison and all four-footed beings and even into fowls, all walking in a sacred manner on the good red road together. And I myself was a spotted eagle soaring over them. But just before we stopped to camp at the end of that ascent, all the marching animals grew restless and afraid that they were not what they had been, and began sending forth voices of trouble, calling to their chiefs. And when they camped at the end of that ascent, I looked down and saw that leaves were falling from the holy tree.
And the Voice said: "Behold Your nations and remember what your Six Grandfathers gave you, for thenceforth your people walk in difficulties."
Then the people broke camp again, and saw the black road before them towards where the sun goes down, and black clouds coming yonder; and they did not want to go but could not stay. And as they walked the third ascent, all the animals and fowls that were the people ran here and there, for each one seemed to- have his own little vision that he followed and his own rules; and all over the universe I could hear the winds at war like wild beasts fighting. (At this point Black Elk remarked: "I think we are near that place now, and I am afraid something very bad is going to happen all over the world." He cannot read and knows nothing of world affairs.)
And when we reached the summit of the third ascent and camped, the nation's hoop was broken like a ring of smoke that spreads and scatters and the holy tree seemed dying and all its birds were gone. And when I looked ahead I saw that the fourth ascent would be terrible.
Then when the people were getting ready to begin the fourth ascent, the Voice spoke like some one weeping, and it said: "Look there upon your nation." And when I looked down, the people were all changed back to human, and they were thin, their faces sharp, for they were starving. Their ponies were only hide and bones, and the holy tree was gone.
And as I looked and wept, I saw that there stood on the north side of the starving camp a sacred man who was painted red all over his body, and he held a spear as he walked into the center of the people, and there he lay down and rolled. And when he got up, it was a fat bison standing there,, and where the bison stood a sacred herb sprang up right where the tree had been in the center of the nation's hoop. The herb grew and bore four blossoms on a single stem, while I was looking a blue (also represents the power of the west) a white, a scarlet, and a yellow and the bright rays of these flashed to the heavens.
I know now what this meant, that the bison were the gift of a good spirit and were our strength, but we should lose them, and from the same good spirit we must find another strength. For the people all seemed better when the herb had grown and bloomed, and the horses raised their tails and neighed and pranced around, and I could see a light breeze going from the north among the people like a ghost; and suddenly the flowering tree was there again at the center of the nation's hoop where the four-rayed herb had blossomed.
I was still the spotted eagle floating, and I could see that I was already in the fourth ascent and the people were camping yonder at the top of the third long rise. It was dark and terrible about me, for all the winds of the world were fighting. It was like rapid gun- fire and like whirling smoke, and like women and children wailing and like horses screaming all over the world.
I could see my people yonder running about, setting the smoke flap poles and fastening down their tepees against the wind, for the storm cloud was coming on them very fast and black, and there were frightened swallows without number fleeing before the cloud.
Then a song of power came to me and I sang it there in the midst of that terrible place where I was. It went like this:
A good nation I will make live. This the nation above has said. They have given me the power to make over.
And when I had sung this, a Voice said: "To the four quarters you shall run for help, and nothing shall be strong before you. Behold him!"
Now I was on my bay horse again, because the horse is of the earth, and it was there my power would be used. And as I obeyed the Voice and looked, there was a horse all skin and bones yonder in the west, a faded brownish black. And a Voice there said: "Take this and make him over; and it was the four-rayed herb that I was holding in my hand. So I rode above the poor horse in a circle, and as I did this I could hear the people yonder calling for spirit power, "A-hey! a-hey! a-hey! a-hey!" Then the poor horse neighed and roused and got up, and he was a big, shiny, black stallion with dapples all over him and his mane about him as a cloud. He was the chief of all the horses; and when he snorted, it was a flash of lightning and his eyes were like the sunset star. He dashed to the west and neighed, and the west was filled with a dust of hoofs, and horses without number, shiny black, came plunging from the dust. Then he dashed toward the north and neighed, and to the east and to the south, and the dust clouds answered, giving forth their plunging horses without number-whites and sorrels and buckskins, fat, shiny, rejoicing in their fleetness and their strength. It was beautiful, but it was also terrible.
