October 31, 2004

Symbolism of Black Elk’s Vision


At the age of nine, Nicholas Black Elk, a holy man of the Oglala Sioux, had a great vision. This vision was the primary subject of his interview with writer John Neihardt and Neihardt’s subsequent 1932 novel, Black Elk Speaks. As the title suggests, Neihardt’s novel is the medium through which Black Elk shares his life narrative. Through the novel, in addition to the recounting of his great vision and other significant events in his personal history, Black Elk voices significant events and figures in Sioux history. 

In this way, Black Elk Speaks, is available tool in the study of Lakota (Sioux) culture as it offers insight into traditional Lakota cultural, social, and religious practices. As Black Elk is considered to be “the greatest religious thinker yet produced by native North Americans,” perhaps the novel is most useful for its portrayal of Lakota religion, as represented through its recounting of Black Elk’s great vision.
The vision experience is central to the sacred religion of the Lakota, and therefore the content of a vision has religious significance and is related to traditional religious beliefs. This paper, then, uses Black Elk’s great vision, as told through Black Elk Speaks, as a tool to assist in the interpretation of Lakota religion. As this is a historical paper rather than a theological one, the focus of its vision analysis will be the link between religion, history, and environment. 

An analysis of a native vision, or any aspect of Native American religion, is a potentially controversial undertaking. Native American religion, its religious traditions and ceremonies, are traditionally sacred, and therefore not discussed with those outside of the tribe. The secret nature of Native American religions is at the center of a debate concerning the academic study and instruction of these religions by non-Native Americans.

The central discussion of this debate is who, if anyone, should teach native religion in an academic setting? Both natives and non-natives have been criticized for doing so–non-natives for their debatable insensitivity and misrepresentation of the subject, and natives for their betrayal of tribal secrets. Often, American Indians who choose to share their tribal religious secrets with “outsiders” are criticized for doing so–Black Elk and the novel have been criticized for this reason.

Black Elk’s reasons for sharing his experiences with Neihardt, however, are not based on his desire to betray his ancestors; rather, Black Elk shared his knowledge with Neihardt in order to preserve “for future generations the religion, ceremonies, and philosophies of the Oglala Lakota.”

Aside from his desire to share aspects of traditional Lakota life, Black Elk, in his discussion of his own interpretation of his vision, “wished…to share the burden of visions that remained unfulfilled with a compatible spirit.”

Regardless of Black Elk’s intentions, it is important, in the analysis of the novel’s content, to remember that “Neihardt’s book…stands as a work of art…reflecting Neihardt’s impressions and understandings of the great holy man.”

This, however, does not invalidate the stories, histories, and religious visions which the novel recounts. Despite the discussion surrounding its validity and propriety, the novel’s content does provide its reader with an account of Lakota religion, culture, and history. It is, thus, a useful tool of interpretation, in spite of any lapses which may have occurred in Black Elk’s narrative from Lakota into English or any artistic liberties taken by Neihardt.

In the midst of the debates over Native American religion and the validity and propriety of the text lies the basis of the novel itself, the interview between Neihardt and Black Elk. This interview occurred at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the southwestern corner of South Dakota, sixty-five miles east of the South Dakota-Wyoming state line. The reservation’s name comes from the Lakota word Waziahanhan, and it refers to the reservation’s physical environment: “rolling prairie land broken by white-faced buttes dotted with yellow pine.”

That the Lakota language has a word to describe the physical landscape of their homeland so specifically demonstrates the link between the people and the environment. The reservation, however, though located within the region that once was the homeland of the Lakota, cannot be considered part of the Lakota’s home environment. The original homeland of the Sioux, or at least the region where there were during their first white contact, was in Minnesota, in the upper Mississippi River valley. In roughly 1755, the Sioux left the upper Midwest and migrated west to the plains, specifically the region surrounding and including the Black Hills or Paha Sapa.

The Black Hills, which offer the “anticipation of the Rocky Mountain Experience,” are located primarily in south-eastern South Dakota, between the Cheyenne and Belle Fourche rivers.8 Formed as a result of “an unwarping of ancient rock” and “stream erosion,” the Black Hills rise 3,000 feet above the surrounding plains and have an elevation of 7,242 feet at their highest point, Harney Peak.9 The mountains’ slopes are covered with ponderosa pine, juniper, northern spruce, and fir trees which give them a dark or black appearance from a distance, thereby causing the Sioux to call them Paha Sapa, translated as the Black Hills–another link between Lakota language and environment.

