Thursday, February 27, 2014

Book Review: Black Elk Speaks - a First Nations memoir

 John G Neihardt: "Black Elk Speaks", University of Nebraska Press, 1988, 298 pages




                       This text is an oral memoire of a Lakota medicine man "transmitted through" - and rendered into an "elevated" English by - J G Neihardt way back in the early 1930s when Black Elk was an old man approaching his seventh decade. Black Elk speaks of the old ways of his people and of the unequal, doomed struggle against the encroaching Wasichus, their army, lies and canon. But above all, Black Elk speaks of the Great Vision that was granted him when he was a mere boy of 9 years (1872). Many, such as activist and teacher, Vine Deloria, consider this text to be a sort of "Native North American Bible", rescueing a portion of dying native spiritual traditions from oblivion and granting it, at least, the opportunity for rebirth in the hearts of generations who have come to understand the vacuity at the heart of Wasichu culture.

                      This can be described as a "portal text", opening on a parallel universe in which magic works and which only partly intersects that (? those ?) of Caucasian North Americans. Even editor Neihardt claims that it was "obvious" that the old man possessed "supranormal powers". Be that as it may, one can only marvel at the incredible richness and wisdom of the vision recorded by the mind of a nine year old boy.

                      My own reactions in finishing this book were quite mixed: anger, frustration, sense of loss, wonder. Once more, in its revelation of the demented rapaciousness of Wasichu culture, I could only see reinforced the conviction that an era, begun with Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World, is ending. One point will suffice: to conquer the Indian, Wasichu destroyed his food source. Buffulo were simply slaughtered to extinction. The mind can only recoil at the overt obscenity. This era ends, of course, because we have no more world left to plunder. For commercial purposes the hoop of the finite world was belted in the mid-nineteenth century. Now we deplete the remaining stocks of non-renewables to exhaustion and seem not to possess the will nor the intelligence to limit our activities to what the planet can sustain though its living - renewable - bounty..

                       I also found myself in disagreement with Black Elk himself. He felt he had failed the Great Vision:

‎"Then 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. And I saw that it was holy.", (page 43)

                         True, Black Elk did not lead his people to the Flowering Tree of life. They were conquered, killed, forced onto reserves, humiliated.. But perhaps, as has been noted in the past, prophecy does not necessarily accord with our personalized time frames. Vision does, after all, have its roots in the intemporal world of Forms, of Totems and Archetypes. In the Great Vision, Black Elk tapped into the powerful Archetypal drama of death / rebirth / regeneration: the Archetype of healing / making whole / Initiation (transcendance - metamorphosis). There are of course - as there must be - culturally specific motifs in Black Elk's Great Vision of collective salvation and rebirth but the Archetype itself is universal and intemporal in nature. The Vision is a portal, Black Elk has opened a door. It is up to us who follow - and understand (gnosis) - to materialize that Vision, to bring it into fulsome materiality. So it was with the Bhuddha and Jesus; they, too, opened a door through which we are invited to enter a new world, a new way of being in the world. Black Elk, then, was not, as he thought, a loser, a failure in life but a "Bearer of the Logos (the Word)" (Carl Jung, psychologist). He was one of those who bring a powerful, regenerative vision into the world. The Archetype of Healing as presented in the Great Vision is, if anything, even more apropos today that it was 140 years ago - May the Sacred Tree flower!

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