Then they all stopped short, rearing, and were standing in a great hoop about their black chief at the center, and were still. And as they stood, four virgins, more beautiful than women of the earth can be, came through the circle, dressed in scarlet, one from each of the four quarters, and stood about the great black stallion in their places; and one held the wooden cup of water, and one the white wing, and one the pipe, and one the nation's hoop. All the universe was silent, listening; and then the great black stallion raised his voice and sang. The song he sang was this:
"My horses, prancing they are coming. My horses, neighing they are coming; Prancing, they are coming. All over the Universe they come, They will dance; may you behold them. (4 times) A horse nation, they will dance. May you behold them. (4 times)
His voice was not loud, but it went all over the universe and filled it. There was nothing that did not hear, and it was more beautiful than anything can be. it was so beautiful that nothing anywhere could keep from dancing. The virgins danced, and all the circled horses. The leaves on the trees, the grasses on the hills and in the valleys, the waters in the creeks and in the rivers and the lakes, the four-legged and the two-legged and the wings of the air-all danced together to the music of the stallion's song.
And when I looked down upon my people yonder, the cloud passed over, blessing them with friendly rain, and stood in the east with a flaming rainbow over it.
Then all the horses went singing back to their places beyond the summit of the fourth ascent, and all things sang along with them as they walked.
And a Voice said: "All over the universe they have finished a day of happiness." And looking down, I saw that the whole wide circle of the day was beautiful and green, with all fruits growing and all things kind and happy.
Then a Voice said- "Behold this day, for it is yours to make. Now you shall stand upon the center of the earth to see, for there they are taking you."
I was still on my bay horse, and once more I felt the riders of the west, the north, the east, the south, behind me in formation, as before, and we were going east. I looked ahead and saw the mountains there with rocks and forests on them, and from the mountains flashed all colors upward to the heavens. Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world (Black Elk identified this place as Harney Peak in the Black Hills). 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. 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.
Then as I stood there, two men were coming from the east, head first like arrows flying, and between them rose the daybreak star. They came and gave a herb to me and said: "With this on earth you shall undertake anything and do it." It was the daybreak-star herb, the herb of understanding, and they told me to drop it on the earth. I saw it falling far, and when it struck the earth it rooted and grew and flowered, four blossoms on one stem, a blue, a white, a scarlet, and a yellow; and the rays from these streamed upward to the heavens so that all creatures saw it and in no place was there darkness.
Then the Voice said: "Your Six Grandfathers know you shall go back to them."
I had not noticed how I was dressed until now, and I saw that I was painted red all over, and my joints were painted black, with white stripes between the joints. My bay had lightning stripes all over him, and his mane was cloud. And when I breathed, my breath was lightning.
Now two men were leading me, head first like arrows slanting upward-the two that brought me from the earth. And as I followed on the bay, they turned into four flocks of geese that flew in circles, one above each quarter, sending forth a sacred voice as they flew: Br-r-r-p, br-r-r-p, br-r-r-p. br-r-r-p.
Then I saw ahead the rainbow flaming above the, tepee of the Six Grandfathers, built and roofed with cloud and sewed with thongs of lightning; and underneath it were all the wings of the air and under them the animals and men. All these were rejoicing, and thunder was like happy laughter.
As I rode in through the rainbow door, there were cheering voices from all over the universe, and I saw the Six Grandfathers sitting in a row, with their arms held toward me and their hands, palms out; and behind them in the cloud were faces thronging, without number, of the people yet to be.
"He has triumphed!" cried the six together, making thunder. And as I passed before them there, each gave again the gift that he had given me before - the cup of water and the bow and arrows, the power to make live and to destroy; the white wing of cleansing and the healing herb; the sacred pipe; the flowering stick. And each one spoke in turn ,from west to south, explaining what he gave as he had done before, and as each one spoke be melted down into the earth and rose again; and as each did this, I felt nearer to the earth.
Then the oldest of them all said: "Grandson, all over the universe you have seen. Now you shall go back with power to the place from whence you came, and it shall happen yonder that hundreds shall be sacred, hundreds shall be flames! Behold!"
