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    Black Elk Peak

    We Are All Related

    The Lakota Holy Man Black Elk’s Vision for Peace on Earth

    Nathan Beacom

    October 12, 2020
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    • Leona Wieland

      Just posted on FACEBOOK. The words challenge, but necessary that we try, forgive and try again.

    “Every man wants to huff and puff
    their warriorness,” he said.
    “But the real work is peace.”

    Trevino L. Brings Plenty

    A beat-up old Humvee growled up to the light at 6th and Main in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota. There was a little Confederate flag sticker on its window. On the street corner was a tiny group of social justice demonstrators. Among the young white activists was also one Lakota man, probably in his sixties; holding a sign that said “Native Lives Matter,” he walked up to the Humvee and tried to initiate a conversation with its driver. The murmur of their speech grew louder as the driver’s face became upset and he shook his head in anger. My friend Reed and I were leaning up against an electrical box nearby having a smoke, and we could feel the rising tension in the scene. In the nick of time, the light turned green, the demonstrators went to pull their fellow protestor back onto the sidewalk, and the driver roared off down the road. We all breathed a small sigh of relief.

    The day before, Reed and I had hiked up Black Elk Peak, the highest prominence on this side of the Rockies. The mountain is a sacred one for the Lakota, for whom it and the surrounding Black Hills represent the “heart of everything that is.” Black Elk, the Lakota holy man for whom the peak was recently renamed, called it Okawita Paha, the gathering place. The course of Black Elk’s life was set by a vision of this peak he had seen while comatose at the age of nine, and the circle of his life was completed when he finally climbed it as an old man. There, at the highest point, he prayed his final prayer: that the Great Spirit would gather together the peoples of the earth and lead them on the good red road to the day of quiet.

    In his prayers, Nick Black Elk (“Nick” was added to his name after his baptism) often returned to the phrase “we are all related.” Maka Black Elk, a descendant of Nick’s and an educator at Pine Ridge’s Red Cloud Indian School, tells me that this is a central concept in Lakota tradition, as important as the word “amen” is in Christianity. For Lakota Catholics like Black Elk, the two could be said together. A harmony was felt between the Lakota concept of relatedness and the Catholic notion of the relationship of all things as they find their source in the Trinity. This idea, in its different expressions, and in spite of the complex history of Catholic-Lakota relations, is a recognition of the interwoven dignity of creation. Because we are all related, coming from the same source, we owe every creature respect and should approach each thing with reverence. This is true of all the many peoples, and it is true also of the four-legged creatures, the flying things, the land, the water, and the sky. We are all related.

    “I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world.” —Nick Black Elk

    I think of this notion as I remember that brief encounter in Rapid City; I think of it, too, as I observe the tone of so many of our public disagreements today. The anger, fear, and lack of trust that define our political and social interactions can make it difficult to understand how we could all belong to the same family. And yet, rejecting the notion that we belong to one another is at the heart of all historical crimes; the history of the Black Hills bears this out.

    To think of ourselves as related means to recognize that we stand in a network of mutual obligation and care with each person with whom we come into contact. As we know, the US government and American settlers more often treated native peoples with suspicion, violence, and unfaithfulness than with such concern. This fact continues to show its ill effects today.

    Still, this truth is our only hope for addressing and setting right this ongoing history: you are my relative, and I am yours. Believing and acting this way is the work of peace, for all of us of every heritage, and it is the road we must take if we are to reconcile past hurts and to share this country in friendship.

    If traveling across the empty, treeless plains, you find yourself at the Pole of Inaccessibility, you will know you have almost made it. You have come past the badlands and journeyed many miles without seeing any signs of activity beyond the endless advertisements for Wall Drug. You are at North America’s most inaccessible point, the furthest from any shore. This is the Pine Ridge Reservation, and a couple of miles ahead of you is Oglala Lakota County, the poorest county, per capita, in the country.

    Follow the Big Foot Trail up to Highway 44, and you’ll be on your way to Rapid City, a growing community with a beautiful downtown that constitutes the gateway to the Black Hills beyond. Those hills are dotted with tourists and people making money off tourists. They also belong by treaty to the Lakota Sioux. The land was famously stolen from them in the 1870s in a move the United States has still not found the wherewithal to reverse, despite admitting wrongdoing. The pattern today is not altogether different from the days when George Armstrong Custer ran around the East Coast shouting that the Black Hills were chock full of gold. There was plenty of lucre moving about in the hills, but the Lakota saw little of it.