Before the Lakota migrated to this region, the Black Hills were inhabited in turn by the Crow, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Arapaho, and Mandan American Indians, but by the time of Black Elk’s vision, 1872, the Black Hills were the sacred homeland of the Sioux.

Black Elk had his great vision at the age of nine, which is about thirty years younger than the statistical average age for vision seeing. Childhood visions among holy men, however, are not uncommon, but due to the early age of the vision’s experiencer, these childhood vision “are not acted upon” until the experiencer is of age.

There are two ways for a Lakota to experience a vision, an occurrence which is an integral part of Sioux religion. According to Lakota theology, man, although an integral part of nature, is “innately powerless.” In times of crisis, therefore, he cries to Wakan Tanka (the closest thing to the Christian God in Lakota religion) to pity him and to offer him guidance–which comes in the form of a vision.

In this instance, the Lakota is crying for a vision, hanbleceya. In hanbleceya., only the “worthy” receive a vision, which in turn, must be interpreted by a holy man, Wicasa Wakan.

Often, however, a Lakota does not have to go on a vision quest in order to receive a vision: “When Wakan Tanka wishes one of mankind to do something he makes his wish known…in a vision.”

This is what happened in the case of Black Elk’s vision, and, when examined from this point of view, the vision becomes a prophecy and perhaps a warning of the death, destruction, and sorrow that the Sioux were to face in the years following 1872. The bleakness expressed in parts of the great vision have historical relevance and significance.

In 1874, US General George A. Custer found gold in the Black Hills, and this discovery led to an influx of white settler-miners and military presence in the region. The US government attempted to purchase the Black Hills from the Lakota nation for $6 million, the Lakota refused and the result was the Sioux Wars of roughly the following 16 years.

The culmination of these wars, which included the now infamous Battle of little Big Horn(1876), was the Battle of Wounded Knee(1890) which resulted in a massacre of Sioux women and children, and the eventual removal of the Lakota nation from the Black Hills. The tragedy endured by the Lakota nation was prophesied in Black Elk’s vision.

In the vision, during his visit with the six grandfathers, the fourth grandfather says that the Lakota nation will walk down a “fearful road…of troubles and of war;” and later during his mystic journey, Black Elk views men, women, and children dying their tepees.

Aside from their historical significant, these scenes and others in the vision also have religious significance. While there are many complicated images that have religious and cultural significance to the Lakota, there are certain things in particular which cannot be ignored in an analysis of the vision’s significance. The first repeating symbol of importance is the number four and its multiples. Throughout the vision, these numbers are evident: for example, Black Elk originally views four horses, then twelve. The reoccurrence of the number four is no coincidence as four is a sacred number in Oglala theology. According to Oglala religious beliefs, since “the Great Spirit caused everything to be in four’s, mankind should do everything possible in four’s.” 

There are four directions: north, south, west east; four divisions of time: day, night, moon, and year; four periods in human life: babyhood, childhood, adulthood, and old age; and four kinds of gods: “the great, the associates of the great, the gods below them, and the spirit kind.”

The traditional power structure of the Sioux tribe followed this four logic. There was one ultimate chief, and he was advised by a council of other warrior chiefs with somewhat lesser power. This body of the Tezi Tanka, “big bellies,” elected seven still lesser chiefs, who in turn selected four chiefs who “essentially controlled the camp.”

The number seven, though not represented in Black Elk’s great vision, is also a sacred number of the Lakota; the Lakota, in fact, originally referred to themselves as the Seven Fireplaces.

Twenty-eight, the product of four and seven, is also a sacred number: there are twenty-eight days in a Lakota month, which is based on the moon’s cycle, buffalo have twenty-eight ribs, and a Lakota war bonnet has twenty-eight feathers.

Here, the link between Lakota religion and their environment and culture becomes clear.

Black Elk’s vision further illustrates this relationship through its constant reference to environmental factors: weather conditions, flora, fauna, and color. In Lakota theology, weather conditions, such as wind, rain, thunder, and hail–all of which are present in the vision– are manifestations of the powers of the gods. Both thunderstorms and wind were created by the four supreme gods of the Lakota. Inyan, god of “all mountains, rocks, and high hills” created thunderstorms, Wakinyan, as his messenger. Skan, the “source of all power and all spirit,” created wind, Tate, as his messenger, and he also created the stars to provide Tate with light during the night.