I looked below and saw my people there, and are were well and happy except one, and he was lying like the dead and that one was myself. Then the oldest Grandfather sang, and his song was like this:
"There is someone lying on earth in a sacred manner I appear. There is someone - on earth he lies. In a sacred manner I have made him to walk."
Now the tepee, built and roofed with cloud, began to sway back and forth as in a wind, and the flaming rainbow door was growing dimmer. I could hear voices of of all kinds crying from outside: "Eagle Wing Stretches is coming forth! Behold him!
When I went through the door, the face of the day of earth was appearing with the daybreak star upon its forehead; and the sun leaped up and looked upon me, and I was going forth alone.
And as I walked alone, I heard the sun singing as it arose, and it sang like this:
"With visible face I am appearing. In a sacred manner I appear. For the greening earth a pleasantness I make. The center of the nation's hoop I have made pleasant. With visible face, behold me! The four leggeds and two leggeds, I have made them to walk; The wings of the air, I have made them to fly. With visible face I appear. My day, I have made it holy."
When the singing stopped, I was feeling lost and very lonely. Then a Voice above me said "look back!" It was a spotted eagle that was hovering over me and spoke. I looked, and where the flaming rainbow tepee, built and roofed with cloud, had been, I saw only the tall rock mountain at the center of the world.
I was all alone on a broad plain now with my feet upon the earth, alone but for the spotted eagle guarding me. I could see my people's village far ahead, and I walked very fast, for I was homesick now. Then I saw my own tepee, and inside I saw my mother and my father, bending over a sick boy that was myself. And as I entered the tepee, some one was saying: "The boy is coming to; you had better give him some water."
Then I was sitting up; and I was sad because my mother and my father didn't seem to know I had been so far away."
Doubts When Black Elk awoke, he told no one of his experience. He wanted to get right up and go play. But he was told that he had been comatose for twelve days and needed to rest and recover. To everyone around him, he had merely been very sick. He alone knew of the vision and he was afraid to tell it. But he thought of it often - wondering what was the meaning of it and what was it that he was supposed to do?
From time to time that dreamlike state would come over him briefly and remind him of the vision, but still he told no one. More and more he experienced voices and clairvoyant episodes. Still it was a long time before those around him began to suspect the secret that he was hiding. His life went on pretty much normally for the next few years. Black Elk was able to put the vision out of his mind for long periods of time. But eventually the voices would return - pressing him to take action, but what action he did not understand.
As the years passed the tension between Indian and White increased. There were occasional battles with the soldiers. The most infamous was the overwhelming victory of the Sioux over Long Hair (Custer). Crazy Horse was killed in another treacherous encounter with the soldiers. By the time Black Elk was fifteen years old, it looked more and more like the Lakota would be rounded up to live in crowded reservations like animals. Various sub tribes of the Sioux sought different solutions. Some fled here and there in the distant recesses of their territory while some simply gave up and lived in the soldiers town on the soldiers ration. Black Elks group were ordered by the soldiers to move their camp to the Indian Agency on the Missouri River. But as they were travelling a small band broke away and headed North. They decided to go to the camp of Sitting Bull and Gall in Grandmothers land (Canada). They stayed there for two years.
To the Lakota, Grandmother was Queen Victoria. The Indians liked and respected her because she protected them and treated them with respect. Black Elk met her once a few years later, when he participated in Buffalo Bills Wild West show. The show performed for the Queen in England. She took time to talk with the Indians. She told them that they were the finest people she had seen and that if they were her subjects she wouldn't demean them by having them perform in such a circus like show.
Black Elk began to experience warnings from the spirits. They gave him the power to anticipate danger. On several occasions he saved his band from approaching enemies, not only the Wasichus but enemy tribes as well. He felt that his power was growing. On occasion the voices led him to the buffalo that they needed so desperately to survive. His father began to perceive that he had some kind of power, but still Black Elk kept his vision to himself.
