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Black Elk Still Speaks

Indigenous people were experts in biomimicry long before modern science discovered the concept. If the assumption of biomimicry is that nature knows best, as we search for spiritual pilgrim guides, we can rightly also assume that indigenous people know best. This especially applies to spiritual biomimicry, where modernity has served to obscure and distort the ancient wisdom of nature. We will never be able to learn from our indigenous guides until we give up the arrogance that we know best that our frame on reality is the only frame of reality. We must shift our mindset from dweller to explorer, from a closed mind to an open mind, from arrogance to humility.

There is a long unconscious history that make it hard for non-indigenous people to put themselves under the tutelage of First Nation people. There is a neocolonialist perspective that easily justifies a subtle embedded and largely unconscious racism. The United States was born on the back of two historic sins: the enslavement of the Blacks and the extermination and subjugation of the American Indian. These are undeniable and inconvenient facts. We don't want to get into the conflicted politics of these issues. Nonetheless, these attitudes continue to cloud our political and cultural judgment. The coming generation of young people are now challenging these embedded assumptions. They are beginning to admit and celebrate that the Native American perspective on land, family, nature, and spirituality have much to commend. Indigenous people are our natural teachers and our much-needed spiritual guides.

And yet their wisdom is often obscured by the academic frames that we use to analyze their wisdom. The evolutionary model of religious development stem from the 19th century views of E.B. Tylor, the originator of cultural anthropology at Oxford University. His major two-volume work Primitive Culture was published in 1871 was largely based on the progressive development of Darwin, a view also shared by philosopher Herbert Spencer who advocated for “social Darwinism.” These views largely informed even the enlightened minds of social activists and politicians who following the Civil War turned their attention to the “American Indian Problem.”

The Union’s 1865 Civil War victory marked the beginning of a new American order that brought change to every corner of the reunited nation. Although the former Confederacy was the focus of many Reconstruction policies, it was the American West that was truly transformed in the decades following the Civil War. The growing power of the federal government, which helped the Union end the Civil War and enact emancipation, also had long lasting consequences for the settlement of America’s western territories. With the Civil War finished, the American military apparatus, substantially larger than it had been in the antebellum period, began to move westward, quickly transforming “the Great Plains [into] the most violent place in North America.” Railroad infrastructure and federal policies like the Homestead Act (1862) helped stimulate westward migration on an unprecedented scale. Increased federal intervention in the West also slowed the transition of the region’s territories to statehood, thereby allowing “the federal state a stronger hand in western economic and political development.”[1]

Tylor advocated for a three-stage development of religion from savagery to barbarism to civilization, reflected in shifts from animism to polytheism to monotheism. He assumed a “gradual elimination of paganism” to a cosmopolitan respectable benign deism. These were the prevailing and “enlightened” academic views during the period in which the Native Americans were being conquered, exterminated, and resettled by violence in the altruistic name of promoting “civilization in the name of science.” It is an ugly chapter in our history, viewed differently today, but done then in under the approval and auspices of elite knowledge, elite institutions, and consensus science. In some contexts, native persons were not even considered persons until and after they were baptized. In many cases, church leaders were complicit in these racist perspectives. The abuses are well documented. Both this history and the social Darwinism that fueled the justification of colonialist violence make the study of this period fraught with difficulty. Wounds are still present in the collective unconscious.

In addition, the academic fields most inclined to study the native American culture, primarily anthropology and sociology are inherently secular and materialistic in their academic orientation. The tendency of these early ethnographers was to discount the spiritual reality of native American religious experience as primitive, savage, and backward. Few were inclined to take them seriously or even to give them face value credence. It was far easier to discount and deny. Their disdain for religion extended to the white missionaries—most often Catholic priests—as well.

More recently, there has been the tendency to romanticize the native American experience in the light of Rousseau’s “noble savage.” This frame promotes an idealized concept of uncivilized man, who symbolizes the innate goodness of a person who has not been exposed the corrupting influences of civilization. Rousseau’s adage, “Man is born free and is everywhere in chains” is applied to the indigenous experience in a manner that further obscure their historical realities. Much of the social imaginary about the native American experience in literature and film falls into this category. It is seen as a corrective to the colonialist perspective but it too, obscures historical realities. Both views are inherently dehumanizing.

