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a Social Ethical Analysis of
BLACK ELK SPEAKS: BEING THE LIFE STORY OF A HOLY MAN OF THE OGLALA SIOUX AS TOLD THROUGH JOHN G. NEIHARDT (FLAMING RAINBOW) (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1979, originally 1932), by John G. Neihardt, with an introduction by Vine Deloria, Jr.

by Theodore Walker, Jr.,
Assisted by Graduate Students in Moral Theology ( MT-7303, 3 hours credit)
at the Perkins School of Theology
at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, 75275,
during the Spring semester of the 1995-96 academic year
Those Graduate Students are:
Cynthia Ballard, Robert Boyd, Karen Caswell, Richard Cockburn, David Charles Deere, Robert Harris, Ann Hosemann Butler, Jun Wha Jung, Sylvester Key, Hyung Kon Kim, Sun Hee Kim, Curtis King, Jimmie L. Kirkwood, Charmaine Miller, Terri Ann Moore, Thomas E. Netherland, Barton Page Odom, Calvin Lasalle Page, Cheong Jae Park, Antonio Reyes, Teresa Santillana, Steven Sweet, and John Wasnick.
[] [] [] []


The basic aspects of this social ethical analysis are:

Interpretive themes are those basic themes by which human social existence is interpreted or understood.

Populations are specified by space, time, ethnic identity, and other socio-historical and anthropological specifications.

Descriptions are historical and sociological accounts of past and presently continuing circumstances.

Predictions are projections of future circumstances derived from considering the influences of past and present trends.

Visions include predictions plus visions of an alternative more favorable or ideal future.

Prescriptions are social ethical imperatives and public policy recommendations for doing-being differently so as to contribute to a favorably different future.

Each of these distinct yet overlapping aspects include value judgements about what is significant, important, worthy of attention, and good or bad.

Here we classify selected content from BLACK ELK SPEAKS according to these basic aspects.



Interpretive Themes in BLACK ELK SPEAKS

"the story of a holy man"

As indicated by the subtitle, BLACK ELK SPEAKS is "the story of a holy man" of the Oglala band of the Lakota Sioux nation.

Here, "story of a holy man" is a highly significant interpretive theme.

By analyzing BLACK ELK SPEAKS, we learn social ethics from the study of a narrative, from "the story" of a holy man.

holy man as healer of individuals & social groups

For Black Elk and other Sioux holy men, medicine man and social visionary are one sacred vocation.

As a religious and holy medical doctor,
Black Elk was called to prescribe healing remedies and practices for sick individuals.

As a religious and holy social visionary,
Black Elk was called to prescribe public policy remedies for social groups, peoples, tribes, and nations, particularly the Lakota Sioux nation.

For Sioux and other traditional Native American peoples, healing individuals and healing nations are both explicitly religious callings.

the story of the nation

Given that the office of holy man encompasses care for individuals and nations,
it follows that the story of a holy man is also the story of the individuals and nations served by the holy man.

Accordingly, this story of a holy man is more than the story of a holy man.
It is also the story of the Lakota-Dakota-Nakota Sioux nations.

"the story of all life"

Even more comprehensively,
this story of the Sioux nations is also the story of other peoples, tribes, and nations;
very much more comprehensively,
Black Elk tells us, this "is the story of all life" (p. 1).

Black Elk says:

"My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it; for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like a heavy snow? So many other men have lived and shall live that story, to be grass upon the hills.
It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are children of one mother and their father is one Spirit." (p. 1)

the story of a great and powerful vision

Black Elk's call to holiness came to him in the form of a "great vision" from the other world.

In receiving his great vision, Black Elk received a great power,
a "power to make over" (p. 201),
a power to make things favorably different for sick and suffering individuals, and for sick and suffering nations.