But there was a downside to these episodes. After they returned from Grandmother's Land, the band stayed at the soldiers town at the mouth of the Tongue River. After they held the Sun Dance, a sense of foreboding came over Black Elk. He could think of nothing else but his Great Vision. Seven years had passed, but he had done nothing that the Grandfathers had asked, but he had the sense that they had been helping him. He did not know how to do what they wanted. He began to dread the sight of a cloud for fear that he would hear the voices or seen the men who "came down from the clouds headfirst, like arrows slanting down." He felt guilty for his doubts and his failure to take action. Yet, more and more he would hear the voices of the thunder beings saying "Behold your Grandfathers. Make haste. It is time. It is time." He would run from the cry of the crows in the daytime and the cry of the coyotes at night so that he could not hear their message. He would run from tepee to tepee in the night. People were noticing his erratic behavior. He was seventeen now, but there was talk that the strange sickness of his boyhood was coming back on him.
His mother and father called on an wizened old medicine man named Black Road to help. Black Road simply asked him if he had seen something that troubled him. Black Elk was by now so distraught that he spilled out the reason for his distress and told him everything. Straightway the wise old shaman advised him that he must tell his vision to his people, otherwise it would destroy him. He arranged for the vision to be acted out in a religious dance. This was a sort of grand pageant in which various friends would dress and act as the characters in the vision and perform the vision for the people. It was commonly done when someone had a dream or vision.
After days of preparation, planning, and choreographing the various movements in this sacred Horse Dance, it was finally acted out before the Lakota. Immediately, a new spirit came over Black Elk. His terrible burden was lifted, and now he felt free, although he still did not know what was to be his role. But from that day forth he felt that his spiritual power was increasing. He found that he had a gift for healing and for prophetic insight. He became a medicine man in his own rite. Other lesser visions followed, but he did not understand them any better than his great vision. He spent much quiet time thinking about his visions and thinking what he might do to ease the suffering of his people.
The situation continued to deteriorate for the Oglala Sioux. Black Elk served his people as best he knew how. He healed their sicknesses and performed various spiritual ceremonies, but still he had a sense of failure - a sense that he had not yet done what the Grandfathers wanted him to do. He spent much time meditating on his Great Vision.
At the age of twenty three he made a decision to join the Wild West Show of the other Pahuska (Buffalo Bill). His reason was that he wanted to learn something about the ways of the Wasichus that would help his people. This trip was to occupy the next three years of his life. It was a great and challenging adventure for him, but he did not find what he sought. There was nothing of the White man's ways that appealed to him, and no great secret that would help his people. It was after Black Elk returned from his trip with Buffalo Bill that he found his people in even greater distress than before. Hunger was widespread. Many had been rounded up an forced to live in reservations where the still lived in want. More treaties were made and broken. Sickness was ravaging the people. Measles and whooping cough had claimed many lives.
Word Comes From The West While he was gone his visionary experiences subsided, but when he came back they returned. He was once again called upon to cure his people. But there was something different in the air, now. There was hope for the first time in many years. There was talk of a sacred man coming out of the land of the Paiutes. Word came through the Shoshones and the Blue Clouds (the Arapahoes) that he had received a vision that telling how to make the Wasichus go away and the Bison to return. The native dead would be restored and there would be a new world for the Indians.
His people sent a delegation consisting of Good Thunder, Brave Bear, and Yellow Breast to see this holy man, this Wovoka, whom the Wasichus called Jack Wilson with their own eyes. When they returned to report, Black Elk did not go to hear them because he was skeptical. But he soon heard all that they had to say as it spread like wildfire among the Oglala. He heard about the this Wanekia (one who makes live) and his message of a new world that would come out of the West like a cloud and sweep away the Whites and restore the lives of the Indian dead as well as the dead Bison herds, and there would be a time of plenty. He taught that they should perform the sacred Ghost Dance to bring about the change.
