Skip to content

Black Elk, Lakota Visionary: The Oglala Holy Man and Sioux Tradition

in stock, ready to be shipped
Save 5% Save 5%
Original price $19.95
Original price $19.95 - Original price $19.95
Original price $19.95
Current price $18.99
$18.99 - $18.99
Current price $18.99
Black Elk (1863-1950), the Lakota holy man, is beloved by millions of readers around the world. The book Black Elk Speaks is the most widely-read Native American testimony of the last century and a key work in our understanding of American Indian traditions. In Black Elk, Lakota Visionary, Harry Oldmeadow draws on recently discovered sources and in-depth research to provide a major re-assessment of Black Elk’s life and work. The author explores Black Elk’s mystical visions, his controversial engagement with Catholicism, and his previously unrecognized attempts to preserve and revive ancestral Sioux beliefs and practices. Oldmeadow’s lively and highly readable account also examines the controversies that have surrounded Black Elk and his collaborators, John G. Neihardt and Joseph Epes Brown. Oldmeadow judiciously explains why both Black Elk Speaks and The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux are to be ranked amongst the most profound spiritual documents of the twentieth century. Black Elk, Lakota Visionary will command the attention of every reader who is interested in the American Indians, providing fascinating insights into their ancestral traditions prior to the reservation era, the subsequent destruction and revival of their traditional ways, and the vital lessons which the contemporary world might draw from their spiritual legacy.

ISBN-13: 9781936597604

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: World Wisdom

Publication Date: 04-07-2018

Pages: 256

Product Dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Harry Oldmeadow was, until his retirement in 2012, Coordinator of Philosophy and Religious Studies at La Trobe University Bendigo. His previous publications include Journeys East: 20th Century Western Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions, Frithjof Schuon and the Perennial Philosophy, and Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy. He lives in Bendigo, Australia. Charles Trimble was former Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians and principal founder of the American Indian Press Association. He is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2013. The author of Iyeska, he is now retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska.

Read an Excerpt


Nomadic Peoples and the Mark of Cain

And he said, "What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground."

Genesis 4:10

Well, it is as it is. We are prisoners of war while we are waiting here. But there is another world.

Black Elk 1

The Destruction of the Nomadic Peoples

Ruminating on the destruction of the traditional and largely nomadic culture of Tibet, the Perennialist author Marco Pallis wrote this:

One can truly say that this remote land behind the snowy rampart of the Himalaya had become like the chosen sanctuary for all those things whereof the historical discarding had caused our present profane civilization, the first of its kind, to come into being. ... The violation of this sanctuary and the dissipation of the sacred influences concentrated there became an event of properly cosmic significance, of which the ulterior consequences for a world which tacitly condoned the outrage or, in many cases, openly countenanced it on the plea that it brought "progress" to a reluctant people, have yet to ripen.

Similar considerations may be applied in more or less analogous cases, whether we think of the fate of the American Indians, the Australian Aborigines, the Inuit, the Bedouin, the Gypsies, the Amazonians, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, or any other nomadic culture which has been razed by the juggernaut of modernization. In The Reign of Quantity the French metaphysician René Guénon observes that it is only in these latter days, marked by the ever-accelerating "solidification" of the world, that "Cain finally and really slays Abel" — which is to say that the sedentary civilizations destroy the nomadic cultures. Moreover,

It could be said in a general way that the works of sedentary peoples are works of time: these people are fixed in space within a strictly limited domain, and develop their activities in a temporal continuity which appears to them to be indefinite. On the other hand, nomadic and pastoral peoples build nothing durable, and do not work for a future which escapes them; but they have space in front of them, not facing them with any limitation, but on the contrary always offering them new possibilities.