Black Elk tells us a medicine man by the name of Fox Belly helped him to recognize receiving this powerful vision as a duty to restore the nation. Black Elk quotes Fox Belly as saying, "My boy, you had a great vision, and I can see that it is your duty to help the people walk the red road in a manner pleasing to the Powers" (p. 206)

The story of this great and powerful vision is the story of a holy man's duty
to restore the nation,
to "nourish" the "nation,"
to make the nation "live,"
to make it "leaf," "blossom," and "flourish,"
to make the nation "walk in a sacred manner,"
to make the nation walk "in a manner pleasing to the Powers,"
to help the nation "go back into the sacred hoop
and find the good red road, the shielding tree"
( pp. 27, 28, 34, 37, 40, 54, 55, 82, 147, 172, 202, 206, 215, 234, 238, 239, 243, 274 ).

" ... the Grandfathers had shown me my people walking on the black road and how the nation's hoop would be broken and the flowering tree be withered, before I should bring the hoop together with the power that was given me, and make the holy tree to flower in the center and find the red road again." (p. 147)

Black Elk interpreted his life as a holy man as "the story of a mighty vision" (p. 2).


Near the end of BLACK ELK SPEAKS, after having told the story of his life as a holy man of the Oglala Sioux, Black Elk, as an old man, looks back upon his career and offers the following evaluation:

"Men and women and children I have cured of sickness with the power the vision gave me;
but my nation I could not help." (p. 180)
Despite his success as a healer of sick men, women, and children; BLACK ELK SPEAKS is very much focused upon lamenting Black Elk's failure to make things better for the nation.
Black Elk says:
"If a man or woman or child dies, it does not matter long, for the nation lives on. It was the nation that was dying, and the vision was for the nation; but I have done nothing with it" (p. 180).
" ... I can see it all as from a lonely hilltop ... it was the story of a mighty vision given to a man too weak to use it; of a holy tree that should have flourished in a people's heart with flowers and singing birds, and now is withered; and of a people's dream that died in bloody snow." (p. 1-2)
"And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth,--you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead." (p. 270)
A holy man's failure to use the power of his vision to make the nation and world a better place is a highly prominant theme in BLACK ELK SPEAKS.


Despite lamenting his failure to employ the power of his great vision to make the nation and world better; Black Elk held to the hope that this vision will yet do its great and mighty work (p. xviii-xix). Black Elk hoped to contribute to this possibility by preserving his vision in BLACK ELK SPEAKS.
Black Elk says:

"... I have lain awake at night worrying and wondering if I was doing right; for I know I have given away my power when I have given away my vision, and maybe I cannot live very long now. But I think I have done right to save the vision in this way, even though I may die sooner because I did it; for I know the meaning of the viison is wise and beautiful and good; and you can see that I am only a pitiful old man after all." (p. 206)
For Black Elk, the purpose of sharing his great vision in BLACK ELK SPEAKS is to preserve the vision in the hope that someday the vision will succeed in making the differences it was supposed to make.



Populations in BLACK ELK SPEAKS



Descriptions in BLACK ELK SPEAKS


concerning the Lakota Sioux nation and other creaturely life:

According to Black Elk, the Lakota Sioux and other Native North American nations were living happily in their own country, rightly related to the land and other living things, including especially the bison;
and then came the great troubles, the Wasichus invasions.
Black Elk said,

"Once we were happy in our own country and we were seldom hungry, for then the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds lived together like relatives, and there was plenty for them and for us. But the Wasichus came, and they have made little islands for us and ohter little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller, for around them surges the gnawing flood of the Wasichu; and it is dirty with lies and greed." (p. 9)

The Wasichus slaughtered the last of the bison herds in the Fall of 1883.
The slaughter of the bison and other creaturely life, the confiscation and partitioning of the land for mining, farming, roadways, railroads, and private development, along with diseases, wars, and other oppressions combined to break the nation's hoop.