Black Elk was still unconvinced for some time. The Oglala sent two of their people back again to Wovoka. This time they were accompanied by Kicking Bear and Short Bull from the Pine Ridge camp. This time the report was even more buoyant. They saw people performing the Ghost Dance for days on end until they fell into a trance. When they awoke the reported seeing visions of their dead relatives alive and happy. They said Wovoka was the son of the Great Spirit whom the Wasichus had killed a long time ago. He had now come to the Indian and the Wasichus would be destroyed. He could make animals talk and caused many to see the vision of this coming new world. They saw visions of big water and beyond it a beautiful green land where all the Indians who had ever lived and all the bison were coming home together. At one time he held out his hat and showed the beautiful vision in it to all present. Only one person there could not see it. A time had now been given when this would happen - in the spring of 1890. Good Thunder told of seeing his long dead son and talking at length with him. The sacred man had given Good Thunder some eagle feathers and some sacred red paint to take back.
Still, Black Elk was skeptical. His point of reference was his own Great Vision, and none of this seemed to conform. That winter was hard. His father died, as well as his younger brother and sister. His mother was now in his care. He worked in the Wasichus store to provide her with food while he continued to help the sick with his power. As he worked he thought about nothing else but the ghost dance and the events surrounding it. How could he be sure? He found it very confusing.
Fact Finding Soon word came that the camp north of Pine Ridge had held its first ghost dance and were reporting seeing visions like the others. Soon afterward they were dancing at Wounded Knee. Black Elk decided he could not wait any longer. He resolved to go to Wounded Knee. Once there his skepticism began to fade. At that point the destinies of Wovoka and Black Elk became one. So much of his own vision was there in the dance. The dancers held hands in a large circle. All their faces were painted red as were the sacred articles they had offered. In the center was the holy tree painted red with most of its branches cut off and some dead leaves still on it. He felt profoundly sad because the sacred tree of his people was dying and he had done nothing to bring about its restoration. His own vision was still unfulfilled.
But suddenly a great happiness - an ecstasy - seized him. He felt a renewed drive to bring his people back into the sacred hoop that they might walk the red road in a sacred manner pleasing to the powers of the universe that are One Power. He must make the sacred tree bloom. He had gone to the ghost dance only to investigate, but now he was swept up in it with all his being.
Before the dance began the next day, he dressed himself in a sacred manner and went to a group of people standing around the withered tree. Good Thunder offered up a prayer for him saying "Father, Great Spirit, behold this boy! Your ways he shall see!" and he began to cry. As Black Elk thought of his father and brother and sister and the despair of his people he could not keep from crying as well. He thought of the promise of his vision, that his people could once again be happy. He prayed and asked the Great Spirit to once again give the tree life and leaves and singing birds.
They began to dance, singing the song that one dead would sing upon entering the other world. All that first day they danced. Black Elk experienced no vision but his thoughts were of the other world. The following day, after Kicking Bear offered a prayer the dancing began again. Most of the people wailed and cried as they danced, but some laughed with euphoria. Some would stagger and pant as their strength began to flag. Occasionally some on would fall down as though he were dead.
Black Elk began to feel that strange feeling that he was all too familiar with that preceded his visionary experiences. His legs seemed to be swinging off the ground. Soon the feeling had moved up to his heart. He seemed to be gliding to and fro in ever increasing arcs. Then he felt like he was floating head first through the air. He saw a single eagle feather in front of him. It quickly turned into an eagle, guiding him over a ridge that lay in front of him. On the other side he saw a beautiful green land where there were many people camping in a great circle. Every one was happy and had plenty to eat. A living light permeated everything. There were fat horses and animals of all kinds. Hunters were returning with their meat, singing.
Black Elk wanted to see his dead father, but he was turned away by two man dressed in sacred shirts that were painted in a certain way. "It is not yet time to see your father. You have work to do. We will give you something to take back." they told him. He sensed that it was the way their holy shirts were made that he was to take with him. Suddenly his vision was over.
Preparing For The Messiah That evening and the following day he spent in making ghost shirts like those he had seen in vision, painting them in the proper sacred manner. He also made a sacred stick and painted it with some of the red paint from the Wanekia.
Because of his power and his vision he was asked to lead the dance the following day. The emotional current was so strong that day that people began to weep before the opening prayer was ended. Some even fell into a faint at that moment. A second vision awaited for Black Elk that day.
From there Black Elk went to the camp of the Brules at Cut Meat Creek. He took six of the holy shirts he had made as well a six of the dresses that the women wore in his vision. He told them the sacred shirts would protect them from the bullets of the Wasichus. In the dance there he saw a vision of a flaming rainbow. He incorporated this image into his own ghost shirt.