No doubt it was with similar reflections in mind that Frithjof Schuon remarked that "traditions having a prehistoric origin are, symbolically speaking, made for 'space' and not for 'time.'" George La Piana also alludes to the symbolism of the Biblical story in writing, "Cain, who killed his brother, Abel, the herdsman, and built himself a city, prefigures modern civilization, one that has been described from within as a 'murderous machine, with no conscience and no ideals.'" It follows from these observations that the slaying of Abel — the violent extirpation of the primordial nomadic cultures — not only drastically contracts human possibilities, but is actually a cosmic desecration. Since the genocidal vandalisms of the nineteenth century a great deal has been written about the destruction of the indigenous cultures of North America. There have also been many attempts, with varying degrees of success, to elucidate and to reanimate at least some aspects of their ancestral ways of life. But many writers on these subjects are quite impervious to the deeper significance of the events they seek to explain.

During the span of Black Elk's life most European accounts of the American Indians were steeped in racist assumptions and triumphalist attitudes much easier to discern from our present vantage point than they were at the time. It was only some twenty-odd years after Black Elk's passing that the tide began to turn with new efforts to understand the history of Indian-white encounters through the eyes of those who had been apparently vanquished. Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) was one of the vanguard works. The counter-culture of the late 1960s and 70s also sponsored, among its more serious-minded participants, an interest in ways of life and modes of consciousness which stood at odds with the dominant ethos of "progress," competitive individualism, and acquisitive materialism. The resurgence of interest in Black Elk Speaks, the appearance of such works as Touch the Earth (1973), the rediscovery of the poignant photographic legacy of Edward Curtis, and the nascent A.I.M. (American Indian Movement) were other signs of the times. The time-worn narrative about the "red savages," the "taming of the wilderness," the "march of civilization," the "manifest destiny" of the European settlers, and the dying out of a "stone-age people," had been mythologized and deeply embedded in popular culture, most obviously perhaps through Hollywood. It was now seen to hide a long and shameful history of European rapacity, hypocrisy, treachery, and murderous violence. Figures like Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, and Sitting Bull were now seen by many Europeans as well as by Native Americans as culture-heroes. Speeches and utterances from nineteenth century Indian leaders were integrated into the discourse about Indian-European relations; Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, and Chief Seattle were among those most frequently cited. Here is one well-known passage from Sitting Bull which struck a resonant note:

What treaty that the whites have kept has the red man broken? Not one. What treaty that the white man ever made with us have they kept? Not one. When I was a boy the Sioux owned the world; the sun rose and set on their land; they sent ten thousand men to battle. Where are the warriors today? Who slew them? Where are our lands? Who owns them? What white man can ever say I stole his land or a penny of his money? Yet, they say I am a thief. What white woman, however lonely, was ever captive or insulted by me? Yet they say I am a bad Indian. What white man has ever seen me drunk? Who has ever come to me hungry and unfed? Who has ever seen me beat my wives or abuse my children? What law have I broken? Is it wrong for me to love my own? Is it wicked for me because my skin is red? Because I am a Sioux; because I was born where my father lived; because I would die for my people and my country?

No doubt there were many bloody acts carried out by Indians — hardly surprising — but no dispassionate student of the history of the West can doubt that the conflict was, in general terms, between an invading force determined to subjugate and if necessary destroy the indigenous peoples and cultures and, on the other side, scattered bands of primarily nomadic peoples who were desperately trying to defend their homelands and their way of life. As Helen Hunt Jackson observed in 1880, "It makes little difference where one opens the record of the history of the Indians; every page and every year has its dark stain. The story of one tribe is the story of all, varied only by differences of time and place; but neither time nor place makes any difference to the main facts. Colorado is as greedy and unjust in 1880 as Georgia was in 1830, and Ohio in 1795; and the United States Government breaks promises as deftly now as then, and with an added ingenuity from long practice." The invaders came armed not only with more powerful technology but with the moral conviction that these lands, and all they contained, were theirs to take by right of their superior civilization as well as "right by might."