"The Wasichus had slaughtered all the bison and shut us up in pens" (p. 230).
"All our people now were settling down in square gray houses, scattered here and there across this hungry land, and around them the Wasichus had drawn a line to keep them in. The nation's hoop was broken, and there was no center any longer for the flowering tree. The people were in despair. (p. 213-214)
"... the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead." (p. 270)

According to Black Elk,
the bison "were the gift of a good spirit,"
they were "our strength" (p. 39), and
they were understood to be "at the center of the nation's hoop" (p. 206).


concerning the Wasichus and other creaturely life:

In 1886 , as part of Buffalo Bill's traveling show, Black Elk traveled to London via Omaha, Chicago, and New York for the purpose of studying the Wasichus and their social wisdom and habits.

Concerning his motivation for studying the Wasichus at that time,
Black Elk said:

"Maybe if I could see the great world of the Wasichu, I could understand how to bring the sacred hoop together and make the tree to bloom again at the center of it.
I looked back on the past and recalled my people's old ways, but they were not living that way any more. They were traveling the black road, everybody for himself and with little rules of his own, as in my vision. I was in despair, and I even thought that if the Wasichus had a better way, then maybe my people should live that way. I know now that this was foolish, but I was young and in despair." (p. 215)

Despite his despair-born hope, Black Elk did not find social wisdom among the Wasichus.
Black Elk said,

"I was surprised at the big houses and so many people, and there were bright lights at night, so that yu could not see the stars ...
... I did not see anything to help my people. I could see that the Wasichus 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. They had forgotten that the earth was their mother. This could not be better than the old ways of my people." (p. 216-217)

Black Elk described the Wasichus as unrightly related to each other, including especially the poor and needy, and he described the Wasichus as unrightly related to the land and other creaturely life, including especially the bison.
Black Elk said:
"That fall [1883], they say, the last of the bison herds was slaughtered by the Wasichus. I can remember when the bison were so many that they could not be counted, but more and more Wasichus came to kill them until there weree only heaps of bones scattered where they used to be. The Wasichus did not kill them to eat; they killed them for the metal that makes them crazy, and they took only the hides to sell. Sometimes they did not even take the hides, only the tongues; and I have heard that the fire-boats came down the Missouri River loaded with dried bison tongues. You can see that the men who did this were crazy." (p. 213)

Instead of finding a better way among the Wasichus, Black Elk came to the conclusion that the Wasichus way of living is unhealthy, unrighteous, and actually insane.



Predictions in BLACK ELK SPEAKS

concerning the Lakota Sioux nation and other creaturely life:

Black Elk reported that " long time ago" a Lakota holy man named "Drinks Water" had foreseen a time when Lakota peoples would be forced "to live in square gray houses, in a barren land" and to starve "beside those square gray houses" (p. 10).

And Black Elk's "great vision" included a dire prediction from a spiritual Grandfather: "your nation on the earth will have great troubles" (p. 30).

"And the Voice said: "Behold your nation, and remember what your Six Grandfathers gave you, for thenceforth your people walk in difficulties." (p. 37)

Moreover, Black Elk's "great vision" included prediction of catastrophy for Lakota relations to the great bison herds.

"I know now what this meant, that the bison were the gift of a good spirit, but we should lose them ..." (p. 39)

Black Elk lived to see these dire predictions come to pass. Moreover, the social circumstances of the Lakota peoples gave every reason to project increasingly unfortunate circumstances in the future.




concerning the Lakota Sioux nation and other creaturely life:

Black Elk's visions included both
predictions for an unfortunate and oppressive future, and
visions of an alternative more favorable future.

In his "great vision" Black Elk saw the more favorable alternative---"a good nation walking in a sacred manner in a good land!" (p. 36). Black Elk saw the Lakota people, "walking in a sacred manner on the good red road together" with other earthly creatures, including "elks and bison and all four-footed beings and even into fowls" (p. 37).

Frequently, Black Elk called the predicted path "the black road,"
and the vision of a favorable alternative, he called "the good red road."