There is another perspective that doesn’t get as much attention as some of these other views within the academy. This perspective suggests that there is a continuity between First Nation spirituality and Christianity that is obscured by their shared history of racism and violence. This view suggests that Christianity is a fulfillment of, not a break with indigenous spirituality. As such native American shamans are excellent pilgrim guides well suited to our contemporary moment when people are haunted by a spiritual longing but lost as to where to turn. Rather than romanticizing indigenous spirituality, this view empowers the indigenous perspective suggesting that long before whites were intrigued by spiritual biomimicry, indigenous people were fully engaged with it and are thus able to teach us now the masterclass on this topic. This was the insight of Irish Patrick of Druid shamans and the experience of Lakota medicine man and mystic Black Elk. This is a perspective to which spiritual biomimicry points.

There is no better spiritual guide into spiritual biomimicry than Nicholas Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux religious elder. He lived at a time of turmoil and transition, endured the full weight of its pain and suffering, only to demonstrate in the end a resilience of a deeper spirituality that led him to reconciliation and peace with his tortured history.

The story of Black Elk’s life is mired in interpretive controversy. Everyone wants to use his story as the case study of their view of native spirituality. He became famous after the publication of Black Elk Speaks in 1932 written by John Neihardt. This book tells the story of his early life until he was 28 years old. It does not tell the story of his remaining fifty years. It is a narrative of loss, suffering, and finally despair. It is both a politicized account of this terrible period in American Indian policy and a romanticized view of indigenous life, spirituality, and ecology. The book is sometimes referred to as the “Hippy Bible.” But it does not tell the whole story and thus distorts the indigenous history and potential lessons of spiritual biomimicry.

Black Elk lived a singular life and was an eyewitness to many of the tragic events of these years. As a ten-year-old boy he participated in the battle of Little Big Horn in June 1876, known in white history as “Custard’s Last Stand.” He not only loaded guns for his cousins during the battle but took two scalps from blue coat soldiers, one of whom was still alive during the scalping. He gave the scalps to his mother. He was with Crazy Horse, his second cousin, one of the most respected tribal leaders both politically and spiritually. He was a known as a genuine “Holy Man.” “The Lakota term for ‘holy man’ (wichasha wakan) could include healers but properly referred to elders whose venerable presence drew upon a lifetime of practical and mystical experiences.”[2] Black Elk was a religious leader because of his known visions and spiritual experiences. Here was a man in touch with spiritual reality. Following Crazy Horse’s murder in 1877, he endured resettlement to Canada and the famine his people suffered there. As a shamanic leader he was active as a Ghost Dancer—a religious movement with visions of indigenous reassertion over the white man reclaiming their land and heritage—the first “Build Back Better” and “Make America Great Again” movement. This movement was the impetus for the massacre of Wounded Knee at which Black Elk was present. For two years Black Elk was an active participant in Buffalo Bill Cody’s “Wild West Show,” touring Europe and even giving a private show before Queen Victoria in 1887. This is truly an epic life!

If there was a pivotal historical event during the late 19th century involving the extermination, subjugation, and resettlement of the First Nation people, Black Elk was either present or involved. As such his life has become a mythic foil for every possible interpretation of these tragic events from dispirited traditionalist to AIM [American Indian Movement] activist, from tribal shaman to Catholic catechist. His life is a mirror of the various approaches academics have given to indigenous spirituality and the historical narrative of the American Indian Problem of the 19th century. It is not our intention here to sort through these historiographic controversies. However, it is my belief that more recent scholarship—particularly that of Michael Steltenkamp’s Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic has provided a more holistic understanding of his life and beliefs.

The hidden facts are that following his time in Europe, Black Elk converted to the Roman Catholic faith and eventually became an official catechist or lay preacher and missionary for the church. This is not the narrative that the secular anthropologists or indigenous activist wanted to tell as it doesn’t fit with their assumption of collective resentment of colonialist hostility that frames contemporary indigenous narratives.

