The Black Elk Paradox
Fanny Kelly’s Sioux Reality versus Black Elk’s
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
What was the nature of the Sioux when they roamed the western plains? One might as well question the nature of humanity, given the options and contradict-ions—vengeful warriors, resourceful nomads, wandering mystics, common hunter gatherers, and so on.
Modern political correctness and romanticized epics like Dances with Wolves limit depictions of the Sioux to “culturally sensitive” models, nice characteriza-tions, while Fanny Kelly’s narrative, though often expressing admiration and respect, and informing us first hand about the day-to-day lives and temperament of the Oglala, waxes caustic toward the end of the current installment (see Taken By the Sioux, this issue), what these days would be termed hate speech, after she witness-es (or learns of) another massacre of white people, this time on the Yellowstone River, made all the more repugnant to her as the braves responsible mock the dying agonies of their victims before her eyes, and as the chief sports the full, lustrous and blood-stained scalp of a young white woman killed in the brutal attack.
Kelly, though, finds the marauding young brave, who inflicted such a hideous death upon his innocent victim, crestfallen and remorseful. He sits alone, unable to participate in the macabre scalp dance, tormented by the face and eyes of the youthful woman he mercilessly killed, for her long hair, his conscience getting the better of him.
Kelly’s story at this point needs commentary, sorting through, for it is beyond comprehension as we sit comfortable and secure in the 21st century, and as those governed by cultural sensitivity might attempt to apply standards of historical presentism (unrealistically imposing mindsets of the present upon the realities past).
Placing ourselves instead in Fanny Kelly’s shoes, enduring captivity for several months and witnessing atrocities first hand, being forced to participate in celebrations over the deaths of her own people, fearing the death of her husband and adopted daughter (who was killed by the Sioux), all the while living with extreme physical and emotional hardship, we too undoubtedly would have had harsh words for our captors.
Consider her magnanimity, as well, in recognizing the virtues, talents and strengths of the Oglala, and with her lucid descriptions of Indian life and customs, she undeni-ably offers through her real life experience a rare window into the nature of the Sioux as they actually were in those days, present day imaginings steeped in sensitivity and new age notions notwithstanding.
More over, white Christian society and mores of those days stood starkly at odds with those of “heathen savages.” The ethics resulting from Christianity that shaped European civilization for centuries also shaped the psyches of America’s westering settlers, so as to become second nature (though of course governments and individuals flouted those ethics), while practices so obvious to white Christians as abhorrent (torture applied to massacre victims, including women, children and captive enemies, boastful revelry after scalpings, and the mutilation of enemy corpses for trophies and necklaces) were common practices of the Sioux and other Plains Indians, albeit with individuals at times speaking against applications of cruel “justice”—on Fanny Kelly’s behalf, for instance—as if having naturally tapped into a stream of compassion expressed in various ways in all cultures and through their religions in particular. Kelly, what’s more, found kindness and sympathy extended to her on various occasions.
We will not dance around the fact, though, that the Sioux often inflicted blood curdling acts of cruelty and vengeance upon enemies and white settlers, as a function of tribal policy, as Kelly saw it. One might, of course, point to savagery on the part of whites, atrocities brought to bear upon native peoples at Wounded Knee and elsewhere, correctly so, but our discussion here deals with the Sioux in relation to Fanny Kelly’s captivity narrative, her having provided an epic and detailed account of life among them, and then a vision of the Sioux from one of their own, that of the famous mystic Nicholas Black Elk.
In the case of Sioux attitudes toward whites, Kelly tells us hatred was indeed policy, and killing and scalping whites the execution of that policy, and so when we hear of massacres, we may place those horrific acts in that context, yet the horror and terror involved was hardly contained by the bland word that she used (policy), perhaps euphemistically to avoid dwelling upon the nightmare she endured and that surely burdened her, having lost her five-year old adopted daughter to such a fate, then having later seen the child’s scalp dangling from the horse of a Sioux warrior, the effect of which among other white women of the day witnessing such atrocities was, by Kelly’s own words, insanity (the reputed origin of the name for our Crazy Mountains being due to such an occurrence).
Ironically though, Kelly, a white woman, was highly regarded, as the elderly chief’s possession, a medicine woman, a teacher, and as a source of knowledge about white civilization, her relationship to the chief resulting from practices among Indians in those days of abducting women and children for ransom or making them their own. Stealing from an enemy, more over, especially horses, was regarded as an act of valor among the tribes, acts whites saw as common thievery.
Black Elk’s Sioux Reality
Nicholas Black Elk though, the Oglala Lakota medicine man of the succeeding generation (an infant in 1864, the year Kelly was abducted, 13 years old in 1876, when he participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, 27 when wounded at Wounded Knee in 1890, and who died in 1950) offers a contrasting take on Sioux reality compared to that experienced by Kelly, though Black Elk’s spirituality had roots in Sioux religion and informed her captor’s world view. It should also be noted that societal concepts of Christian kindness and mercy had to have been just that to the Sioux, Christian products of European culture that we need not assume prevailed upon the psyches of the warlike Lakota. To the contrary, acts of bravery in battle that often resulted in the killing of rivals, perhaps even worse acts, were thought to glorify warriors in the afterlife. Black Elk, though, revealed the underlying similarity in Christian and Sioux spirituality, having been both a medicine man and a prolific catechist (teacher of Catholic principles) on the Pine Ridge Reservation, one who simultaneously extolled and practiced Lakota and Christian ways.