Black Elk's visions of an alternative future were informed by "visions of the other world" (chapter XXII). In one such vision, Black Elk saw healthy happy Lakota people and animals living in a pleasant land, a land free of the Wasichus.

"I thought of my vision, and how it was promised me that my people should have a place in this earth where they could be happy every day." (p. 239)
" From the center of the earth I had been shown all good and beautiful things in a great circle of peace, and maybe this land of my vision was where all my people were going, and there they would live and prosper where no Wasichus were or could ever be." (p. 240-241)
"My body did not move at all, but I looked ahead and floated fast toward where I looked.
There was a ridge right in front of me, and I thought I was going to run into it, but I went right over it. On the other side of the ridge I could see a beautiful land where many, many people were camping in a great circle. I could see that they were happy and had plenty. Everywhere there were drying racks full of meat. The air was clear and beautiful with a living light that was everywhere. All around the circle, feeding on the green, green grass, were fat and happy horses; and animals of all kinds were scattered all over the green hills, and singing hunters were returning with their meat.
I floated over the tepees and began to come down feet first at the center of the hoop where I could see a beautiful tree all greeen and full of flowers. ..." (p. 242)

For Black Elk, the earthly realization of this more favorable alternative was contingent upon Lakota peoples doing what the vision prescribes.
"I thought of them on the wrong road now, but maybe they could be brought back into the hoop again and to the good road" (p. 239).
"And I thought that if this world would do as the vision teaches, the tree could bloom here too." (p. 243)
And so it was Black Elk's duty to teach this world to "do as the vision teaches" (p. 243), and thereby to make the vision come true.



Prescriptions in BLACK ELK SPEAKS


concerning the Lakota Sioux nation and other creaturely life:

Rather than continuing along the predicted black road,
Black Elk prescribes an alternative path--the good red road.
Black Elk prescribes and prays that the Lakota Sioux nation should "go back into the sacred hoop and find the good red road" (p. 274).

Traveling the good red road means, among other things,
performing the visions in song, rituals, ceremonies, and dances (pp. 161, 208),
being a "good nation,"
being rightly related to each other,
being especially concerned to contribute to the well-being of the sick and helpless (p. 56),
being especially concerned to contribute to the well-being of future generations and future life of all kinds,
being rightly related to the land and our other creaturely relatives (p. 6), and
being rightly related to the Creator/Great Spirit.

Black Elk's visionary prescriptions are not prescriptions for a simple return to the past. For instance, Black Elk acknowledges the time for dependence upon the bison herds is gone, and therefore, he prescribes that the Lakota nation must "find another strength."

from the great vision:
"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." (p. 39)


concerning all nations and other creaturely life:

Black Elk prescribes that all nations and peoples be rightly related to each other and to other life, including past-present-future life and to all other creaturely life.
Moreover, this basic social ethical prescription is religiously motivated. According to Black Elk's understanding, the Creator/Great Spirit desires that we contribute to the flourishing of other creaturely life.

"The Six Grandfathers have placed in this world many things, all of which should be happy. Every little thing is sent for something, and in that thing there should be happiness and the power to make happy. Like the grasses showing tender faces to each other, thus we should do, for this was the wish of the Grandfathers of the World." (p. 193)

According to Black Elk, the sky is "a father and the earth a mother" and "all living things with feet or wings or roots" are "their children" (p. 3).

Black Elk's prayer for all life

As a genuinely religious holy man and social visionary, Black Elk prays that we will do as religious wisdom prescribes:

"Hear me, four quarters of the world--a relative I am! Give me the strength to walk the soft earth, a relative to all that is! Give me the eyes to see and the strength to understand, that I may be like you. With your power only can I face the winds.
Great Spirit, Great Spirit, my Grandfather, all over the earth the faces of living things are all alike. With tenderness have these come up out of the ground. Look upon these faces of children without number and with children in their arms, that they may face the wind and walk the good road to the day of quiet.
This is my prayer; hear me! " (p. 6)






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most recent update: 24 March 1997
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