The power of a thing or an act is in the meaning and the understanding

Making a sweat lodge

Making a sweat lodge - the universe in an image

The willows which make the frame of the sweat lodge are set up on such a way that they mark the four quarters of the universe; thus, the whole lodge is the universe in an image, and the two-legged, four-legged and winged peoples, and all the things of the world are contained within it, for all these peoples and things too must be purified before they can send a voice to Wakan-Tanka.

The rocks which we use represent Grandmother Earth, from whom all fruits come, and they also represent the indestructible and everlasting nature of Wakan-Tanka. The fire which is used to heat the rocks represents the great power of Wakan-Tanka which gives life to all things; it is as a ray from the sun, for the sun is also Wakan-Tanka in a certain aspect.

The round fireplace at the center of the sweat lodge is the center of the universe, in which dwells Wakan-Tanka, with His power which is the fire. All these things are wakan to us and must be understood deeply if we really wish to purify ourselves, for the power of a thing or an act is in the meaning and the understanding.

by Nicholas Black Elk (December 1863 – August 1950)
from The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s account of the seven rites of the Oglala Sioux
Recorded & Edited by Joseph Epes Brown (September 1920 – September 2000)
chapter – Inipi: The Rite of Purification
image – Darin Barry

Great Mystery

Black Elk’s words were translated to English by Ben Black Elk, his son. After that, the text of The Sacred Pipe was edited and written by Joseph Epes Brown, the anthropologist who is given credit for recording and editing Black Elk’s words. In a footnote, Brown gives this description of Wakan Tanka:

This thunderbird is really Wakan-Tanka as the giver of Revelation (symbolized by lightening); He is the same as the great one-eyed Bird, Garuda, of the Hindu tradition, or the Chinese Dragon (the Logos), who rides on the clouds of the storm, and whose voice is the thunder. As giver of Revelation he is identical in function to the Archangel Gabriel of Judaism or Christianity – the Jibrail of Islam.The Sacred Pipe

Russell Means, well-known activist for Native American rights, describes the meaning of Wakan Tanka as “Great Mystery” – not as simplistic as the “Great Spirit” we’ve heard in old movies. Wakan is loosely translated as “holy.”

Massacre at Wounded Knee

On this day, December 29th, in 1890, 365 U.S. 7th Calvary soldiers massacred at least 150 Native Americans at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. At least half of those killed were women and children. Fighting started in a misunderstanding, as most of a band of Sioux were attempting to surrender. Nobody knows for sure who shot first, but the troops chased down and killed all they could find, mutilating the bodies and leaving the wounded to freeze to death – an equal number are believed to have died of hypothermia in the three-day blizzard that followed. 25 soldiers were also killed, many in the chaos of friendly fire.

The U.S. Government had sent in troops to put an end to the Ghost Dance movement and move the last of the Sioux to a reservation in Oklahoma. Some Ghost Dance believers taught that if believers did the dance and returned to the old ways all non-believers would be destroyed. This change was to happen not by any act of war by Native Americans, but by a messiah who would also bring dead loved ones back to life and return the buffalo.

History, Stewardship, Change

Nicholas Black Elk, author of today’s quote, was a survivor of both the Battle of the Little Big Horn (Custer’s Last Stand,) and the massacre Wounded Knee. In his last years, Black Elk requested that his stories of the “seven rites of the Oglala Sioux” be preserved in a book, so that both his own people and the rest of the world could have insight on the spiritual beliefs of his people. This was the late 1940’s, before the end of the Indian School period. Native American children were still being taken from their families and taught in White-run boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking Native languages and taught to shun their own cultures.

Another Black Elk, Wallace Black Elk, also believed that the old ways should be available to both his own people and the world at large. Nicholas Black Elk had escaped the boarding schools because he was too old. Wallace Black Elk was hidden from the outside world and educated by tribal elders, including Nicholas Black Elk.

Nicholas Black Elk lived from 1863 to 1950, from the end of Manifest Destiny’s ethnic cleansing, through the end of the Holocaust, to the beginning of the Cold War – and he left the world books about traditions most of America had tried to erase. What faith and foresight!

Wallace Black Elk lived from 1921 to 2004 – eventually becoming a celebrated spiritual leader and international lecturer. Within the lifetimes of an old person who taught a young person, the world became a different place, a few times over.

I have known people, White like me, who met Wallace Black Elk and called him Grandfather (teacher.) God only knows what our White grandfathers and Wallace Black Elk’s grandfathers would have thought of each other.

It’s amazing to me how much change there has been in a few generations. To put this in perspective, my own grandparents and great grandparents were born between about the 1890’s and 1900 or a little after. They would have known older people for whom Wounded Knee had been current news.

This gives me hope. Though what is lost is lost, terrible, insurmountable things can be changed.

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