All aspects of the environment, in fact, illustrate the relationship between the Lakota religion and nature, for, like the wind and thunderstorms, all aspects of nature were created by the Lakota gods. In this way, man and his environment are intertwined and related and, thus, they develop a mutual respect for one another as a result of their common link to the gods and their mutual point of origin.

Color is another indicator of the Lakota gods’ link to nature which plays a significant role in the vision. In the Lakota creation myth, the four principle gods are assigned colors: yellow, green, red, and blue. These colors, in addition to black, white, and brown, are present throughout Black Elk’s vision. The horses in the vision represent the colors red(sorrel), white, brown(bay), black, and yellow(buckskin); blue and green are also represented. The colors black, red, yellow, and white–the colors of the primary groups of horses in the vision–are perhaps the most important in Lakota religion, as they are the ones associated with the four directions. 

Black, the color of the west, is representative of war and confrontation. Red, which represents law and control, is associated with the north. White, the color of renewal and spirit, is linked to the East; and finally, yellow, associated with unity and quiet, is the color of the South.

The theme of unity is, perhaps, the most important message in Black Elk’s vision, and it too is strongly linked to Lakota religion. As mentioned earlier, as a result of their religious beliefs, the Lakota nation stressed the relationship between all things. This bond linked man with animal as well as man with man. The Lakota nation has a strong kinship system at its social structure base, founded in the respect for elders and the interrelationship of all tribe members. This is stressed in the vision, as Black Elk learned the spiritual secrets from men referred to as “grandfathers,” although in terms of western kinship beliefs it is unknown if they truly are related. 

Along these same lines, in Lakota religion, Wakan Tanka is sometimes addressed as Ate Wakan Tanka, or grandfather Wakan Tanka, and the environmental manifestations of the god’s power are referred to as mother or father.

The unity and strong interrelationships of the Lakota people is also evident in their use of the circle formation and imagery, a symbol which is used strongly in the vision. The circle is symbolic of unity and social solidarity, and it is, therefore, the formation of the Lakota camp. The space within the camp circle, or sacred hoop(cangleska wakan), is the hocoka, a space where everything is “safe, knowledgeable, auspicious,” and “irrefutably Oglala.” Outside of the sacred hoop, on the other hand, is a world filled with “enemies…evil spirits, and later the white man.”

The worlds on either side of the sacred hoop were irreconcilable, and the destruction of the sacred hoop would result in the mixing of the two worlds and the ultimate destruction of the hocoka. This is, in essence, what occurred with the end of the Sioux Wars, and it is also what occurred in the vision when Black Elk witnessed the destruction of his tribe.

This destruction of the sacred hoop and thus the Lakota, however, was not the final image of Black Elk’s great vision. After the destruction of his people, Black Elk’s grandfathers gave him the tools and knowledge necessary for the reconstruction of the sacred hoop and therefore the revitalization of the Lakota nation: “Give them…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.”

The vision takes the unity of the Lakota one step further, as it prophesies a pan-Indianism, or possibly pan-humanism, oneness: “I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle…it was holy.”

Black Elk’s vision, therefore, was ultimately unfulfilled during his lifetime as the unity and revitalization of the Lakota nation, or mankind for that matter, did not yet occurred. The pan-Indian movement that culminated in the 1970s with the second Battle of Wounded Knee, was perhaps an attempt at the fulfillment of Black Elk’s vision, but it met with ultimate failure.

Regardless of its unfulfillment, the great vision of Black Elk is of significant importance to Lakota history, even if its historical accuracy and worth are doubted. The vision, as it is recounted in Black Elk Speaks, is significant in that through its recording it provides a documentation of Lakota life, culture, and religion. Through the interpretation of the vision, aspects of Lakota religion are illustrated, aspects which are traditionally kept as sacred secrets. Once parts of Lakota religion are revealed and examined, the link between Lakota religion, culture, and environment becomes clear. 

This was the purpose of the paper, and while it is perhaps an analytical exercise, one that is too analytical for a subject as personal and emotional as religion, it is useful none-the-less. As Black Elk’s ultimate purpose was to impart information about the Sioux to future generations, in an attempt to create an extended sacred hoop, his vision must be studied from all perspectives.

AUTHOR: Mariama Diao

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