It is not the purpose of the present work to rehearse the bloodstained history of the West, nor to recount the ways in which the lust for land, gold, and other resources was dressed up in all manner of ideological vestments whether of the social-Darwinian, evangelical Christian, or "manifest destiny" variety. Nor need we linger over the exemplary story of the Lakota as it unfolded from Black Elk's childhood down to the present time. Anyone with even a passing interest in the Lakota will be familiar with the pivotal moments and the melancholy symbols of this history: Red Cloud's War, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 (violated within four years because of the discovery of "the yellow metal that makes white men crazy"), the coming of the "Iron Horse," the Battle of Little Big Horn (Custer's Last Stand), the death of Crazy Horse, the flight to Canada, the slaughter of the buffalo, the Dawes Act, the Ghost Dance movement, the killing of Sitting Bull, the Wounded Knee Massacre, reservations, repression of native customs and ceremonies, assimilation, demoralization, degradation, despair. Alongside the military and political campaigns went the efforts of Christian missionaries to eradicate "heathen" beliefs and practices, and legislative programs of forced cultural repression which made it illegal for Lakota people to practice their traditional rites, even for children to speak their own language, wear their customary garb, or to grow their hair long. Here is the Secretary of the Interior, Henry M. Teller, writing in 1882 to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, urging him to take action against traditional practices:

I desire to call your attention to what I regard as a great hindrance to the civilization of the Indians, viz., the continuance of the old heathenish dances, such as the sun-dance, the scalp-dance, &c. ... Another great hindrance to the civilization of the Indians is the influence of the medicine men, who are always found with the anti-progressive party. The medicine men resort to various artifices and devices to keep the people under their influence ... using their conjurer's arts to prevent the people from abandoning their heathenish rites and customs.

In similar vein, the Indian agent on the Pine Ridge reservation, V. T. McGillycuddy, called the medicine men "barbarism personified," "one of the principal obstacles in the way of civilization." The policy of repression and "assimilation," implemented in 1884, continued for nearly five decades. A tribal historian who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom tells a story repeated many times across the West:

In 1884, the Secretary of the Interior issued the so-called "Secretary's Order" to "de-tribalize" the Indian people and make them into white men as soon as possible — a unilateral cultural assimilation process. ... The boarding school was set up about 1890 at Crow Agency. ... The Crow children were required to be taken to that school and left there, including very young kids, 5, 6, 7 years old. The Indian agent would send out his Indian policemen to collect the children. ... They were ruthless because they had to try to please the agent and, of course, they get paid, so they were his men, his Gestapo. ... And there [the children] would become like slaves; they were mistreated and some were even killed there. At the boarding school the children were also forbidden to speak their native language. If they were caught speaking the Crow language they made the children chew a strong soap. The kids also couldn't play any Indian games — they were forbidden to follow anything to do with the traditional culture. If they violated any of these rules they were not allowed to visit their parents on weekends or to go home for family visits. A lot of children died mysteriously. ... The "Secretary's Order of 1884" also prohibited the Indians from practicing all activities related to their culture, including all traditional ceremonies. ... The Crow people were afraid to even put on their native costumes; they were told to wear overalls, white man's outfits — told to start becoming white men. Our people were forced to become farmers and to give up their traditions.

Alongside the military campaigns, the destruction of the buffalo, and the devastating programs of cultural suppression and assimilation, successive waves of introduced diseases — smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, typhoid, flu, cholera, diphtheria, venereal disease, and tuberculosis — killed large parts of the Indian population.

Historians, both white and Indian, have largely repaired the historical record, though the task is by no means complete. Integral to the revision of the Eurocentric historiography of the Plains peoples have been those many native testimonies which have appeared since the first publication of Black Elk Speaks in 1932. One may mention such works as Luther Standing Bear's Land of the Spotted Eagle (1933), Black Hawk: An Autobiography (1955) (ed. Donald Wilson), Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior (1967) (ed. Peter Nabokov), Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions (1972) (ed. Richard Erdoes), Thomas Mails' Fools Crow (1979), Michael Fitzgerald's Yellowtail: Crow Medicine Man and Sun Dance Chief (1991), and Charles Eastman's Living in Two Worlds: The American Indian Experience (2010) (ed. Michael Fitzgerald).