    After the Black Hills gold rush, conflict with the tribes of the Dakotas began in earnest. As President Ulysses S. Grant admitted, the trouble grew out of the “avarice of the white man, who has violated our treaty stipulations in his search for gold.” Over the course of the several years following Custer’s announcement, the United States government tried several gambits to buy the Black Hills from the tribes, but its overtures were consistently met with resistance. To the tribes, the Black Hills simply were not something to be put up for sale. In response, US military officials became increasingly aggressive and the situation continued to escalate. The famous names of the events that followed and their leading figures are familiar: Little Bighorn, Greasy Grass, Wounded Knee, Red Cloud, and Crazy Horse.

    Black Elk was involved with each of these. He belonged to Red Cloud’s band, he fought as a mere child at Little Bighorn, he was the cousin of Crazy Horse, and he tried to save his people at Wounded Knee. The vision that he was given as a boy foretold hunger, sickness, and violence, and he lived to see all these things and more. These were the days when the people walked on the thunderous black road of trouble. But in his vision the grandfathers, who signify the powers of the earth, had also told Black Elk of another road, the good red road which led to peace. “All over the universe they have finished a day of happiness,” an unseen voice said to him. “Behold this day, for it is yours to make.”

    “To open the doors of solidarity, we have to begin by reckoning with what has divided us.” —Maka Black Elk

    But how to arrive at this day? In his vision the grandfathers gave Black Elk a sacred red stick which, when placed in the center of the sacred hoop, bloomed into a waga chun, the tree that signaled the day of quiet. As the vision came to its end, the grandfathers took Black Elk to the peak in the Black Hills that would one day bear his name. The hoop of his people now joined the hoop of the whole human family and all of creation.

    I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, 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.

    Mitákuye Oyásiŋ is the Lakota way of saying “we are all related.” In Maka’s description, it is a phrase that points to the interdependence of all things. The Covid-19 pandemic and the ecological threats of our time, he notes, are excellent examples of this truth. It is an idea that is both practical and philosophical. On the practical level, it applies to that sense of communal care that defines the relationship between neighbors. On a philosophical level, it means that the world and all that is in it comes from the same divine source, that each piece of creation affects, depends upon, and participates in the life of the others.

    As Black Elk saw, this notion resonates with elements of Christian tradition. Pope Francis has emphasized these threads in the spirituality of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, the Italian beggar who gave to Christianity the language of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Sister Water, and Mother Earth. It is in the same spirit that the pope speaks in his letter on the care for our common home, “The Spirit, infinite bond of love, is intimately present at the very heart of the universe, inspiring and bringing new pathways.” Speaking in terms that might almost fit into Black Elk’s vision, Francis goes on:

    Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. . . . The human person grows more, matures more, and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others, and with all creatures.

    Black Elk’s spiritual message culminated in the call to bring all peoples within the sacred hoop, to smoke with them the pipe of peace, and to enjoy the abundance of the tree of life. To think this way is to place limits on our self-centered wills, our desires, and our pleasures, because it means our lives are not about ourselves, but about the family to which we belong.

    The history of the exploitation of the land and of indigenous peoples in this country belongs to, as Ulysses S. Grant put it, avarice – a greed that denied the dignity of people along with the land they held sacred. To see the Black Hills as only a place to pan for gold, drill for oil and gas, or extract money from tourists is to miss what the Lakota know them to be – and to treat the people who cherish them with the same disregard. And to see people as obstacles to success rather than siblings to be cherished is to lose sight of the true relations of things.

    None of us is independent. For our very survival we always stand in need of the support, instruction, and aid of others, that we might, as Black Elk put it, “live together as one being.” Just as we depend on the earth for food, water, and air, we depend on people for the things that are most important to us: beauty, joy, friendship, love. This dependence implies responsibility, for just as we depend upon others, so they depend upon us.

    Black Elk Peak

    Black Elk Peak Photograph courtesy of the author

    Today, if Americans detached from reservation life have any impression of what that life is like, it is likely they will associate it with poverty, unemployment, and addiction. These are realities that reservations do face, just like many rural communities around the country. Like those other out-of-the-way communities, though, reservation towns are more than just the sum of their deficits. The disproportionate effects of these problems on many tribal communities is evidence of the injustices of the past visited upon them. The wounds of that injustice still needs healing, and the sad truth is that, for many Americans, the response is simply a lack of any fraternal care. I think of that old man in Rapid City who felt compelled to stand on a street corner and say a word for Native dignity, a message that is too seldom voiced outside tribal communities, much less heard.