The time and height of Black Elk’s powers, his medicine, came just after the great Sioux warrior culture, straddling the life of Sitting Bull, who might also be looked upon in the alternate light we now explore (and who lived in the Sioux’s final days as nomadic warriors—the Lakota, of which the Oglala and Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa were a part, being perhaps the most war like of the Sioux clans) in that Sitting Bull exhibited the wisdom and vision associated with spiritual leadership (having precognized, it is said, the Battle of the Little Bighorn). Black Elk, owing to transcendental experiences, was likewise at an advantage over others, and ahead of his time compared to many of his day, even theoretical physicists in his intuitive understanding of reality. As a result, he probably had much to do with new age notions of native spirituality through stories of his life (with few exploring his 1904 conversion to Jesuit Catholicism, Christ’s life and teaching being the revelation to humanity, as Black Elk saw it, of Wakan Tonka, the Great Spirit), his immersion having been so profound in a spirituality at the heart of the Sioux collective soul, but that, as with whites and their faiths, did not necessarily inform individual or cultural actions, such as those related to exultation in war. Moreover, as expressed by Kelly, deeds of skill in battle won Sioux warriors, they believed, special status in the land of eternal spring, plentiful game, and happiness (for related commentary, thousands of years prior, consult Lord Krishna’s advice to Arjun in the Bhagavad Gita, Indians of a separate land offering understanding regarding life, death and battle against the backdrop of eternity).
Black Elk’s experience transcended cultures, even his own, yet united them. He was a medicine man, but more than that, a holy man, and from a young age. As a boy, he fell out of waking consciousness for a period of several days, due to sickness, or into some spontaneous coma, and emerged Self-realized, speaking of having experi-enced himself at the center of all existence, like an eastern mystic, which he characterized as “the highest mountain” in the “center of the world,” where the Thunder Beings (first created companions to the Great Spirit, whose awesome thunder resounded like laughter) and the six Grandfathers of the sacred dimensions (north, south, east, west, above and below) came to him as "kind and loving, full of years and wisdom, like revered human grandfathers" and revealed to him the spiritual truth of the ages.
The import of this phenomenal experience held that the Great Spirit lives and breathes in all creatures and cultures and that all are united in that Spirit, in a centrality of existence that is Truth within Nature and all peoples, the truth of God and creation itself.
As a teenager, Black Elk shared his revelation with medicine men, and was elevated among his elders. He had visions and experiences throughout his life, from that central place of reality, and his story and words were later recorded by John Neihardt and published in Black Elk Speaks and in Joseph Epes Brown’s The Sacred Pipe.
In his childhood experience, an out-of-body revelation, Black Elk’s report regarding the core of exis-tence, the highest mountain and central point of reality, bears resemblance to biblical references, and to Vishnunabi, the navel of Vishnu, in Sanskrit literature, the place of oneness around which all revolves, from which all emerges, and in which all exists beyond space and time—the universal point of non locality in the terminology of theoretical physics, the access point of which is said by yogis to reside in the center of the brain. This non locality, according to Black Elk, avails “oneness with the universe and all its powers.”
“I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit,” Neihardt recorded Black Elk as saying, “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.”
Black Elk’s stated and unstated roles among his own people, after the tragic and violent years of his youth, the time of Fanny Kelly and various massacres perpetrated by Indians and whites, was that of healer and teacher, and his influ-ence upon others through accounts of his life, including Europeans who still value his knowledge, and the many Lakota he converted to Catholicism (some 400), places him among the great spiritual teachers of history. Within his own culture, he contributed to the resurrection of the Sun Dance (significantly, this was after his Catholic conversion) for which he prescribed protocols still in use today.
Speaking to both personal and political healing, he said, “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that its center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”
He also said, with disarming simplicity, “Grown men can learn from very little children for the hearts of the little children are pure. Therefore, the Great Spirit may show to them many things which older people miss.” This, from a warrior who fought Custer and a witness to the Wounded Knee massacre, who in his final years haun-tingly said, regarding Wounded Knee, “I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream...”
(The contrast between the way Black Elk represents his people, and that as told by Fanny Kelly, her sentiments expressed in the depths of her torment, at the hands of Black Elk’s own, need not be understated.)
Black Elk then holds up a mirror to the white man, having visited New York City in 1886, an event that must have resembled an alien visitation, as he saw the city with virgin eyes: “I did not see anything [in New York] to help my people. I could see that the Wasichus [whites] did not care for each other the way our people did before the nation's hoop was broken. They would take everything from each other if they could, and so there were some who had more of everything than they could use, while crowds of people had nothing at all and maybe were starving. This could not be better than the old ways of my people.”
In the heart of his message, from which the above sentiment derives, Black Elk espoused something brilliant and elegant, a statement of truth that if accompanied by equations would place him among those awarded the Nobel Prize, in the arcane area of science that deals with the underlying nature of things (uniting Science and Spirit, and enthralling the likes of Einstein and his protégé David Bohm).
What was it Black Elk said that resounds so? He said, essentially, from first hand experience, that the center of the universe is everywhere, as the core of Self. In his own words, he expressed it this way:
“The first peace…the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that its center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”
His recognition of unity, present in all people and races, informs us then on matters of policy, as he said:
“There can never be peace between nations until there is first known that true peace which is within the souls of men.”