Many of the Brules followed him back to Wounded knee, where they heard that soldiers were at Pine Ridge and were on their way to Wounded Knee. The soldiers intended to suppress the ghost dance because it worried them. Thereafter the Sioux were only allowed to dance 3 days per month.
A concerned policeman arrived to warn Good Thunder and Black Elk that there would soon be someone coming to arrest them. They decided to go back to the camp of the Brules. There Black Elk spoke publicly to the Brules, telling them that they were doing the right thing in the ghost dance. He began to prepare them for an impending fight with the Wasichus. More Brules came in from other camps. They were amassing for war. A Black Robe (a Catholic Priest) came to warn them that they could not possibly win a fight against the soldiers, but only a few were dissuaded. The force of warriors moved about from place to place to avoid the soldiers for a while. Finally, two chiefs from Pine Ridge came to bring Black Elk and Good Thunder back. They could not refuse, but the rest of the Brules would not return.
Violence About that time a significant confrontation took place. Some policemen had attempted to arrest Sitting Bull on Grand River. He would not let them take him. There was a scuffle and he was killed. Rumor was that they were only looking for an excuse to kill him because he was such a powerful chief. Several hundred of Sitting Bulls people joined up with Big Foot's already rag-tag band.
December 29, 1890. Black Elk was at Pine Ridge. Five hundred soldiers had just arrived. They were going after Big Foot. He knew that this would mean big trouble. He could not sleep that night. He just paced, not knowing of anything he could do. At daybreak he went out after his horses and heard cannon fire off to the east.
The Assault Begins The soldiers rode in and started to disarm the people. Most of the guns had been stacked by the tepee where Big Foot was lying sick. The soldiers had surrounded the camp with their cannon and their calvary. Some gave up their guns without resistance, but others were attempting to conceal them in their tepees. The soldiers went in to every tepee, generally ransacking the camp to search for weapons. Two men were outside Big Foot's tepee wearing white sheets over their heads with eye cutouts. They concealed guns under the sheets. When the officers tried to disarm them a scuffle broke out, a gun went off and an officer fell dead. Immediately, one of the officers went into the tepee where Big Foot was lying sick and killed him. Pandemonium broke out and the soldiers began firing all around. They started firing their cannon into the camp, killing many where they stood, and cutting down women and children as they fled for safety. The warriors fought with their bare hands until they could reach their guns by the tepee.
When Black Elk reached his horses, he put on a special holy shirt that he had made for himself. It had an outstretched spotted eagle on the back. There was also the daybreak star, the flaming rainbow, eagle feathers, and red streaks of lightning - all symbols from his visions. He painted his face red and put an eagle feather in his hair. He rode alone toward the gunfire. He had no gun, only the sacred bow of the west from his vision. He was soon joined by others who were riding toward the ominous noises. A lone rider passes them going furiously toward Pine Ridge crying "They have murdered them!" Soon they top the ridge overlooking a deep dry gulch.
Calvarymen were scrambling over the hills in the distance. Some rode along the gulch and shot their rifles into it. Sioux women and children were running away and trying to hide in the woods. A group of women and children were being guarded by soldiers, but when Black Elk and the others charged the soldiers ran off. Thus rescued, the women and children scurried off to the northwest to safety. Near the head of the gulch, Black Elk spotted an abandoned baby. Judging that she was safe there, he wrapped her a little tighter in her shawl and made a mental note of her location so he could come back for her later. He rode into the intensity of the battle. He charged the soldiers lines holding his sacred bow toward them in his right hand. He heard bullets whizzing past as he rode, but none touched him.
Many other Lakotas from Pine Ridge were now entering the fray. Dozens of groups of Lakota were sallying toward the soldiers positions. As they rode amid the exploding cannonballs and gunfire, they saw the terrible specter of dead and wounded women, children, and babies who dotted the landscape. In places the dead lay in heaps. Some bodies had been dismembered by the soldiers cannonballs. A baby tried to suckle its mother. She was dead and bloody. Two brave little boys with rifles were hidden behind the rocks, firing on the soldiers. Several dead soldiers lay just below them.