Despite more open-minded attitudes and a more sympathetic understanding of the Indians, many Americans are still lamentably ignorant about the continent's indigenous peoples, and racist prejudices and jaundiced stereotypes — sometimes more subtle than in days gone by — persist. Ideas and attitudes which were once almost universal amongst the whites are buried deep in the collective psyche and not simply swept away by good will or shallow political pieties. No, the problem is much more recalcitrant. Even amongst better-educated Americans, who are painfully aware of the injustices of the past and free of at least the crude forms of racial prejudice, there remains one massive obstacle to a proper understanding of Indian culture, an impediment just as likely to face the historian, the anthropologist, and the sociologist as "the man or woman in the street": the deeply entrenched belief in "progress" and the often unacknowledged or camouflaged notion that the prevailing way of life of the modern West (liberal democracy, the rule of law, capitalism, materialist science, industrial technology, the nuclear family) is, when all is said and done, an "advance" on the "backward" cultures of yesteryear. The idea of "progress" is one of the most potent shibboleths of modernity, a kind of pseudo-myth. It comes attired in many alluring guises, often hand-in-hand with its sinister accomplice, social evolutionism, and finds applications in many fields. So pervasive is this idea in the modern climate, so much taken for granted, that it has become almost invisible, rather like the smog to which urban dwellers become inured. No doubt the unprecedented barbarisms of the twentieth century have caused some disenchantment but the tenacity of the idea is quite bizarre. "Progress" has a long and sordid pedigree in Western thought, and many brutalities and infamies have been justified in its name — the obliteration of the nomadic cultures is but one of them, the rape of nature another. Surveying the many literary representations of Native Americans, the Italian scholar Elémire Zolla exposes the malignant effects of this siren song:

The history of the many images of the Indian that appear in the course of American literature sets a whole series of works and authors in an unusual, revelatory perspective. It is also extremely instructive, for it shows us the (quite simple) stylistic means by which a program of genocide can be facilitated. It also shows us that the chief culprit, the actual agent of the slaughter, was the idea of progress, which by its very nature demands the elimination of everything that it decrees old, obsolete, out of date and nostalgic, while at the same time it represses the love, so congenial to man, of that delicate, wise patina that time deposits on the things of this world. ... The idea of progress has not only justified and promoted the slaughter — at times physical, at times spiritual, depending on the circumstances — but it has even removed it from consciousness.

By way of illustrating a progressivist view, let us briefly consider the attitude of most non-Indian commentators to the issue of literacy: it is simply assumed that literacy marks a "step up" from non-literacy, that peoples who read and write are more "civilized" than those who do not. Now — let it be said plainly — there is no doubt that in the modern world literacy is to be preferred to illiteracy, and that those without it face serious disadvantages. But this does not preclude the possibility — hardly ever taken seriously by modern scholars — that in some fundamental sense non-literate societies constitute a richer cultural mode, that the mythopoeic understanding of the world might be deeper than the abstracted, rationalistic, philosophical-scientific perspective which, historically, succeeds it. As Joseph Brown observed many years ago,

With our own overemphasis on mental activity we are apt to think that the Indian, without any written language, lacks something important or necessary in not possessing a scholastic or dialectic type of doctrinal presentation. However such a "lack" may have prevented us from understanding the completeness and depth of their wisdom, it represents for the Indians a very effective type of spiritual participation in which the essential ideas and values, reflected by the world of forms and symbols are spontaneously and integrally lived.


Excerpted from "Black Elk, Lakota Visionary"
by .
Copyright © 2018 World Wisdom, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of World Wisdom, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Charles Trimble xi
Introduction xiii
1. Nomadic Peoples and the Mark of Cain 1
2. The World of the Lakota 15
3. A Sacred Voice is Calling: 33
The Life of Black Elk
4. The Sacred Hoop and the Flowering Tree: 57
Black Elk’s Great Vision
5. Preserving Black Elk’s Legacy: 75
John G. Neihardt, Joseph Epes Brown, and Their Critics
6. Lakota Traditionalist and/or Catholic Catechist? 99
7. The Holy Man from the East 115
Conclusion: From Harney Peak 133
Appendix I: Excerpts from Letters of Joseph Epes Brown 145
Appendix II: Prayer Given to Fr. Gall by Black Elk 162
Appendix III: Selections from Letters of Frithjof Schuon 163
Notes 175
Sources 205
Acknowledgments 216
Index 217
Biographical Notes 225