Some scholars have even suggested that this “conversion” was one of adaptive convenience, a way of passing within the white community. But his daughter, Lucy, has vouched for the sincerity of his conversion and effectiveness of his catechesis among his people. She said, “The past couple of years I’ve been shocked to hear people say that my father never really believed in the Catholic religion. I know they’re really making a mistake.”[3]

Upon his conversion in 1904 he gave up his shamanic medical practice and devoted his time and energy to teaching and converting his people to Christianity. That there were indigenous religious leaders that did convert out of convenience is undeniable. But here the very notion of “conversion” must be understood as fulfillment not disjunction or rejection. Steltenkamp writes, “Both Catholic and Episcopalian missionaries sought medicine men to be converts during the early reservation period, and, as the Lakota religious universe expanded, many medicine men adopted some form of Christian practice. The term ‘conversion’ is only more or less accurate for this adoption because their religious quest was ongoing…. It was not a facile description of Black Elk’s (or their) entire abandonment of the Lakota religions universe.”[4] What they found in Christianity was a sacramentalism that made a fuller sense of their traditional beliefs and grounded the in the history of Jesus. The Ghost Dance had fused Lakota spirituality with Christian metaphors, this continued with the conversion of these medicine men.

The entire Lakota way of life was grounded in two overarching concepts: the buffalo and the Sacred. Native historians have noted that the buffalo’s existence paralleled theirs. The mass slaughter of buffalo by white settlers was a direct form of cultural genocide to the Lakota.

The Lakota translation of “Great Spirit” is Wakan Tanka. This does not represent a primitive pantheism. It is a monotheistic deity, but one who is directly identified with all things. Academically, this is properly referred to as pan-en-theism. Wakan Tanka is the “inexplicable mystery that sustains all creation.”[5] Lakota spiritual shamans can’t use the concept of “supernatural” to explain this mystery because the very concept of “super” is already infused in their concept of the “natural.” As such, Steltenkamp concludes, “No neat separation existed between religion and the rest of Lakota daily life.”[6] The Great Spirit embodies nature just as you embody your body. To get to know you is to know you through your body. The same is true of the Great Spirit, he is known through his creation or nature, i.e., via spiritual biomimicry.

An important image in Black Elk’s childhood vision was of a flowering stick. This image along with his earlier spiritual visions were reinterpreted within a Christian frame after his conversion—interpreted not as a contrast to his Lakota spirituality but as its fulfillment. In Black Elk’s mind, the metaphorical reference to a “stick” came to be understood as a reference to the Christian cross.[7] Early interpreters of Black Elk’s interpretations of his visions missed this conscious connection between his Lakota vision and his Catholic catechesis. Steltenkamp writes, “The holy-man said that his people will depend on the sacred stick (the cross or Christ’s presence) and that it ‘will be with us always’ (referencing Matthew 28:20).”[8]

There is much more that can be said about this man and his deeply spiritual witness to the connectedness of life, to a spirit of reconciliation and peace, to an evangelistic appeal to spiritual biomimicry. His life is a masterclass in eco-spirituality. Steltenkamp summaries his historical analysis of his later life by concluding, “Taken together, Black Elk’s visions were, ultimately, neither parochially Lakota nor insularly Catholic. Rather, they entailed a cross-fertilization of Christian and Lakota traditions that were enriching to both.”[9] He envisioned a tree—the cross—whose shade under which the indigenous people and the white people alike could find refuge. Spiritual biomimicry invites a deeper fusion because the voices of the trees are intrinsically ecumenical. They call us only to the Great Spirit not to a denomination or religion. In our hyper-partisan world, filled with dogmatic religious judgment and political cancel culture, perhaps it is time for us to listen to the trees again. Nicholas Black Elk’s life demonstrates healing of wounds, unity forged from division, and peace born out of violence. That a single man could embrace and embody these factors until his death in 1950 is a testament to the Great Spirit and the promise of spiritual biomimicry.

[1] Alexandra E. Stern, “Reconstructing Approaches to America’s Indian Problem: Indian Policy in the Late Nineteenth Century,” U.S. History Scene: [2] Michael F. Steltenkamp, Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic (University of Oklahoma Press, 2009). p. 45. [3] Ibid., p. 122. [4] Ibid., p. 96. [5] Ibid., p. 11. [6] Ibid. [7] This association of the cross with a tree is itself found in the Bible. 1 Peter 2:24 reads, "He himself carried our sins in his body on the tree so that we would be dead to sin and live for righteousness" (The Passion Translation). [8] Ibid., p. 121. [9] Ibid., p. 123.


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