    The Red Cloud Indian School website lists a litany of facts all too familiar to folks on the reservation, but of which many Americans remain largely ignorant. Among these striking figures about Pine Ridge are the following:

    • 49 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line.
    • The infant mortality rate is five times higher than the US national average.
    • Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease occur in epidemic proportions.
    • Life expectancy is the lowest in the United States – twenty years less than communities just four hundred miles away – and on par with the countries of India, Sudan, and Iraq.

    Yet the story of Pine Ridge is much more than a story about hardship and neglect. “Reservations like mine are hobbled through the singular lens through which they are viewed,” Maka says, a lens defined by “stories of addiction, abuse, and despair.” It is not that these stories aren’t real; it’s that they are reductive. Pine Ridge is not just a place of poverty and struggle, but a community that has its own identity and agency, and one that is “innovative, resistant, and resilient.” Despite the unique challenges a given community might face, “the cycle of our daily lives shows us we have more in common than we care to admit.”

    This is the grounds for being a good neighbor to Native communities, not in a way that caricatures them or paints them as mere objects of philanthropy, but simply as neighbors, as relatives. Maka notes that too often, when indigenous people leave their communities, they encounter a world “that at its worst questions their very existence and at its best views indigenous identity as a carnival sideshow or a fun factoid.” One important way to counteract this is for the public to be better educated and engaged on indigenous culture and history. To “imagine ourselves in relationship” is to take the first steps toward solidarity and reconciliation, rejecting the extremes of neglect or a “savior mentality” to build real bonds of mutual support.

    As Black Elk grew old, he was troubled, not unlike the biblical prophets, by what he had seen among his people. He had been given a task by God, he believed, to save them; and yet he had seen them become victims and doers of violence, he had seen them lose the bison and the traditional ways, he had seen hunger and poverty. In the latter part of his life, he found a new sense of mission in the Catholic faith, and he traveled about the northern plains ministering to, instructing, and giving comfort to people. He did not see this new faith as opposed to Lakota culture and heritage. It has been said by Lakota Catholics that he could pray with the pipe in one hand and the rosary in the other.

    His dim eyes grew sad in those final years, but he never gave up hope for his people or for the reconciliation of all people. He was perhaps a little too hard on himself, too; his life, hidden as it sometimes was, had its incalculably diffusive effects upon the Lakota community and the whole world. His words of prayer and teaching have resonated with Americans ever since they became widely known in the 1930s.

    “The Spirit, infinite bond of love, is intimately present at the very heart of the universe, inspiring and bringing new pathways.” —Pope Francis

    Those words of solidarity are carried on today by many who work in the same spirit, including his descendant, Maka Black Elk. After leaving the reservation for his higher education, Maka returned to bring his gifts to the young people of his community. In pouring into the place that poured into him as a child, Maka’s work is an example of the virtuous cycle of solidarity that runs counter to the cycles of isolation and individualism that hamper human flourishing today. Just this year, he was named executive director of Truth and Healing, a project at Red Cloud with the purpose of seeking reconciliation around the fraught history of the old Catholic boarding schools.

    Maka identifies a crucial obstacle to fulfilling the dream of solidarity between people: the lack of trust. This comes, in part, from dishonesty in leaders, media organizations, and schools. It also comes from the ways in which we build walls against our neighbors. “To open the doors of solidarity,” Maka says, “we have to begin by reckoning with what has divided us.” This means being truthful about the hidden wounds that are the source of our fear and distrust of our neighbors. There is a role that historical education has to play here, but there is a concrete role that community life plays, too. Now is not the time to retreat into defensive formations with the likeminded. This reaction almost inevitably reduces outsiders into something less than human. The solution instead is to become involved in the lives of people near us who are unlike us.

    “Lastly, there is only one important law,” Black Elk wrote to the people of Pine Ridge in 1907, “to love one another; So then, we have always known one basic law that we have heard over and over, that a good man always has the Great Spirit in our hearts toward one another and to be thankful for each other; so for you we are here. We are all related.”

    Contributed By Nathan Beacom Nathan Beacom

    Nathan Beacom is a writer from Des Moines, Iowa. His work on agriculture and the environment and other subjects has appeared in Civil Eats, America Magazine, Front Porch Republic, and elsewhere.

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