Eventually there were enough Lakota to stop the soldiers assault, though they could not drive them out. By evening the battle was over and the soldiers marched away. As the Indians began to assess their dead, the magnitude of the massacre became clear. The dead were strewn throughout the length of the gulch and up to the high ridge. The destruction was enormous. The loss of life appalling. The camp of Big Foot was annihilated. As Black Elk looked around he wished that he had died with the others, but now he wanted revenge.
Black Elk went back to where he had left the baby lying. He picked up the child and headed for Pine Ridge. Red Crow carried an orphaned baby in his arms as well. They thought there would be safety in Pine Ridge, but it was not to be. A fight had broken out here and all the village had left so suddenly that they left their tepees standing empty. There was still sporadic gunfire in the area. A few shots were clearly intended for them as they rode. They managed to elude the gunfire and went from tepee to tepee looking for something to eat. They finally found a pot with cooked papa (dried meat in it). They sat down and began to eat. A bullet went through the tepee right between the two and struck the ground. With the Lakota in a condition of near starvation, Black Elk could only think "If that bullet had only killed me, at least I would have died with papa in my mouth."
Under cover of darkness he and Red Crow rode away with the babies. They were able to locate the place where the people were camped. There were no tepees. Everyone huddled around campfires. Some of the nursing mothers there took over care of the infants.
At daybreak they quickly assembled a warparty. Black Elk went along and took a gun with him this time. That first day he did not take a gun because he was still doubtful about Wovoka's religion and he did not want to kill anybody over it. But now he wanted revenge.
They rode to where they expected to find the soldiers. Soon they heard gunfire. As they topped a ridge, they saw Lakotas on both sides of a creek firing at soldiers coming down the creek. Black Elk rode to the top of the hill and then charged directly at the soldiers. His people warned him no to do it, but he drew on the power of the geese in his vision. He stretched out his arms like a goose, holding his rifle in his right hand. He charged, making the sound of a goose. As he came very close to them he fired into their faces and swung around and rode back up the hill.
He believed his ghost shirt would protect him from bullets. But as he reached the top of the hill a searing pain struck him in the back. He fell from his horse. An old man helped him. His insides were coming out of his abdomen. The old man bound his torso with strips of a blanket. Black Elk wanted to make another charge, but the old man convinced him not to.
For a while it looked as though the Lakota would defeat the Wasichus, but reinforcements arrived and the Lakota had to break off the battle. Scattered fighting continued for several days in the area. Black Elk recuperated with the help of a powerful medicine man named Old Hollow Horn. In about 2 weeks Black Elk was ready to go out and fight again. He successfully made a raid to get some good horses from the soldiers. He participated in several skirmishes with the Wasichus. Finally, rescuing several wounded, he took them back to camp.
There were plans to organize a larger war party, but it was not to be. Chief Red Cloud spoke to the camp. He pointed out that the winter was hard and the women and little ones were starving and freezing. He said it was now time to make peace. So the entire camp went to Pine Ridge and surrendered their arms. The entire episode was over. The spirit of the Lakota was broken and their dream had died. The ghost dance was never danced again. The people felt betrayed by their spirits. Disillusionment was overwhelming. It would be the end of an era and a way of life. The tribes all abandoned their messianic hopes and their unique method of worship. The sacred tree was dead.
Conclusion It was many years ago when I first read Black Elk Speaks. I found it to be a compelling story. It was moving and profoundly sad. I thought about it often but it was so melancholy that I could not bring myself to read it again until I began to research this article. I began to make the connection in my mind between Wovoka and Black Elk. I realized that these two stories were different parts of the same story and that together they tell the poignant story of a people whose faith let them down. The Indians were the subjects of great persecution and prejudice. They were in danger of extinction. They desperately followed after the dreams and visions of two prophets - dreams that promised deliverance from their suffering and the beginning of an age of peace and prosperity. They had unshakable faith in the message of those men. But sadly the vision was a lie. It led them down the path of slaughter and genocide. They had faith in a lying vision.
Now it's easy for traditional religious people to say, in their usual arrogance, that the Indians worshipped the wrong gods. They were nothing but pagans. But the logical conclusion to that line of reasoning is that the white American soldiers and the American government that was enforcing a cruel policy of genocide on the Indians represented righteousness and Godliness. Such a statement may have been credible in 1890 among the Wasichus, but it rings hollow in the year 2000. Thankfully, the events of the succeeding generations have softened our society's brutal view of human rights. But it is far from a perfect world. It could easily be shown that the traditional Christian world view is as pagan in it's doctrines and practice as that of the Indians. And the Indians had, in some measure, adopted the view of white man's religion, but it only led them to suffering.
The messages of the Indian prophets were not altogether different than that of traditional Christianity. Though the record history is garbled, it appears that Wovoka's message was about a second coming of Jesus, a millennium (albeit Indian style), an age of peace and prosperity. It was a message that began with similar virtues to those of traditional Christianity - honesty, truth, do harm to none, and be non-violent. Though the ghost dance was not Sunday School, it was a recognized form of worship in Indian culture.
On the other hand, it can be shown that the world view of the Indians was in some ways more pure than traditional Christianity. The Indians had a reverence for the spiritual far and away more profound than that of white society. Their belief was simple and direct. Though their concepts of God and the spiritual world are somewhat different than traditional religious thought, it is clear that they believed in one Great Spirit. In their time of trouble they turned to Him in full expectation that He would deliver them. The Grandfathers in their visions were little different than the patriarchs, prophets, angels and apostles that traditional religionists claim to see in their own dreams and visions. No one can seriously doubt the sincerity of those native Americans, nor their faith, nor their devotion to the cause of their own survival. No one can doubt their desperate need during those times when they were threatened with extinction. But neither can one deny that the vision was a lie. It simply did not come to pass.
It is not an issue of who was right and who was wrong, or even who was more right than the other. The question that begs to be answered is this: Does God talk to humans in this manner? If some one experiences what seems like a supernatural revelation, voices that seem to come from no explainable source, an ecstatic vision or seizure, can he or she have any reasonable expectation that God is behind it?
Were Wovoka and Black Elk frauds? Did they simply make up what they claimed to have seen? Of course we can't know anything of the veracity and character of these men in a firsthand way. We know nothing of them except for the sparse details of capricious history. But there is not the slightest indication that these men were charlatans or that they were known to practice such deceit. They had nothing to gain in telling their visions. In fact, they only bought them trouble.
One important factor is that both men initially had these visionary experiences when they were very ill. This has often been true throughout history in the case of various prophets who claimed to have revelations from God. Even where illness is not evident, it has been common for those who seek such experiences to fast for long periods of time, weakening their bodies and minds. This makes us suspect that their visions are nothing more than hallucinations from fever or lack of nourishment? If one studies the life stories of such visionaries, there is an undeniable correlation. After the initial encounter, it seems that ones mind becomes conditioned to slip into the visionary state more readily. And with repeated practice it can be brought on at will. Once the threshold is crossed, the doorway to the altered state remains open.
That such images can come from our own minds is not difficult to believe. Stories of near death experiences are undoubtedly a related phenomenon. Many people place great credibility on such stories. But the reality is that most people who are resuscitated remember nothing of the experience. And those who claim to recall conscious experiences from beyond the boundary of death, don't all tell the same story at all. Most recount the experience in terms of what they expect after death. A Christian talks about seeing Jesus - a Buddist may report being greeted by the enlightened Buddha himself, whereas a Muslim may report being welcomed by Mohammed. Others report seeing their long dead relatives as did the ghost dancers of the 1890's. Some have even reported seeing the flames of hell. It seems that everyone sees what he expects to see. It is his own vision, coming from his own imagination.
I believe there are many conclusions that we can draw from this episode from the 1890's. I expect that those who read these articles are intelligent people who can draw their own conclusions, so it probably is not necessary to state them.
So we come to the close of one of the strangest stories in the history of religious thought. If it leaves us unsettled - it should.
(c) Copyright 2000 by Wayne Simpson
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